The State of Care report: A narrative resource?

Official reports, like other documents, have effects: they have agency, they enter the world and are used by a range of actors to achieve their goals and projects. Prior argues (2003) that documents can only be understood in terms of the ‘networks of action’ (p.2) within which they are situated and mobilised. They are entities ‘that influence and structure human agents’ (Prior, 2003, p.3). Harnessed for particular ends, official reports can be enlisted, manipulated or suppressed. This perspective draws our attention to the fact that official reports are not just repositories of content, but active agents that have effects on the world (Prior, 2008). Put simply, documents do not just contain things (statements, points of view, recommendations), they do things. Or rather, they can be enlisted by other actors to do things, sometimes in ways unintended by their authors.

The ‘State of Care’ report (OCC, 2015), like all other documentary accounts, is a narrative, a story, a series of statements strung together in a particular order to offer an account of a state of affairs: in this case, the state of state care for children in New Zealand. To say that a report is a narrative account is not to say that is a fiction, that it is an invention, that it does not represent a version of reality. It is merely to say that, like all narrative accounts, it cannot  depict the full complexity of the real world it claims to represent. By necessity a narrative, an account of the world, attempts to bring order to real world messiness by data reduction, simplification and summarisation. Some matters are dragged into the light and made present; others remain absent, standing silently in the shadows. These choices, about what to include or not, are based on values. Or, as Riessman (2008) puts it “Narratives do political work” (p.8).

So, what is the story told by the State of Care report? What is the difference that its authors intend? And, how will it be mobilised by other actors to further their own ends? The State of Care report tells us that it is the first of a series of annual public reports using aggregate findings from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s monitoring of CYF to consider how well children in care are doing, to give expression to the voice of children in care, and to make recommendations for improvement.  It also tells us that it is based on a new framework intended to “support a continuous learning culture in CYF, and encourages the sharing and implementation of best practice across the organization” (p. 12).  This suggests that the report is not intended as a summative, once and for all, verdict on the State of Care. If it is a report card, it is a report on how well CYF is doing and on areas for learning and improvement. This is an approach not too dissimilar to the one recommended by Munro (2011) as one of the outcomes of the review of the child protection service in England. The Munro report recognised the complexity of child protection systems, argued against command and control fixes, and advocated an approach to organisational learning based on systems monitoring, feedback and adaptation.

Attempting to represent the performance of a complex, multilayered and multipurpose organisation like CYF is a horrendously challenging task.  Representing its different functions, and comparing performance at different sites­ – in a meaningful manner – is problematic.  Yet, if they do not attempt to do so, those who would effect change in complex organisational systems are left with a booming, buzzing confusion. In my view the Office of the Children’s Commissioner is to be congratulated for the production of a fine-grained, nuanced and remarkably lucid account of the operation of CYF.  The report contains valuable insights that are subtle, clear and based on a wealth of empirical data. The report is positive, constructive and makes well-founded recommendations for improvement.  In relation to the key domains and criteria selected (we could argue about those but let’s leave that for now), the report shines a penetrating light into the operation of CYF. It highlights areas of outstanding practice, without shying away from areas for improvement or practices that are simply unacceptable. The addition of the voice of children and young people makes this an even greater gift to all social work managers committed to improving outcomes for children in state care.

Of course, as anticipated, the document also leaves some matters out of account. The overrepresentation of Māori in the care system ­- 58% of children in state care have their primary ethnicity recorded as Māori – is commented on in terms of the need for services that are more culturally responsive, but the report remains silent on the trickier issue of what explains this overrepresentation. Making time for Powhiri and karakia may help mokopuna Māori retain their cultural identity, but it will not address systemic issues of institutional and structural racism.  In addition, the vexed question of the purpose of child welfare in New Zealand is alluded to but not explored. How, for example, does the concept of a ‘child-centred’ system connect with the role of the state in supporting families in the community, or the view of children, families and whānau as ‘selves in relationship’ (Featherstone, White and Morris, 2014)?

If the report remains silent on some issues, media articles on the report filter out even more of the detail.  The problem with any new report touching on matters to do with the operation of CYF is that it enters a crowded space, and a considerable archive, of prior documents articulating the failures of our child welfare system. The prevailing narrative represents CYF as a bureaucratic behemoth that – in spite of the best intentions of well-meaning social workers – seems unable to get it right.  Messages in the report about improvements to front-end investigation services, and instances of outstanding practice, are likely to be drowned out in a media confirmation bias searching for signs of failure.  This is amplified further at a time when the Minister for Social Development’s controversial ‘Expert Panel’ is deliberating about the future of CYF.

And so, the following headlines emerge:

‘Dump and run’ culture at CYF (New Zealand Herald, 27 August, 2015)

Children in state care are being abused and CYF is failing them (Stuff, 27 August, 2015)

Children in state care ‘not cared about(Stuff, 27 August, 2015)

Children’s Commissioner’s scathing CYF report (Radio NZ, 27 August 2015)

Children’s Commissioner slates CYF care’ (3 News, 27 August, 2015)

 ‘Editorial: CYF reforms can’t come soon enough (New Zealand Herald, 28 August, 2015)

Damning report paves way for CYF redesign(New Zealand Herald, 29 August, 2015)

I’ll leave it to you to peruse the media articles, but strongly recommend that before doing so you read the report in its entirety. The report is not, in my view, ‘scathing’ or ‘damning’, nor does it present CYF as an organisation founded on a culture of ‘dump and run’. These media misrepresentations are simply knee-jerk reactions of journalists and sub-editors too lazy to read the report, or to consider a deeper analysis of the issues. Sadly, some opposition politicians (including the Green Party, who should know better) also ran with the ‘dump and run’ narrative.

The truth is that the State of Care report offered up, to the full glare of public scrutiny, a deep and honest appraisal of the operation of our child welfare agency, warts and all. And quite right too. Would that we could have a similar open, public analysis of our prison system, social housing or public broadcast media.  However, just as the OCC had to oversimplify CYF in order to represent it, so to do the media.  Take for example the ‘dump and run’ story. These three words appear once in a report that is 25 pages in length. They appear in an important section highlighting the difference in the quality of front end investigative and back end care services, suggesting that CYF may have focused on one at the expense of the other. The full quote in context reads as follows:

Some YSS providers went so far as to characterise CYF’s attitude to these placements as “dump and run.” Staff turnover meant it was not uncommon for young people to have multiple changes of social worker, and important information was lost at each change over…Staff at the sites we visited told us high social worker caseloads were contributing to social workers’ lack of oversight of YSS cases. (p.18)

The report suggests that social workers need to be clearer about their role in relation to children in state care, and that issues of staff turnover, and high caseloads need to be addressed. A culture of ‘dump and run’ is not discussed in the report, not once, not at all, never.

More worrying still than this media misrepresentation, is the way in which the State of Care may be used by other actors closer to government. The Minster for Social Development has managed deftly to avoid any responsibility for the hue and cry about the State of Care.  She has, after all, established an ‘Expert Panel’ to undertake a ‘radical overhaul’, and make ‘sweeping changes’ to the care system.  However, those of us with a more progressive perspective fear that an ‘Expert Panel’, conducting its business in almost complete secrecy, and led by an economist friend of the National government, signals another agenda. As Tim Watkin puts it “It suggests conclusions already reached, and with that comes the sniff of ideology”.  The ideology in question is connected with the Finance Minister’s ‘investment approach’ and an agenda to outsource, marketise and privatise social services.

How might government actors harness the State of Care report to their ideological ends? Just yesterday, during a Radio NZ interview, the Prime Minister suggested that partial privatisation may be a solution to the ills of CYF, and hinted that the CYF national call-centre could be a possible target.  The bloggers at Te Wharepora Hou responded, making a very astute connection between the conduct of the CYF review and Naomi Klein’s text ‘Shock Doctrine’; in particular, with the idea that neoliberal government’s manufacture crises in order to legitimize marketisation.  So that’s one way in which the State of Care might be mobilised by some actors on behalf of a particular political agenda, it could become a narrative resource for an ideological shift towards the privatisation of social services. Dr. Wills is on record as stating that he does not have a view on whether CYF services are operated by the public or private sector, so long as they can continue to be monitored.  It’s not clear whether he believes that the choice is a genuinely neutral one, or whether his role constrains him from taking a position.

One thing we should note is that there is nothing in the State of Care report to suggest the problems confronting CYF cannot be remedied by the renewed commitment of a well-resourced public service led by experienced and skilled social work managers. Note that I refer to social work managers, not MSD apparatchiks who think change can be achieved at a distance by twiddling the dials of a performance management system. Performance management is important, but utterly ineffective without the skilled leadership of credible and committed social work professionals. Social work leaders who model social work values, possess excellent people management skills, and lead by example. In my view these capabilities need to be owned by public sector social work personnel, not for-profit companies or MSD bureaucrats.

The State of Care report ends with the following paragraph:

…there will always need to be one agency or service that takes the lead for children in state care. That is CYF. When children are in care, CYF is effectively their parent. We expect parents to love and nurture their children, to provide them with everything they need to thrive, and to advocate on their behalf when accessing health, education, and other services. It is critical for these vulnerable children that their parent is willing, able, and well-supported to do the same. (p. 55)

Just as parents in the community need the support and resources to fulfil their responsibilities as parents, so CYF needs our support to fulfil its role as corporate parent.  How will the ‘Expert Panel’ use the State of Care report in their deliberations? Will they be persuaded to offer CYF the support, resources and social work leadership it needs to transform and improve the outcomes for children in state care? Or is the report already regarded as just another narrative resource, deployed to represent a crisis in public sector services that only the demagogic urge to privatise can cure? Time will tell.

References

Featherstone, B., White, S., & Morris, K. (2015). Re-imagining child protection: Towards humane social work with families. Bristol, England: Policy Press.

Munro, E. (2011). The Munro review of child protection: final report. A child-centred system. London, England.

Office of the Children’s Commissioner. (2015). The State of Care 2015: What we learnt from monitoring Child, Youth and Family. Wellington, New Zealand. Retrieved from http://www.occ.org.nz/assets/Publications/OCC-State-of-Care-2015.pdf

Prior, L. (2003). Using documents in social research. London, England: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Prior, L. (2008). Repositioning documents in social research. Sociology, 42(5), 821–836. doi:10.1177/0038038508094564

Riessman, C. K. (2008). Narrative methods for the human sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

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