Looking at the budget announcement of a new specialist support service delivered from 5 Oranga Tamariki sites “employing family/whanau support workers to support children and young people who are at risk of harm to be safe in their home”, I am pleased to see that at least some form of initiative has come to pass, albeit 3.5 years out from the Expert Panel recommendation for an intensive intervention programme. Having said that, this response remains seriously underwhelming. It reflects the inability of Oranga Tamariki and the current Government to get its priorities right in relation to child protection social work. In this post I will consider some of the challenges in moving child protection practice from a statutory care focus to a social work support focus. I will also explore some of the tensions arising from the conflicted legislative mandate within which this particular specialist support service will operate.
I believe that the intent of state social work should be to support people (children and their whanau/family groups) who are in need and at risk of harm. This should be the core business rather than an innovative side-line. On the contrary, what we are seeing is a systematic re-focusing on state care as the central task of Oranga Tamariki. I understand the drivers for this. State care has an abysmal track record. We have damaged the lives of too many children and their families, especially whanau Maori. State care needs to be improved and it needs be adequately funded. However, this is not an appropriate recipe for the development of enlightened state social work. Puao te Ata Tu told us this. As the Australian social work academic Dorothy Scott graphically pointed out over a decade ago, the state in loco parentis is a cold breast and a dry nipple. You can’t fix things that are fundamentally flawed.
Let’s compare some figures. We are told that $33.2 million dollars will be directed to this new specialist service which will support 150 high risk families. By comparison, $450.00 million will be spent on ‘transforming’ the care system, including recruiting and supporting high quality caregivers. A further $70 million will go to educational, recreational and sporting resources to support young people in care and $153.00 million will be spent over your years to fund a new transition from care service. To reiterate, I am not saying care spending is not needed but I am saying that supporting high needs families to prevent entry in to care is not being prioritised and resourced as it could and should be.
Some of the spoken and unspoken arguments against state social workers engaging with the support of high needs families are as follows. This kind of practice hasn’t worked – children have still come in to care and children have been hurt or even killed: state social work should be about a strong child protection focus. Family support is best delivered by NGOs where trust can be developed because whanau are intimidated by the power and practice history of state social workers. The third element of this sort of argument is that the only way that whanau support services for Maori will be effective is if they are delivered by Iwi.
Now, I have a lot of time for these positions, apart from the first one. If effectiveness of past practice is the yardstick for resource commitment, the state should have bailed out of care provision long ago. Effective support work for high needs families can be delivered by state social workers. I have seen this done. An engaged understanding of risk is one of the things that means such practice can be competently undertaken by OT social workers. I agree that preventative and family support services must be delivered in partnership with NGOs. This is where much of the expertise in this practice field resides. There is also no reason why state social work for Maori could not be devolved to Iwi in the longer run but we are talking about major funding, huge political will and probably constitutional transformation in Aotearoa New Zealand if we are serious about this. In the meantime, the state has the money and the authority, and the real money is going into care services.
Finally, a brief look at some of the tensions which the revised OT Act will bring to statutory practice generally and intensive support work specifically. The paternalistic right-wing Expert Panel (EAP) Review and the associated back lash against the draconian implications of the first drafts of legislative reform have left us with a complex and potentially conflicted mix of legal principles to be balanced and applied in practice. In the amended Section 4 (Purposes) we still have the injunction to ensure that “where children and young persons require care under the Act, they have – (i) a safe, stable and loving home from the earliest opportunity; and (ii) support to address their needs.” This concept was generated by the misapprehension that state care was an end game – a place where trauma could be healed, and citizens repaired in order to make them cost free into the future. However, this is now tempered by many competing considerations – the recognition of mana tamaiti (tamarki), whakapapa, the practice of whanaungatanga and the strengthening of family relationships.
Such tensions are, of course, inherent to the complex practice of child protection social work. The general principles set down in the amended section 5 and the specific child protection principles in Section 13 reflect this ambiguity. There is now an added injunction to place the well-being of children at the centre of decision making in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, the weight of the sub-sections which follow remain essentially whanau-centred – seeing the rights of the child as nested in the identity of whanau, as originally envisaged in Puao te Ata Tu.
The EAP early permanent care focus can still be discerned. It been substantially watered down but not eradicated altogether. For my purposes here, the key sub-section is 13(2)(i)(f) … “if a child or young person is identified by the department as being at risk of removal from the care of the members of their family, whanau, hapu, iwi, or family group who are the child’s or young person’s usual caregivers, planning for the child’s or young person’s long term-stability and continuity of living arrangements should – (i) commence early; and (ii) include steps to make an alternative care arrangement for the child or young person …”. Although the section goes on to suggest a priority for placement with wider whanau, this legal requirement means that the intensive support services that are delivered will rest on a stick and carrot or ‘threat-based’ practice approach: work with us or you will lose your kids and more than that we are legally obliged to make alternative plans for the long term care of your children while we are working with you.
I am not convinced that this framework provides the best basis for constructive engagement with high needs families who are impacted by multiple social stresses, poverty and historical disrespect. The constructive use of legal authority has its place, but social workers should be working alongside people rather than standing over them. In conclusion I believe that the primary focus of policy and practice development must be on stemming entry to care rather than making care work. Future funding and practice design must reflect this intent. We need to rewrite the narrative in my view – state care should be infrequent and brief.
Image Credit: vistavision