The spotlight is on us- an apology is due

Lesley Max’s book ‘Children: An endangered species’ in 1990 opened the eyes of many in Aotearoa NZ to the horror of child abuse. And in a recent story on Newsroom Max expressed her feelings about how little has changed. In this post I’m not saying that we can’t do so much better because we have to!  Social workers must apologise when we do wrong and take responsibility for poor practice in our name and work to fix the systems that hamper good work. We have to stand up for a human rights-based social work against the orders of risk averse managers. As a social work educator and researcher I want our students and graduates to go into systems that support the best practice.  We can’t let overwork and scarce resources become an excuse for not treating whānau with respect and kindness. We have to fight for much better support for families. We have to ensure that practice is principled, honest and can stand the spotlight. It is time for child protection in Aotearoa to be more transparent, see for example the UK based Transparency Project.

With that said, I’ve been thinking over the last few days about the massive outpouring of anger over the ‘baby uplift’ video ‘New Zealand’s own taken generation’ . What is it about this story that has caught public attention now when these issues are not new? Criticism of child removals is certainly not new. What I see in so many of the comments from people who aren’t social workers, health professionals or lawyers is that the video has forced them to look deeply into the reality of what ‘taking children into care’ means. Most people luckily haven’t a clue. They haven’t seen it. And regardless of how it’s done it is brutal, even when many children are placed with kin, it’s still a traumatic rupture. Because child abuse is brutal. Neglect and deprivation are horrible.

So, when there is a child death it’s easy for commentators on every story to call ‘take their children, sterilise them, lock them up’ and so forth. They don’t see a traumatised young mother. They don’t see how imperfect ‘care’ is. And, as in the current situation, it is easy to talk about social workers ‘stealing’ babies if you’ve never seen babies with head injuries. Because child abuse and the ‘uplift’ process may be abstract if you’ve never seen it. Never seen the pain.

Child removal is something terrible that you know happens, but off to one side, not in the centre of your gaze. Something raw and searing that you don’t want to think about as you cuddle your own children.

Lesley Max’s book shocked the middle classes in the 1990s. It foregrounded the incredible work being done on implementing the 1989 legislation that was meant to guarantee and centre whānau decision- making (see Miriama Scott for a review) after the challenges about institutional racism in the DSW. And now Max is asking what went wrong? Thinking about the way child abuse stories flare up and die down may help us to understand why so many people are so very angry about the Newsroom video that sparked this current outpouring of distress, and why the story is not going away.

It’s awful for social work as an entire profession to face this rage but we forget sometimes how insulated so many people are from seeing poverty, inadequate housing, terrible health inequalities and the sheer brutalising of P and alcohol addiction. So it’s easy for the sheltered people to be devastated by child removals because their own experience is so different. And they haven’t been hearing the bad news about the disproportionate impact on Māori whānau.

Māori commentators have been trying to get wider awareness for a long time. Why weren’t you listening when Māori have been talking about this for years? (Parahi, 2019).  When Māori have been so vocal about the ongoing nature of abuse in state care?  (Cleaver, 2019) Why weren’t you listening when so many people with expertise were warning about the direction of Anne Tolley’s (non) expert panel in 2015? Many social workers also think what took you all so long to notice? Why weren’t all the journalists, with the award-winning horror shows and stories, noticing then that child protection was being redesigned  over 2015-16 to fit a right wing child rescue agenda?

So, this last week the scales have been lifted off the eyes of many of those sheltered from the painful reality of child protection. Maybe one good thing that can come of this bonfire of justifiable outrage is a really good case to fund alternatives to children going ‘into care’.  An inquiry has been announced today. First, let’s apologise properly for harm done.  Let’s listen to Māori about what resources they need to stop this ongoing tragic loss, and act on what they say.  Let’s massively expand support services for families, not just run a few pilots. Spend the millions on prevention, not growing foster care services / ‘trauma informed ‘care to ‘fix’ people our own systems have screwed up. Let’s drop the individualising and toxic obsession with neuroscience and resource social workers to support whānau, work closely with aunties and nanas, ensure families have food and a washing machine in their dry, safe affordable house. Let’s  look wider and work together to stop the punitive, intrusive and downright aggressive processes in WINZ, that trample on people’s dignity.

It might cost twice as much but if it keeps babies with their mamas it’s worth it. So much more use than us banging on about trauma and ACEs checklists when we’re part of systems manufacturing trauma.  I’m sorry we’re in this place. Let’s work now to make this the moment everything changed.

 

Oranga Tamariki – A Tipping Point?

Like many of us recently, I have watched the ‘baby uplift’ footage story featured in Newsroom and read some of the avalanche of concerned and outraged commentary that has followed. I found the story disturbing on many levels – extremely disturbing but, sadly, not surprising. I think that the practice on display and the media responses from the Oranga Tamariki hierarchy illustrate deep-seated systemic problems within the state child protection system in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Continue reading Oranga Tamariki – A Tipping Point?

Disguised compliance revisited

In a recent new blogpost Jadwiga Leigh asks, do we still have issues with this term two years on from her first blog on RSW (Leigh, 2017).

In 2017, Paul Hart, a family law barrister, wrote an article for the Family Law website entitled ‘Disguised compliance or undisguised nonsense?’ It was an article which led to a huge debate on Twitter which Jadwiga Leigh captured by turning into a storify [sadly unavailable now due to the closure of storify] . It took two years (!) but we have finally managed to turn that storify into an article  (Leigh, Beddoe, & Keddell, 2019) which has just been published with Families, Relationships and Societies. For those who want the shortened version of the article, here is the blog that accompanies it:

When Hart published his online piece, it was clear he was troubled by two things. First, although the term disguised compliance was being applied to the concept of parental resistance, it was ineffectively describing that which was being implied. Therefore, although the term was being used by social workers to express concerns about non-compliance or resistance, when broken down into two distinct separate words, ‘disguised’ ‘compliance’, it actually meant ‘concealed’ ‘agreement’. Hart realized that it was highly unlikely that parents would hide their agreement with a social care plan but much more likely that parents would try and hide their disagreement with a plan. Therefore, disguised compliance is a term that more effectively describes parental agreement rather than disagreement or resistance…….

In child protection work, expectations of compliance almost always emerge in the context of a contract-like agreement between the professional and service user that establishes roles and responsibilities. However, without collaboration from parents, lack of parental investment is a likely outcome. The parent then becomes the problem rather than the professional…. or the forensic, risk-laden context in which the professional is situated in. And, sadly, these kind of cultural contexts are primed to interpret the behaviour of parents who do not keep appointments but do tidy the house as exhibiting ‘disguised compliance’.

To read more visit the blog here

Reference

Leigh, J., Beddoe , L., & Keddell, E. (2019). Disguised compliance or undisguised nonsense? A critical discourse analysis of compliance and resistance in social work practice. Families, Relationships and Societies. Online first. Free until 30 June.

Leigh, J. Beddoe, L., & Keddell, E. (May 30 2019). Disguised compliance or undisguised nonsense? Two years on from the original Twitter debate, are there still issues with disguised compliance? [Blog post] Retrieved from https://www.newbeginningsgm.com/single-post/2019/05/30/Disguised-compliance-or-undisguised-nonsense-Do-we-still-have-issues-two-years-on-from-the-original-Twitter-debate

Leigh, J. (30 April, 2017) ‘Disguised compliance’ – innocent shorthand term or jargon hiding a powerful discourse? [Blog post]. Retrieved from  http://www.reimaginingsocialwork.nz/2017/04/disguised-compliance-innocent-shorthand-term-or-jargon-hiding-a-powerful-discourse/

Child Protection Visions – Sticks, Carrots and Care

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.

Continue reading Child Protection Visions – Sticks, Carrots and Care

Hard to get into, but harder to get out of: understanding recent trends in child protection

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.

Continue reading Hard to get into, but harder to get out of: understanding recent trends in child protection

The Royal Commission into abuse in state care: where is the survivor voice?

This is a guest blog by Kerri Cleaver (Kāi Tahu, Kāti Mamoe), Social worker, PhD candidate.

Is the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in State Care and in the care of Faith-based Institutions (RC) a safe place for Māori and survivors to talk about their experiences and what should we be doing to support them as social workers? It is a question that’s been rolling around my head for quite some time now. I am a survivor.

My story of abuse in the foster system isn’t long, it didn’t go on for years and the traumatic effects for me are now mostly healed and now somewhat subtle in their visibility so it is not something that I put out there. It has been difficult enough through my adult life batting off all the judgements and consequences of being a foster system survivor so I’ve kept the paedophile foster parent experience a secret. It was a tough decision deciding I would engage with the RC, somewhat influenced and inspired by the work of many survivors who have laid bare their experiences for the sole purpose of getting a Royal Commission. Because I want children and young people to be safe, nurtured and have their mana enhanced when they interface with our child protection system, I felt an obligation, to myself, my profession and to my iwi to engage. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi “be the change you want to see in the world”. But lately I have been reflecting on the question “is this process safe for me as a Māori woman?” and what is our role as social workers to support our whanau going through the RC process?

Continue reading The Royal Commission into abuse in state care: where is the survivor voice?

Living on the edge: Social workers’ reasoning about cusp decisions in child protection practice

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.

Reference

Baumann, D. J., Dalgleish, L., Fluke, J., & Kern, H. (2011). The decision-making ecology. Washington, DC: American Humane Association

Image credit: Thomas Hawk

 

How about building a socially just child protection system?

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.

Continue reading How about building a socially just child protection system?