Oranga Tamariki has its challenges, as does every statutory child protection social work system across the English-speaking world. Something needs to change. I’d like to begin to talk about what a better system might involve. The one that we have risks being part of the problem as opposed to part of the solution. We need to accept that the work is complex and that it is not an exact science. We have become over-organised by risk. Statutory child protection does not have to be associated with policing the risk-sodden poor and it can be reconstructed as an anti-oppressive activity (Featherstone, Gupta, Morris & Warner, 2016). I think that greater awareness of how the effects of material inequality are played out in the lives of children and their families is critical to the development of more effective child protection social work.
The correlation between child maltreatment and poverty is no longer a state secret (Davidson, Bunting, Bywaters, Featherstone, & McCartan, 2017; Pelton, 2015), not that it was ever hidden from social workers in the field. However a rich vein of irony lies just below the surface of this statement because the nature of the relationship remains obscured, in policy and practice. As Gillies, Edwards, and Horsley (2017) so powerfully illustrate, blaming inadequate parenting for the reproduction of disadvantage and dysfunction is a time-honoured tradition in capitalist societies.
A guest post by Eileen Joy (PhD candidate, University of Auckland)
You’re a busy social worker…. you have a client, you are worried about them, they have missed two of their most recent appointments, in the past they have talked about suicide ideation and you know that their current living arrangement is precarious. You try texting them, there is no answer. You try phoning them, there is no answer. You try an email, and get no reply. You even might try visiting where they live, and nothing.
In a recent twitter storm (or perhaps more accurately, a surge) there was a great exchange of ideas between Aotearoa and UK social workers, lawyers and service user advocates on the topic of the term ‘disguised compliance’ in child protection. We say ‘surge’ because it was a powerful and constructive exchange rather than the sometimes personal, incoherent and bitter fights that can erupt in that forum.
The so-called social investment strategy being implemented by the current Government is based on a narrow individualised analysis of the causes of poor social outcomes. The intent is to spend some money on problem people now in order to reduce social costs in the future. The specific focus is on reducing the long term cost of benefits and prisons.
Like much ideologically loaded social policy there is a strong superficial appeal. Social service workers are familiar with the idea that social deficits can be inter-generationally reproduced and that the traumatic effects of violence and abuse can echo down the generations. It is a short step from this insight to accepting the idea that we need to fix these people – efficiently and effectively, once and for all.
The proposed changes to our child protection legislation take us back in time. They bury the vision of Püao-te-Āta-tü and signal a return to rescue-mentality foster care. The Children, Young Persons and their Families Act, 1989 set out to combat the effects of institutional racism by ensuring that children are understood in the context of whanau, the primary unit of Māori society. This emphasis is radically undermined by the proposed law changes. Securing safe and loving homes at the earliest opportunity is the new driving purpose. The outcomes will be discriminatory for Māori – not for middle class whanau mind, but for those at the bottom of the social and economic pile. This, according to the language of accountants, is where the unacceptable fiscal cost associated with benefits and prisons is generated. The most effective way to fix this is earlier removal, permanency and de-traumatisation. Cultural links can be maintained as part of individual identity but failing whanau can be written off. When it is stripped to the bone, this is the racist, classist and eugenic thinking we are up against. How have we come to this?
With the first ‘tranche’ of proposed legislative changes associated with the Child Youth and Family review comes the opportunity to make submissions to the Social Services Committee. We have made one in regards to the final proposed change – to delegate fairly substantial powers beyond the state organisation (name as yet unknown) to third party professionals/organisations. They don’t have to be social workers (in fact the point is exactly to extend certain powers beyond social workers to other professionals) and the organisations remain unknown. If passed, this Bill will have two main results we should be concerned about. Firstly, it is a direct challenge to the expertise of social workers – specifically – to be able to receive notifications and make the most intrusive types of orders – without leave. Even more concerning is the move to enable those outside the state (whoever it is) to be able to perform all the functions currently held by the CE of CYF. This includes every coercive power of the state you can think of, and with a direct reference to requiring the appropriate ‘contracting’ to be in place, seems clearly to set the scene for the privatisation not only of less contentious services such as foster care or preventive services (already contracted to a number of NGOS), but of direct front-line decision-making and practice such as taking notifications of concern, applying for declarations, and applying for custody orders. We think it’s a bad idea, for reasons given below.
More rooms – more elephants! There are numerous references in the posts on this site to poverty, inequality and social justice in relation to child protection. These relationships are complex. The urban poor are, for example, subject to a higher level of professional surveillance than the residents of our gated and ‘leafy’ suburbs. However it is clear that the incidence and prevalence of child abuse is higher in relatively impoverished communities (Pelton, 2015). This should not come as any great surprise – the rates of crime, imprisonment, educational under-achievement and poor health outcomes are also higher. Why wouldn’t they be? The more important question in the current climate is “what does this mean for the ‘every-day’ practice of child protection social work?”
In the second of a two-part guest blog post Hannah Blumhardt (with input from Anna Gupta) builds on the suggestion in Part One that parents should have a greater voice in the CYF system. The Expert Panel Report, which makes wide-ranging proposals for reforming CYF, offers virtually no recommendations for boosting parents’ inclusion. Drawing on recommendations from an English research project, this post considers possible options for rectifying this omission.
A guest post by David Kenkel
David Kenkel is a lecturer in Social Work and Community Development in the Department of Social Practice at Unitec Auckland. He has an extensive background in working with family violence and children and families involved with CYFS. He has been an advocate for children in national and regional roles with UNICEF and the New Zealand Office of the Children’s Commissioner.
Sometimes the most interesting thing about a new policy document or report is not what is present in the document but what is absent.