We have talked about the big picture : small picture stuff on this blog for some time. This is because it is THE question for social work – the key issue that we wrestle with in theory and practice. As suggested, these disturbing times are bringing out the best and worst of the human condition. The mounting social disruption and economic fall-out from the pandemic is severely troubling a world already severely troubled by the cumulative fall-out from global warming. The future as we have understood it in the main-stream Western narrative of progressive development no longer makes sustained sense – unless, perhaps, to the hyper-wealthy.
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.
Kia ora koutou
The ‘devolution’of state social work, particularly child protection work, to Māori is the bone to be picked. It is a challenging debate and we are potentially at a critical turning point. For a start there are the “What is an old Pākeha man engaging with this issue for?” – “Isn’t it a topic for Māori to somehow resolve themselves?” kinds of questions to contend with. I’ll get to that part in the following paragraphs. We need to be talking about devolution – again – and we need to get it right this time.
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 Boshier) 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.
Like many observers I have been increasingly gobsmacked by the slow train-wreck of the Trump presidency, asking myself, “Is this guy for real? – Can this get any worse?”. And the answer is perpetually yes; “yes it can get much worse”. In this post I begin to unpick some of the madness and explore some further questions: why should this matter to us and what can be done?
Words matter. Maybe social workers know this better than most. They are often the tools of our trade after all. How we describe the world – how we communicate our analysis of ‘the social’ – helps to construct our belief systems in subtle and important ways. Language use is influenced by changing political, economic and social systems, although much of this is only obvious looking backwards.
It is hard to know where to begin – with the burdens carried by social workers in the present – or with the possibilities facing the planet in the longer run. There are numerous uncertainties surrounding the time of Covid-19 in Aoteraoa-New Zealand and across the globe. Social suffering is the stock-in-trade of social work and as suggested in previous posts such crises impact unevenly in structurally unequal societies such as ours. What might this mean now and into the future?
Child protection social work involves risk. It always will. The right decisions cannot always be made and sometimes it can be a question of choosing between the least damaging alternatives.
We have had a long list of child abuse tragedies for over thirty years now – in Aotearoa New Zealand and in comparable jurisdictions – and we have had an almost continuous process of crisis-driven review and reform. Child abuse – under or over intervention – is emotive at a very primal level and it is an enticing political football (Warner, 2015).
To varying degrees reforms are always politically motivated and they are then operationalised by management systems obsessed with targets and performance. As far as quality practice is concerned it is a bit like putting the fox in charge of the chook house.
I have read the report of the Māori Inquiry into Oranga Tamariki (Ko Te Wā Whakawhiti) with great interest, not least because of the mana carried by the members of the governance group. It is a bold Report. Much of the message is not new but the urgency and energy of the wero is palpable: ‘The inquiry did not have the luxury of time, but neither do our whānau’ (Foreword, p.6).
It is timely to engage openly with some of the tensions at the heart of the social work child protection project. Everyone will tell you child protection is a complex field, but this begs a related question – who defines this complexity: complex in what ways and according to who?
I think it is important to recognise that questions can be posed from differing perspectives and pitched at differing levels of analysis. However, the task in front of us is to bring insights together and to begin to weave a new way forward. I will argue here that the messages present in Puao te Ata Tu remain clear and compelling. These messages point to the need to critically re-examine the concept of self-determination for Māori as it relates to the question of child protection.