Social justice and child protection – here comes the future!

We are still at the cross-roads with child welfare and the wider movement for social justice but the momentum for radical change is building. I have seen bits and pieces from the Kempe Center Virtual International Conference: A Call to Action to Change Child Welfare. It is challenging and refreshing to see workers from other countries wrestling with the burning need for child protection reform. Child abuse is a social problem that is entwined with wider issues. The current risk-saturated, procedure-driven, surveillance-orientated child protection paradigm delivers unequal outcomes, in Aotearoa and everywhere else where this system is administered. Why wouldn’t it?  *And what is to be done?

How we understand and approach social problems is influenced by relations of power; by the dominant social and political order of things: by questions of political economy. Social justice requires confronting and eradicating social inequality. There are some important obstacles that mainstream liberal politics – even the politics of kindness – tends to overlook. Inequality in Aotearoa is structured in terms of race, class and gender. Inequality is also a product (and a function) of liberal capitalism.

Across the Anglophone world, the clients of state social work have always (historically) been drawn from the impoverished margins of the working class (Ferguson, 2004; Parton, 2014). Too often ‘client’ parents (mothers) are young brown women parenting in poverty. Around 70% of the children in state care are Māori. All these things we know.

We tend to get fixated on the wrong questions in the politics of child protection. Nobody wants to see children hurt. If only we could find and fix / punish these dangerous abusers? We just need to tighten the system in order to avoid errors, right? It would be nice if it were this simple, but it isn’t. There is a bigger picture. Identifying and targeting a deviant sub-stratum of families, seen as the locus of the problem, has a long and ugly history rooted in eugenic thinking. This goes back to the early roots of Victorian social research (Hyslop, 2016).

The science (and technocracy) that feeds the professional identity of social work is never as neutral as it appears (Gillies, Edwards & Horsley, 2016). Risk prediction, trauma detection, attachment measurement: none of this is value free or outside of the politics of class, race and gender. Science aids social work in the management of problem populations but cause and remedy are politically defined. What we as social workers claim to be experts in has changed constantly over time and will continue to do so. Through the years, child welfare policy in Aotearoa has shifted and alternated (from centralisation to local delivery / from child rescue to family support) across the liberal spectrum – from complacency to panic and back again – as economic priorities and governments have changed over the last 100 years (Garlick, 2012).

Colonisation has a living legacy. Māori were dispossessed by the imposition of a foreign legal system in the service of a foreign economic system. I am sorry, but that is the bald history. Separated from collective subsistence, Māori became wage labour for the colonial capitalist economy (Poata-Smith, 2002). This has not been a simple process of domination: it is a conflicted and stubborn history  (Harris, 2007). The fraught relationship between Māori and the state (the colonial liberal capitalist system and the indigenous people of Aotearoa) has generated struggle – conflict, accommodation and resistance – which continues to play out in the politics of child protection reform in the here and now.

More broadly it is important to grasp the fact that justice for Māori won’t be delivered by brown capitalist entrepreneurship. Working class Māori have got little more than crumbs from the corporate table – a few grants and scholarships. Real change requires a socialist settlement that recognises commonality of struggle. The liberal legal system was designed to police the individualised property rights which underpin the capitalist system of development. Justice for Māori in this context is a tortuous road.

There is, in my view, room for a commonality of struggle just as there was in the 1970s. Clearly Indigenous politics is different; the historical form and shape of oppression is unique but working class Pākehā have nothing to lose from Māori self-determination, despite all the fear and division which has always been relied on by the political right.

Social workers are resistant too – at  least they used to be before their voices were muzzled and domesticated by state bureaucracies. Professionalisation is often code for depoliticisation. In the 1980s anti-racist practice was confronted by practitioners inside the system. The political location of social work was recognised. Now, in a way, we are beginning to see a re-emergence of this spirit and a backlash against the child rescue impetus of the bullshit Expert Panel process. Even OT seems to have backed away from its early uplift practice in response to immense external pressure.

It is time for a radical re-visioning. There is a call for Māori-led and centred systems. Will this approach work better? I think the short answer is ‘yes’,  and the time is now. Child protection is about communication. Support workers need to build helping and trusting relationships in situations of risk and need. There is too much fear embedded in the system as it is.  The long answer is that a new system that works needs more than credible ideology. We need very well-resourced devolution and careful transition plans as the bureaucratic risk monster is disassembled and a new system is built. We shouldn’t under-estimate the size of the task ahead.

We need an honest Māori-led dialogue among equals over how this is to be progressed. We need to grasp the reality that social reform is not simply about cultural recognition. Inequality is related to class and economic exploitation. We also need to connect the top floor planning process with the realities of the shop floor production line. This has seldom been done well historically as the nature of engaged social  work practice is not well understood or valued (Kemp, 2020). The avalanche is beginning. Twenty years from now we will very likely shake our heads when we think about how the current child protection system operates. And people might ask you where you were when this little revolution started? As they used to say back in the day:  “Are you on the waka, or what?”

Image Credit: Thomas Alfred Good



Ferguson, H. (2004). Protecting children in time: Child abuse, child protection and the consequences of modernity. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Garlick, T. (2012). Social Developments – An organisational history of the Ministry of Social Development. Wellington, N.Z: Steele Roberts. ISBN 9780478335583 (pbk.), ISBN 9780478335590 (internet)

Gillies, V., Edwards, R. and Horsley, N. (2016). Brave new brains, families and the politics of knowledge. Sociological Review, 64 (2), 219-237. doi /10.1111/1467-954X.12374

Harris, A. (2007). Dancing with the state: Maori creative energy and policies of integration, 1945-1967. Doctoral thesis:

Hyslop, I. K. (2016). Where to social work in a brave new neoliberal Aotearoa? Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work28(1) ,5-12

Kemp, T. (2020). Child Protection Practice: An Unintended Casualty of Reform.  Doctoral thesis: University of Tasmania –

Parton, Nigel (2014). The Politics of Child Protection: Contemporary Developments and Future Directions. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Poata-Smith, E. S. (2002). The political economy of Māori protest politics, 1968-1995 : a Marxist analysis of the roots of Māori oppression and the politics of resistance (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy). University of Otago.

2 thoughts on “Social justice and child protection – here comes the future!

  1. Tena koe Ian,

    Sorry for the belated reply…

    “…it is time for a radical re-visioning. There is a call for Māori-led and centred systems…”

    I wonder too Ian if our tertiary education sector, what and how we teach to social work education also needs a ‘radical re-visioning’? Even as a pakeha, I find the ‘whiteness’ snow-blinding.

    I wonder what would it look like if our social work education were truly Māori centered? Or as treaty partners (at a bare minimum) we began with ensuring that half of our content, half our learning outcomes, half our assessing, and half our staff were mana whenua?

    I think as educators we need to also consider our own wakas? I know mine has a lot of holes…

    Nga mihi e hoa

    1. Kia Ora – Ha ha, better late than never. Ae, you not wrong and I take your point about looking closer to home. The cosmetic trappings are easy as we saw in the ‘bi-cultural’ drive of the 80s and 90s but a meaningful sharing of power and control is a different journey altogether.

      There is also a problem with the apolitical/one-dimensional way in which Te Ao Maori or Te Tiriti teachings are sometimes offered – as if they sit outside of the historical context of capitalism, colonisation, the imposition of the liberal legal system, assimilation, struggle and resistance.

      Interesting times as always – I think there are some snags in the Labour Party promise of a Government for all New Zealanders because it disguises the conflicting economic and political interests which sit beneath the surface of Kiwi national unity.

      Will we really see greater equality (and a recognition of Maori self-determination) without the re-distributive opportunities/ resources that a wealth tax + capital gains tax could provide? In other words, without addressing the economic mechanisms which reproduce galloping inequality. I find this difficult to reconcile.

      The abuses that the Historical Abuse Royal Commission are uncovering were facilitated by racism and also by the poverty and ‘voicelessness’ of tamariki and whanau in relation to the state and our wider hierarchical society. It takes more than a liberal human rights agenda to change this, as much as we may now look back and hang our heads. There is plenty for social workers and educators to stay active about, even if the tide seems to be turning toward a more progressive politics.

      Thanks very much for your contribution Jimi.


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