I have read the pre-publication Report of the Waitangi Tribunal (Wai 2915) – Oranga Tamariki Urgent Inquiry – with great interest. It is, at least potentially, a ground-breaking report. It signals the possibility of significant systemic change to the child protection system in Aotearoa – especially for Māori. The report should, I think, be read by everyone with an interest in this future. The core recommendation for a transformational transition authority is, I believe, a challenge and an opportunity which must be grasped by the state.
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.
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.
The so-called social investment strategy being implemented by the current Government is based on a narrow individualised analysis of the causes of poor social outcomes. The intent is to spend some money on problem people now in order to reduce social costs in the future. The specific focus is on reducing the long term cost of benefits and prisons.
Like much ideologically loaded social policy there is a strong superficial appeal. Social service workers are familiar with the idea that social deficits can be inter-generationally reproduced and that the traumatic effects of violence and abuse can echo down the generations. It is a short step from this insight to accepting the idea that we need to fix these people – efficiently and effectively, once and for all.
The proposed changes to our child protection legislation take us back in time. They bury the vision of Püao-te-Āta-tü and signal a return to rescue-mentality foster care. The Children, Young Persons and their Families Act, 1989 set out to combat the effects of institutional racism by ensuring that children are understood in the context of whanau, the primary unit of Māori society. This emphasis is radically undermined by the proposed law changes. Securing safe and loving homes at the earliest opportunity is the new driving purpose. The outcomes will be discriminatory for Māori – not for middle class whanau mind, but for those at the bottom of the social and economic pile. This, according to the language of accountants, is where the unacceptable fiscal cost associated with benefits and prisons is generated. The most effective way to fix this is earlier removal, permanency and de-traumatisation. Cultural links can be maintained as part of individual identity but failing whanau can be written off. When it is stripped to the bone, this is the racist, classist and eugenic thinking we are up against. How have we come to this?
With the first ‘tranche’ of proposed legislative changes associated with the Child Youth and Family review comes the opportunity to make submissions to the Social Services Committee. We have made one in regards to the final proposed change – to delegate fairly substantial powers beyond the state organisation (name as yet unknown) to third party professionals/organisations. They don’t have to be social workers (in fact the point is exactly to extend certain powers beyond social workers to other professionals) and the organisations remain unknown. If passed, this Bill will have two main results we should be concerned about. Firstly, it is a direct challenge to the expertise of social workers – specifically – to be able to receive notifications and make the most intrusive types of orders – without leave. Even more concerning is the move to enable those outside the state (whoever it is) to be able to perform all the functions currently held by the CE of CYF. This includes every coercive power of the state you can think of, and with a direct reference to requiring the appropriate ‘contracting’ to be in place, seems clearly to set the scene for the privatisation not only of less contentious services such as foster care or preventive services (already contracted to a number of NGOS), but of direct front-line decision-making and practice such as taking notifications of concern, applying for declarations, and applying for custody orders. We think it’s a bad idea, for reasons given below.
At the risk of stating the obvious, it is important to be clear that that the CYF Review process, outcome and ongoing implementation, is not a neutral or dispassionate exercise. It has and will continue to be, politically and ideologically orchestrated. In this sense the ‘review’ has been about constructing a narrative to fit within a predetermined frame that is consistent with the Government’s wider social investment policy programme. The agenda is about reducing the downstream fiscal cost caused by ‘vulnerable’ people and “productivity”.
A guest post by David Kenkel
David Kenkel is a lecturer in Social Work and Community Development in the Department of Social Practice at Unitec Auckland. He has an extensive background in working with family violence and children and families involved with CYFS. He has been an advocate for children in national and regional roles with UNICEF and the New Zealand Office of the Children’s Commissioner.
Sometimes the most interesting thing about a new policy document or report is not what is present in the document but what is absent.
The Child Youth and Family reforms announced a week ago are wide-ranging and contain a mixture of potential pros and cons for different populations in contact with the whole child welfare system: by which I mean statutory child protection, the wider domain of NGOs, targeted and universal services, and macro social protections. I offer this post as my first reflections, and (as these reforms provide some hearty discussion topics) look forward to the developing policy debates that will ensue.
The long-awaited ‘Expert panel final report: Investing in New Zealand’s children and Their Families’ was released on Thursday 7 April.