Improving equitable outcomes in child protection: Messages from inequalities and decision-making research

Issues of equity in the child protection system are currently writ large in light of the recent Office of the Children’s Commissioner reports into baby removal practices for Māori, the Whānau Ora Report, and the Waitangi Tribunal hearing into Oranga Tamariki. These reports draw attention to the persistent inequalities for Māori in the child protection system. In addition to this inequity are other intersecting social determinants, and other sources of variable outcomes for families and whānau in system contact.

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Natural justice and child protection: justice for the powerful only?

A guest post by Luke Fitzmaurice.

Tracey Martin would like us to think about natural justice. If only that had been the priority in the first place.

Last week’s damning investigation by Newsroom was the latest in a series of reports on Oranga Tamariki highlighting deep-rooted, fundamental problems within the agency. Among other things, the story described significant problems within the culture of the organisation, concerns about the lack of social work expertise within the leadership team, an insufficient commitment to te ao Māori and allegations that caseload numbers were being manipulated to reflect better on the organisation.

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The tyranny of distance

Humans adapt. You don’t have to be a dedicated evolutionist to see that when social conditions change, humans change too. Our adaptations may not be uniform, but we are shaped by the social condiitons and rules we are embedded in. How have the social distancing rules affected our social lives? Are we affected equally? And will we want to go back when it’s over?

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Shouting into an echo chamber: confirmation bias and its system conditions in the Hawkes Bay case review


“It appears that FACS may regularly omit evidence such as evidence of a parent’s ‘strengths’, the effort a parent has made to address substance abuse issues, or the positive parenting approach of the parent. This has occurred despite there being numerous policy documents that indicate that this approach is not permitted,” (Davis, 2019, p.13).

This was a key finding, not of the Hawkes Bay case, but of the ‘Family is Culture’ review, released in New South Wales last week.

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‘Don’t give them a reason’

It was just a passing comment that struck me, from a Māori woman, stating what her mother had told her when she became a mother. She was talking about what is now Oranga Tamariki (OT). “Don’t give them a reason – don’t given them any reason to start looking at your parenting. Make sure everything appears perfect and don’t, whatever you do, give them any cause to start in on your family”. What is the level of cultural penetration of a child protection agency in the lives of families when the generational advice, along with feeding and sleeping and nappy-changing, includes how to protect yourself from state intervention? But this level of penetration does not apply to all families, everywhere. Our research shows that if you live in the most deprived 10% of neighborhoods in this country, your chance of having a family group conference held about your family is 35 times greater than if you live in the least deprived, and you have ten times the chance of having your child placed in fostercare (Keddell, Davie & Barson, 2019).

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Hard to get into, but harder to get out of: understanding recent trends in child protection

Examination of basic trends in child protection statistics provide insight into the overall functioning of the child protection system. Statistical trends are the ‘canaries down the mine’ of child protection systems, showing how policy changes, practice changes and social conditions are playing out in the child protection domain. This blog presents statistics obtained through the Official Information Act process, as well as publicly available data, to describe patterns in contact with the child protection system. It also provides some speculative commentary as to the causes of emerging trends. As these statistics are gathered from several sources, time periods differ and in places direct comparisons may not be possible. Nevertheless, the clear pattern is one of a care system hard to get into, but even harder to get out of, and increasing inequities for Māori children and whānau.

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How fair is an algorithm? A comment on the Algorithm Assessment Report

The worldwide use of faster, smarter and more complex algorithms have the potential to make many things better but some things worse. The now famous controversies over facial recognition software and the COMPAS criminal recidivism prediction tools that overstated the future risk of African Americans being cases in points. Of course, we have had our own history of controversy over the use of predictive analytics in the field of child welfare – first proposed to deliver preventive services, then trialled in child protection decision making at the intake office of what is now Oranga Tamariki. Neither are currently in use, confirmed in the Algorithmic Assessment report released last week by Stats NZ, a report outlining all the ways that algorithms are currently used in government Algorithm Report.

The report is a great start towards more transparency around the ways algorithmic tools are currently used in Aotearoa, and shows a commitment to increased public transparency around the use of such tools. The report gives some insight into the ways algorithms are used across a range of services – from identifying school leavers at risk of long term unemployment, to identifying dodgy packages arriving at the border for the NZ customs service. But how should we evaluate the ways algorithms impact on rights? Algorithmic tools used in social policy and criminal justice spheres inevitably shape who qualifies for limited resources, and the interactions of the state with those in contact with criminal justice systems. In both areas, there are important ethical implications, and these implications depend on the data used, the type of algorithm, and to what extent to which it is used in actual decision-making.

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Living on the edge: Social workers’ reasoning about cusp decisions in child protection practice

Recently I had the opportunity to attend the Decision-making, Assessment, Risk and Evidence (DARE) conference in Belfast, Ireland, run by the effervescent Brian Taylor from Ulster University. Our (myself and Ian Hyslop’s) presentation drew on our decision-making variability study that examines how and why child protection social workers make the decisions that they do. Understanding why a social worker might choose to either increase or reduce statutory intervention at key decision points on the decision-making continuum is one element of figuring out the reasons for variability. This is important to understand, as without knowing how or why key decision points function, it’s difficult to get a grip on improving or evaluating them.

Our study is based on the decision-making ecology, which proposes that decisions are not just the result of a single practitioner finding out information then coming to a decision. Instead, decision outcomes are the result of interlocking factors across the whole ecological spectrum, from macro factors such as inequalities, to meso factors such as organisational cultures and processes, and individual factors such as the values and culture of the social worker (Baumann, 2011). In this presentation, we were focussing on one main decision point: to go to a family group conference. Interviewing 24 social workers across three sites of the then Child Youth and Family (now Oranga Tamariki), plus holding six focus groups, allowed us to gather rich qualitative data about this and other fundamental decision points. These slides outline the perceptions of practitioners about what caused them to pursue a family group conference instead of either another intervention or none at all.


Baumann, D. J., Dalgleish, L., Fluke, J., & Kern, H. (2011). The decision-making ecology. Washington, DC: American Humane Association

Image credit: Thomas Hawk


Can a nurse be a teacher?

I wasn’t always pro-registration. Coming from more of an activist background I was suspicious of the role of regulation by a government body when social work is about resisting and ameliorating the harms of the state. There are still tensions for me, but the latest social work registration bill has some significant implications for anyone who wants to practise social work in this country, where the profession, like others, has fought to be recognised as a legitimate one that involves more than just having a cup of tea and telling folks ‘there there, you’ll be ok’. Under the weight of lack of funding for decent wages and constant criticism by the public and in some cases, employers, social workers have several ways to ensure that their working conditions and the quality of the services able to be offered are maintained. Registration is one way to support these aims. It’s not perfect, but it contributes to a strong professional identity that can then be protected from anyone without the right qualifications and comitment to a code of ethics from claiming it. It helps provide the public with some level of confidence in the profession, and a remedy if it’s not up to scratch. It also allows us, in an ideal world, to define social work as the unique combination of social justice and self-determination aspirations it has always professed. In these ways, registration at least has the potential to maintain standards of practise, ensure a strong professional identity and provide people we work with as ‘service users’ (there is no good term) with some protections from unethical practise. The proposed legislation, fresh back from select committee, damages these aims. How? In the section defining what is ‘practising social work’, there are almost directly contradictory elements, both with significant drawbacks (Parliament website)

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