I have been awaiting the Ombudsman’s Report into policies, practices and procedures for the removal of new-born pēpi by Oranga Tamariki with great anticipation. Earlier reports have provided us with sobering insights into the experiences of parents and whānau in their dealings with the state child protection system.
In my experience former Principal Family Court Judge Peter Boshier is an exceptionally competent individual with a comprehensive grasp of the big and small picture of relevant law and practice. The report is even-handed and constructive. It recognises pockets of exemplary work, but it is crystal clear that Oranga Tamariki has comprehensively failed to meet the required practice standards in terms of ‘fairness or the law’. This conclusion is damning, and the evidence is compelling.
I think it is vitally important to remember that this whole inquiry process was generated by Newsroom journalists lifting the lid on uplift practices. All this would very likely still be buried otherwise. Up until now we have also had a continuous process of denial and reframing from the Oranga Tamariki hierarchy and from the Minister for Children. We were told that an internal audit had revealed no other cases like this. Yeah, right! As I write this post we are being told that all is well – everything is under control – these things take time, the future is bright.
The fact is that neither Minister Martin nor Grainne Moss have demonstrated a firm grasp of what good quality child protection practice under the law should and could involve, and it is inexcusable. Tracey Martin staunchly refused to even watch the disturbing Newsroom video of the Hastings uplift debacle and appears to have blindly defended her CEO every step of the way. The relentless fattening of the national office corporate octopus and the unremitting media spin has been gob-smacking to witness at times.
The Report focuses on the removal of pēpi between 1 July 2017 and 30 June 2019. Boshier found that Section 78 Orders were used in all 74 files examined across 9 sites. This process is theoretically reserved for rare cases involving immediate risk of serious harm and it presupposes that other less drastic interventions will have been attempted where possible. What the Report says is that applications for without notice interim custody orders were used as a default procedure and that urgency was created by lack of earlier social work engagement:
I found that urgency was created through the Ministry’s inaction and lack of capacity to follow processes in a timely and effective way. As a consequence, parents were disadvantaged—first, by not having an opportunity to respond to the allegations or challenge the information relied upon by the Ministry before their pēpi were removed, and second, by having to challenge orders after they were made, and when the parents were vulnerable because they were either heavily pregnant or had just given birth.
I found that the rights of disabled parents were not visible in either policy or practice. All the cases I reviewed required a disability rights‑based response from the Ministry but this did not occur. That is a significant breach of the Disability Convention.
In my own experience the use of interim custody order applications has been the default practice for many years, in OT and its earlier organisational incarnations. It is administratively convenient. It means that the state can take the driving seat by securing immediate custody, and crucially ‘placement rights’, without fronting up to the whanau – kanohi ki te kanohi. This short-cut negates social justice and human rights for parents.
This is what the Boshier Report is saying: that under our law and in terms of natural justice in a liberal society (both legally and morally) you can’t provide human rights to children by trampling on the rights of their parents.
In part I think the problem involves a back-grounding of social work values and principles in state child protection. In part this goes back to the narrow vision of child-centred practice that informed the Expert Panel process. This formula has also informed recent practice development across the wider neoliberal Anglophone world – that we are only here for the child: the traumatised child is our client.
This is not what the law says in Aotearoa. It is an overly simple take on the child protection social work mandate, and it is not what decent practice requires. The reasons for practice shortfalls are complex. Workloads are still often unacceptably high and as the Report notes, supervision practice is often inadequate. I sincerely hope that we don’t rely on more simplistic fixes in response to these recommendations – we need much more than a further raft of technocratic measurement and compliance requirements on over-loaded front-line social workers.
Ultimately this is about more than the abuse of section 78 orders. It is about how the function and purpose of state sponsored child and family services are conceived. If child protection practice is simply about rescuing and protecting ‘the child’ in a narrow sense, then you can justify putting reports of concern on the back burner until birth is imminent. If you want to support the capacity for long term whānau care, meaningfully assist struggling parents, grow linkages and promote healing – then this work needs to start much earlier, as this Report explicitly recognises. Barriers of them and us need to be broken down. Call me old fashioned but this is what good social work in child protection should look like.
Ultimately decent child protection social work, like all social work, is connected to the question of what sort of society we want to live in. Do we want a society that rescues children from parents who are deemed incompetent in an unforgiving social context? Is this the way to reduce our social deficits? Are we happy to see a section of the population as carrying lesser rights: as undeserving? Parents with impaired abilities, with intellectual or mental health challenges can parent children, or have a key role in the care of children, but it depends on what we are prepared to do to support and facilitate these arrangements.
What is social work for? What values underpin it? You tell me, because if we don’t embrace human rights and social justice for all we will get the same class-configured, racist, sexist, able-ist social outcomes that we have at present. This is what neoliberal child rescue accommodates us to. Progressive child and family services do not have to look like this.
Could child welfare practice be informed and led by notions of rights and justice? Could social work promote human rights and social justice, and actively resist inequality rather than being part of the problem? Could the voice of Māori be centre stage? It looks like the Ombudsman would like to think so. What do you think?
Image credit: Veronica Olivotto