It was just a passing comment that struck me, from a Māori woman, stating what her mother had told her when she became a mother. She was talking about what is now Oranga Tamariki (OT). “Don’t give them a reason – don’t given them any reason to start looking at your parenting. Make sure everything appears perfect and don’t, whatever you do, give them any cause to start in on your family”. What is the level of cultural penetration of a child protection agency in the lives of families when the generational advice, along with feeding and sleeping and nappy-changing, includes how to protect yourself from state intervention? But this level of penetration does not apply to all families, everywhere. Our research shows that if you live in the most deprived 10% of neighborhoods in this country, your chance of having a family group conference held about your family is 35 times greater than if you live in the least deprived, and you have ten times the chance of having your child placed in fostercare (Keddell, Davie & Barson, 2019).
Examination of basic trends in child protection statistics provide insight into the overall functioning of the child protection system. Statistical trends are the ‘canaries down the mine’ of child protection systems, showing how policy changes, practice changes and social conditions are playing out in the child protection domain. This blog presents statistics obtained through the Official Information Act process, as well as publicly available data, to describe patterns in contact with the child protection system. It also provides some speculative commentary as to the causes of emerging trends. As these statistics are gathered from several sources, time periods differ and in places direct comparisons may not be possible. Nevertheless, the clear pattern is one of a care system hard to get into, but even harder to get out of, and increasing inequities for Māori children and whānau.
The worldwide use of faster, smarter and more complex algorithms have the potential to make many things better but some things worse. The now famous controversies over facial recognition software and the COMPAS criminal recidivism prediction tools that overstated the future risk of African Americans being cases in points. Of course, we have had our own history of controversy over the use of predictive analytics in the field of child welfare – first proposed to deliver preventive services, then trialled in child protection decision making at the intake office of what is now Oranga Tamariki. Neither are currently in use, confirmed in the Algorithmic Assessment report released last week by Stats NZ, a report outlining all the ways that algorithms are currently used in government Algorithm Report.
The report is a great start towards more transparency around the ways algorithmic tools are currently used in Aotearoa, and shows a commitment to increased public transparency around the use of such tools. The report gives some insight into the ways algorithms are used across a range of services – from identifying school leavers at risk of long term unemployment, to identifying dodgy packages arriving at the border for the NZ customs service. But how should we evaluate the ways algorithms impact on rights? Algorithmic tools used in social policy and criminal justice spheres inevitably shape who qualifies for limited resources, and the interactions of the state with those in contact with criminal justice systems. In both areas, there are important ethical implications, and these implications depend on the data used, the type of algorithm, and to what extent to which it is used in actual decision-making.
Recently I had the opportunity to attend the Decision-making, Assessment, Risk and Evidence (DARE) conference in Belfast, Ireland, run by the effervescent Brian Taylor from Ulster University. Our (myself and Ian Hyslop’s) presentation drew on our decision-making variability study that examines how and why child protection social workers make the decisions that they do. Understanding why a social worker might choose to either increase or reduce statutory intervention at key decision points on the decision-making continuum is one element of figuring out the reasons for variability. This is important to understand, as without knowing how or why key decision points function, it’s difficult to get a grip on improving or evaluating them.
Our study is based on the decision-making ecology, which proposes that decisions are not just the result of a single practitioner finding out information then coming to a decision. Instead, decision outcomes are the result of interlocking factors across the whole ecological spectrum, from macro factors such as inequalities, to meso factors such as organisational cultures and processes, and individual factors such as the values and culture of the social worker (Baumann, 2011). In this presentation, we were focussing on one main decision point: to go to a family group conference. Interviewing 24 social workers across three sites of the then Child Youth and Family (now Oranga Tamariki), plus holding six focus groups, allowed us to gather rich qualitative data about this and other fundamental decision points. These slides outline the perceptions of practitioners about what caused them to pursue a family group conference instead of either another intervention or none at all.
Baumann, D. J., Dalgleish, L., Fluke, J., & Kern, H. (2011). The decision-making ecology. Washington, DC: American Humane Association
Image credit: Thomas Hawk
I wasn’t always pro-registration. Coming from more of an activist background I was suspicious of the role of regulation by a government body when social work is about resisting and ameliorating the harms of the state. There are still tensions for me, but the latest social work registration bill has some significant implications for anyone who wants to practise social work in this country, where the profession, like others, has fought to be recognised as a legitimate one that involves more than just having a cup of tea and telling folks ‘there there, you’ll be ok’. Under the weight of lack of funding for decent wages and constant criticism by the public and in some cases, employers, social workers have several ways to ensure that their working conditions and the quality of the services able to be offered are maintained. Registration is one way to support these aims. It’s not perfect, but it contributes to a strong professional identity that can then be protected from anyone without the right qualifications and comitment to a code of ethics from claiming it. It helps provide the public with some level of confidence in the profession, and a remedy if it’s not up to scratch. It also allows us, in an ideal world, to define social work as the unique combination of social justice and self-determination aspirations it has always professed. In these ways, registration at least has the potential to maintain standards of practise, ensure a strong professional identity and provide people we work with as ‘service users’ (there is no good term) with some protections from unethical practise. The proposed legislation, fresh back from select committee, damages these aims. How? In the section defining what is ‘practising social work’, there are almost directly contradictory elements, both with significant drawbacks (Parliament website)
Child protection and family support social workers really need to have it all: a strong political analysis, an understanding of organisations and a decent handle on relevant micro theories. In service of the latter, a rather obscure recent announcement was made about attachment theory. This is of interest to the child protection and family support communities due to the dominance of the theory in education and practise, and its usefulness in understanding some aspects of adult-child relationships.
Kia ora tatou
The Re-imagining Social Work collective is hosting a stream in the Sociological Association of Aotearoa New Zealand 2017 Conference, 6 – 10 December 2017 (Dunedin). The broad theme of the conference is ‘Respect Existence or Expect Resistance‘. It aims to cover a variety of key public debates both nationally and internationally.
Within this broad conference theme, we are managing a stream relating to social work. We welcome abstracts in line with our stream:
Re-imagining resistance: Social work in and against the state.
For more information about the stream and how to submit abstracts, please visit the conference website.
I had to laugh, in a sort of incredulous and ironic way, at some of Bill English’s latest tweets. What is especially ironic is that Bill and I have several similarities. He’s a Southland farmer; both my parents grew up on farms in Southland and Otago. He’s Pākehā; so am I. He tries to share his household labour with his partner; snap. But I guess our divergent lives have led to very different views on many things. For example, when he made the following tweets…
The latest cabinet papers outlining the legislative proposals in relation to the intensive intervention and care services sections of the Child Youth and Family Review and restructure have now been released. This blog discusses just a few of the many issues raised in these papers: the effects of lack of attention to standard of living; the ‘genericising’ of cultural identity; and the implicit assumptions about foster care.
On a recent trip to the UK, I was asked to talk about the work of the RSW collective at Salford University. I didn’t really want to, I wanted to talk about one of my other areas of research interest, but peeps insisted! As I was soon to learn, this was fuelled by the synchronicities between ANZ and the UK in many areas: neoliberal economic and social policies, punitive welfare reform, an increasing emphasis in child protection policy on removal of children earlier to permanency (with little attention to structural or family conditions), and criticism of social work and education. So people were keen to hear about our little project of resistance.