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.
One interesting fact is that there are numerous sections in the cabinet papers redacted (removed). One section that has 3 of the 7 points redacted is the human rights implications section, and one can only guess at what those sections relate to. Perhaps they relate to the fact that the point in the Iwi leader’s covenant to ensure that every child has ‘an adequate standard of living’ is exempted from the revised purposes of the CYP&tF Act, while all other points are included. The connections between living conditions and contact with the child protection system are widely accepted in the international poverty and inequalities literature, yet the continuing excision of social conditions from the scope of child protection policy here continues to ignore this (Bywaters et al., 2016; Pelton, 2015). Just this week, in response to a judge’s speech relating to the immense and overwhelming increase in care applications before the courts in England, UK academics have reiterated their conceptualisation of a social model of child protection. A social model includes recognition of material factors in the ability to meet children’s needs, given the persistent relationships between deprivation, ethnicity and contact with the child protection system. We are heading in this direction, with the introduction of concurrent care planning (planning for care while also working with family on their issues), and the increased focus on removal at the ‘earliest opportunity’, with little attention to family context. https://policypress.wordpress.com/2016/09/23/the-crisis-in-the-family-courts-should-mean-we-re-think-and-change-our-approach-to-child-protection/
Maybe the absent human rights implications are related to the removal of the existing requirement for Maori children to be placed if possible with Iwi or Hapuu, and children from other ethnic groups to be placed where possible with people from their own ethnic group. This removal can be seen as a threat to the right to cultural identity expressed in the UNCROC. There are a number of references to retaining cultural identity that remain in the new proposals, but this is portrayed as an individual, generic type identification that has essentially been downgraded from very important to just one in a whole list of factors to consider. This highlights ongoing debates about the relative importance of cultural identities as an aspect of wellbeing. Aside from that, cultural identity generally requires connection to specific kinship networks and for Maori, whakapapa, to be maintained. The view of cultural identity is instead conceptualised in the new legislation as something relating to personal expression, rather than bound up with relationships with specific individuals and collectives (in this case, Hapuu and Iwi). The attempt to balance cultural identity needs with ongoing stability of placement is evident in the new legislation. It’s true that stability and attachment are important, yet the old sections of the Act were put in there for a reason: to stop the tide of Maori children into care arrangements that completely severed them from kinship connections, in recognition of the long arm of colonisation and its associated harms for people reaching adulthood with no anchor into a Maori identity (Ministerial Committee, 1988).
Perhaps the removed human rights implications relate to the ‘bespoke information sharing framework’ mentioned but not fleshed out in the proposals, which undoubtedly has some implications for rights to privacy. One can only guess.
The proposed changes generally encourage earlier removal to permanency. Implicit in this is the assumption that foster care, if done well, is harm free. Improving care is certainly important, and the many efforts to improve the permanent care system in these changes by way of increased support and standards for carers, increased stability and participation for children, and more resources for children transitioning out of care are warmly welcomed. But even a perfect care system is not as good as remaining in one’s own family in a safe environment. Foster care, even when adequately resourced, is not without its harms. As Morton (2016) provocatively argues:
“Removing a child to foster care violates the most basic trust existing in a child’s life that, whatever else may happen, the caregiver will be physically constant… Once the child is removed, the child remains suspicious about the permanence of the caregiver even if returned home. If it happened once, it can happen again. I am not arguing that removal is never necessary, rather that it must be balanced against the certain harm created by removal”
The fact that removal carries known harms means that the decision to do so can never be considered a comparison of the family situation with a uniformly positive alternative, although removal may be the better option in some instances based on a weighing up of harms.
Numerous studies have also shown that the length of time in care predicts family reunification – the longer in care, the less likely a return home is. This leads us to consider the aims of the system, as most studies assume reunification is the aim. For example, a recent study found that “Reunification was most likely during the first 2.5 years of the foster placement. Findings highlighted the importance of timely reunification efforts” (Goemans, Vanderfaeillie, Damen, Pijnenburg, & Van Holen, 2016, p.1). Is the purpose of the system to support families to retain the care of their children where possible, or to remove as soon as problems become apparent? We are moving towards the latter, which tends to result in large numbers of children coming into care, overwhelmingly from families at the margins of high deprivation and multiple complex problems (as is happening in the UK). Is this fair, without first offering the resources that might assist with those problems? Does it adequately balance adult’s right to parent their own children with children’s right to be protected from harm? This simplified dichotomy leaves out a third right: children also have a right to where possible, family life. The felt loss of this, even in strained family circumstances, is a feature of research into the perceptions of care-leavers. This is why the focus should not be on creating immediate permanency in care arrangements, (apart from in a few extreme cases) but first on return home if possible, as soon as possible. The change in focus to early permanency underpinning these legislative changes is therefore a contested one. It’s also likely to result in a greater proportion of the finite resources available to go into fostercare, while supportive family services get less, a point well made in this article : https://www.thenation.com/article/has-child-protective-services-gone-too-far/
Implicit assumptions in these proposals are not only that removal carries no harm, and that early permanency is an out and out good, but also that early removal will result in better long term outcomes. This is unknown. How those outcomes are chosen as valid ones also bears scrutiny. The stated aim assumes that the future outcomes of cost to the welfare and criminal justice systems are valid signs of the success of the social investment approach. As noted, that early removal leads to this is not known, but even if it was, how do we consider the balance between reducing future costs and the current welfare of the child and their family? On the one hand, avoiding future harm seems like a no-brainer. Yet contact with welfare and even the criminal justice system can’t be considered uncomplicated evidence of ‘harm’, or of harm that is within parent’s control (justifying removal). In the child protection context, future costs must be balanced with rights to family life and the undoubtedly disproportionate effects for Maori. Many children in poor families will grow up to be poor. Should we remove them all to reduce the forward liability? Or address the causes of poverty and marginalisation underpinning them? For these ethical reasons, most countries focus on reunification first, while balancing the need to act within children’s time-frames. We are heading in a different direction, where reunification may no longer be considered a valuable aim. This raises a number of ethical issues and the need for ongoing debates, as well as good evidence regarding the effects of the changes as they unfold.
Bywaters, P., Bunting, L., Davidson, G., Hanratty, J., Mason, W., McCartan, C., & Steils, N. (2016). The relationship between poverty, child abuse and neglect: An evidence review. Coventry: Joseph Rountree Foundation.
Goemans, A., Vanderfaeillie, J., Damen, H., Pijnenburg, H., & Van Holen, F. (2016). Reunification of foster children: Factors associated with reunification outcomes in Flanders and the Netherlands. Children and Youth Services Review. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2016.09.023
Ministerial Advisory Committee. (1988). Puao-te-ata-tu (day break): The report of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Maori perspective for the Department of Social Welfare. Wellington, New Zealand: Retrieved from http://www.msd.govt.nz/documents/about-msd-and-our-work/publications-resources/archive/1988-puaoteatatu.pdf.
Pelton, L. H. (2015). The continuing role of material factors in child maltreatment and placement. Child Abuse & Neglect, 41(0), 30-39. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2014.08.001