This review by the Office of the Commissioner for Children was prompted by an alarming escalation in the removal of Māori infants from parental care by the state. The report sets out to address the following question: “what needs to change to enable pēpi Māori (0-3 months) to remain in the care of their whānau in situations where Oranga Tamariki-Ministry for Children is notified of care and protection concerns?” It is introduced as the first part of a two-part reporting process: we are told that the forthcoming second part of the report will offer practical recommendations for change.
This document is the third in a series of related inquiries prompted by ongoing concerns over the persistence of institutional racism in statutory child protection. The spark was provided by the now notorious Hawkes Bay uplift debacle. We also await the findings of an investigation from the Ombudsman (Peter Bouchier) and the outcome of a Waitangi Tribunal inquiry. The burning issue of state social work responses to Māori is also central to the ongoing Royal Commission of Inquiry into historical abuse in state and faith-based care. In the following post I will offer some thoughts about the strengths and weaknesses of this report.
To its credit (and following the example of the earlier Māori Inquiry into Oranga Tamariki (Ko Te Wā Whakawhiti), the review and associated research process has looked to foreground the narratives of whānau, mainly mothers, who have recent lived experience of child removal and/or significant involvement with the process of statutory child protection in Aotearoa. The report gives voice to the pain experienced by those at the receiving end of coercive statutory child protection and to a degree brings this suffering into the public domain. This is well and truly overdue and does not come as a revelation to those of us who have been engaged with child protection practice over time.
In relation to denial of, or toleration for, the extensive collateral damage caused by overloaded and risk-saturated child protection systems in the comparable Australian context, Dorothy Scott made the following astute observation in 2006:
Is this because, like our predecessors in the history of child protection, we cannot allow ourselves to acknowledge that we cause such suffering when our intent is so well meaning? Is it because we prefer to engage in self-protective ‘defensive practice” regardless of the cost to children and their families? Is it because we do not readily identify with the anguish of parents because they are mostly “other”? If this happened to middle-class families on the scale it is happening to indigenous and non-indigenous working-class families, the pain would not be inaudible.
The content which this report distills from interviews with mothers / whānau raises a raft of concerns about specific instances of disrespectful and destructive action. There are also identified patterns of oppressive, risk-averse and defensive practice. Glaring discrepancies are highlighted between the high-level legal obligations and espoused practice standards which Oranga Tamariki has theoretically signed up to and the experience shared by these informants. There is little or no analysis of the systemic reasons for this disjuncture.
In this blog space we have been questioning the shortcomings of the statutory child protection system for many years now, echoing the testimony within this report: the ongoing relevance of Puao te Ata Tu, inequalities of treatment and outcome for whānau Māori, perceptions of threat and fear generated by historical wisdom and a culture of child-centric, surveillance-orientated and risk-averse practice. I am not saying that every social worker, every practice team or every site office is steeped in this reactive practice – but it is the tide that every whānau-centric practitioner, practice team and site office has to swim against!
At RSW we have consistently maintained that good quality social work in child protection requires application of the values and skills required for good social work generally. The litany of pleas made by the wāhine Māori in this report reflects this: a need for respectful engagement, honesty, inclusion in decision-making, a belief in the possibility of change – not simply judging the future by tabulating past deficits, avoidance of victim-blaming, a need for empathy, provision of real meaningful support, clarity of messages, consistency of goal posts – time, truth and care: an applied understanding of complex context. There is no need for state social workers to flaunt their power and I get pissed off to the bone whenever I hear about it. Solutions imposed from a clinical distance are seldom effective. Whānau need to be worked with, not at or on.
Some of the detail of poor practice emerging from this discrete piece of research is very concerning. The Court system being held over as a threat and the execution of inhumane uplift practice is not surprising. Feelings of being punished for being a victim of violence or past life challenges is also not uncommon if the mother is viewed merely as a vehicle for immediate child safety. Other specific practice criticism is more deeply disturbing but I doubt that many, if any, state social workers would put their hand on their heart and deny that such incidents can and do happen: being threatened not to voice criticisms via social media, being goaded to return to substance use, coercion / threats to induce a pregnancy termination. Such abusive practice is not common in my experience, but it is too common.
There is a lot left unsaid in this report. The uncomfortable reality is that the spike in removal of pēpi Māori was influenced by the quasi-eugenic child rescue mentality thinking which fueled the Expert Advisory Panel reform process (Hyslop & Keddell, 2019). I have no wish to defend the legacy of colonisation or minimise the corrosive reach of personal and institutional racism. However, it should be remembered that those at the hammer end of state social work are not simply victims of the inability of the Pākehā system to respect the traditional mana of women in Māori cosmology.
Since its genesis in the nineteenth century, the context in which state social workers operate has been structured by a wider canvas of oppression – configured by inequalities of class, gender and ethnicity. The mainstream values of individuated liberal capitalism do clash fundamentally with Te Ao Māori, but liberal capitalism is a political and economic system which favours certain interests and exploits or punishes others. Social work can either be a brake on oppression or part of the problem:
In 2014, children living in the most deprived 10% of neighbourhoods in Aotearoa New Zealand had 21 times the chance of having a substantiated finding of child abuse than children living in the least deprived 10%, were 35 times more likely to have a family group conference held about them, and over nine times more likely to enter foster care (Keddell, Davie and Barson, 2019). Each step-increase in deprivation resulted in a sequentially higher chance of child protection system contact, clearly illustrating the systematic relationship between living in high deprivation areas and contact with the child protection system. (Keddell, 2020, p. 36)
It does not take a miracle of analysis to identify the faults of the current child protection system. Lasting solutions are another matter. The key questions are why it is that the system produces the poor practice which this report screams at us and what should a different, properly resourced system look like?
The state child protection system has been reformed multiple times. There is a systemic flaw in this process; a paradox. The changes adopted are normally measured, monitored and reported on with resource-intensive managerial zeal and anxiety. Pressure to comply or more accurately to produce and record measurable evidence of compliance ironically results in less of the ‘real’ gritty, engaged, careful, respectful, sometimes ‘risky’ whānau-centric practice which is needed if this work is to be done well.
So, what might this all mean for a future pathway of reform? There seems to be an implicit assumption that some degree of meaningful devolution to Iwi / Māori providers is the way forward. I don’t disagree. However, Pākehā don’t have a mortgage on poor practice – social work with high needs whānau, whoever provides it, takes time, energy and money – it must be very well resourced and supported. Risk of serious harm is not the be all and end all, but it is always part of the practice equation and must not be glossed over. We need to digest the messages which are coming to us from these reviews and embark on the reform of child protection as part of the wider reform of Aotearoa / New Zealand society. Time is moving.
*Comments, criticism, discussion of this post is welcomed.
Image credit: Serzhile
Keddell, E. (2020). The case for an inequalities perspective in child protection. Policy Quarterly, 16(1), 36-38.
Hyslop, I, & Keddell, E. (2019). Child protection under National: Re-orientating towards genuine social investment or continuing social neglect. New Zealand Sociology 34 (2).
Scott, D. (2006). Sowing the seeds of innovation in child protection (Monograph 6). Melbourne, Australia: Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare.