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.
This one is about the politics of dispossession, poverty and incarceration in neoliberal New Zealand. It is no secret that Māori, Pasifika and working-class families generally carry a disproportionate burden of social suffering in our society. Look around you if you don’t believe me. We need to dismantle the structures that perpetuate social inequality.
This one is for the lawyers. Child protection and the appropriate legal framework to facilitate ‘best practice’ is a subject which has been vigorously contested across Anglophone societies over the last forty years. These debates reflect differing disciplinary perspectives and differing ideological influences such as the tension between the discourse of individual children’s rights on the one hand and claims to collective cultural autonomy for whānau Māori on the other. Much of this friction is generated by, and reflected in, the economic and political changes that have developed since the 1970s, when the so-called ‘Welfare State consensus’ started to unravel. Parton (2014) argues that changes to child protection practice over time are best understood as responses to changing (and contested) constructions of the preferred relationship between the state, the family and children; and more specifically the children of the poor.
As I get longer in the tooth, I am sometimes accused of repeating myself. Funnily enough this often happens with reference to things that people didn’t much like hearing the first time. For example, the message that social work is complex and contradictory is disquieting when you are looking for some clarity of identity and access to the moral high ground. Nevertheless, social work is often conflicted.
Like many of us recently, I have watched the ‘baby uplift’ footage story featured in Newsroom and read some of the avalanche of concerned and outraged commentary that has followed. I found the story disturbing on many levels – extremely disturbing but, sadly, not surprising. I think that the practice on display and the media responses from the Oranga Tamariki hierarchy illustrate deep-seated systemic problems within the state child protection system in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Looking at the budget announcement of a new specialist support service delivered from 5 Oranga Tamariki sites “employing family/whanau support workers to support children and young people who are at risk of harm to be safe in their home”, I am pleased to see that at least some form of initiative has come to pass, albeit 3.5 years out from the Expert Panel recommendation for an intensive intervention programme. Having said that, this response remains seriously underwhelming. It reflects the inability of Oranga Tamariki and the current Government to get its priorities right in relation to child protection social work. In this post I will consider some of the challenges in moving child protection practice from a statutory care focus to a social work support focus. I will also explore some of the tensions arising from the conflicted legislative mandate within which this particular specialist support service will operate.
When seeking to understand the performance of Oranga Tamariki (OT) it is important to be mindful of the context. Statutory child protection practice is challenging (and sometimes very rewarding) work that is often carried out by hard working and highly skilled social workers. Currently the work occurs within a risk-averse hierarchical bureaucracy which often tends not to provide the required level of support for good decision making in complex situations. Support for careful whānau and tamariki-centred social work is found in well supervised and resourced practice teams where uncertainty is recognised, responsibility is shared and where capable social workers are nurtured.
The following is a personal reflection on the week that has passed. It is – of course – so very difficult to comprehend the bloody horror that erupted in Christchurch on March 15. Waves of shock, disbelief, anger, sadness are rolling through our communities as we all struggle to make sense of this event. Those of us at the edge can only imagine the unfolding grief of those at the centre who have lost friends and kin. There are no adequate words still. Perhaps there never will be. Aroha mai.
The Labour-led coalition government has provided some relative respite from the overt demonising of those who are excluded from what Simon Bridges describes as the “Kiwi way of life”. This way of life, it seems, is epitomised by tax-free speculation in the private rental property market. Is this our communal cultural lode-stone? Unfettered profits from investment in rental properties? Really? Do we really all hold a sacred place for what is a fundamentally exploitative, unequal and unfair practice? Give me strength! It has been pleasant to have a break from all that banality about “good” mum and dad “Kiwis”which John Key was so fond of. The interests of the good Kiwis that Bridges has been talking about are in fact the interests of a privileged class of people. Conservative political parties have erroneously conflated the interests of private property owners with the well-being of us all since early colonial land grab times. It is the cornerstone of political Liberalism after all (Duncan, 2007). It is high time to stop milking the politics of fear in the golf clubs of an imaginary middle New Zealand Simon.