I recently had the privilege of attending the 13th Conference of the European Sociological Association in Athens, Greece. At the end of this trip, as we waited for a ride to the airport and the journey home, a rag-tag group of homeless families were sleeping rough in a dusty park behind the bus stop. A frail little girl, maybe four or five, in a torn dress, with matted hair, skin sores and blackened teeth stretched out her tiny arm for some loose change – a studied look of hopelessness in her empty eyes. I have seen this look before – in the intense gaze, both vacant and pleading, of malnourished street children in East Africa and in the teeming cities of India.
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.
Who hasn’t seen the brains? The luridly coloured images of two children’s brains, side by side. Presented as cast iron evidence of the impact of child neglect. I remember exactly where I was when I first saw that image. The venue was a lecture theatre at my university (at least 10 years ago) and the presenter was a professional I knew and (still do) held in high regard. The emotional impact of seeing the two brains was considerable- the ‘normal’ brain of a child of a particular age contrasted with the apparently shrunken brain of a child who had suffered abuse and neglect.
It is useful – I think – to reflect on the busy year that is now drawing in and to focus on the hopes and dreams that lie ahead of us. In various ways the aim of our RSW Collective has been to contribute to a re-thinking of the aims and aspirations of social work in turbulent times. Above all it is critical to recognise that social work is influenced by a broader context of economic and political relations.
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?
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?”
By guest writer Mike O’Brien
Mike is an Associate Professor at the School of Counselling, Human Services and Social Work at the University of Auckland. In this post he raises concerns about the current rewrite of the Social Security Act . He is a Board member at Te Waipuna Puawai and of the Auckland City Mission and is a member of the Impacts of Poverty and Exclusion policy group for the New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services. He is also the social security spokesperson for the Child Poverty Action Working Group.
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.
The latest child poverty monitor makes for grim reading (Simpson et al., 2015). It shows an increase to 29% of New Zealand children now living in poverty, or nearly a third of all children in this land of milk and honey living below the poverty line. There have been various disclaimers that this measure is inaccurate, that it’s somehow ‘artificial’ as it’s obtained due to the median income and housing costs rising, while the incomes of poorer people remain the same. But that’s the point really – that if median incomes and costs rise, and the incomes of poorer people remain constant, then a greater proportion of those families will be unable to purchase basic necessities. This is poverty.
I would like to invite some elephants to reveal themselves and vacate the child protection room. This might give us some more space to breathe and think. In other words let’s name some of the uncomfortable realities. Let’s be frank: child protection social work in Aotearoa New Zealand is enmeshed with social inequality. Pelton’s (2015) summary of recent research studies presents compelling evidence of the link between poverty, child maltreatment and entry into state care. It does not take a rocket scientist (luckily) to work out that a range of negative outcomes for children – including a greater risk of maltreatment – result from inadequate incomes, second rate education, deprived neighbourhoods, inadequate housing and poor health. Social workers are aware of this.