Not independent and not expert- so what is the agenda?

Last Wednesday the Minister of Social Development Anne Tolley announced the formation of an ‘independent expert panel’ to lead a ‘complete overhaul ‘ of Child, Youth and Family. This is the first of a series of posts by social workers who wish to challenge aspects of the panel’s role and composition and call for a much more open process of discussion to influence the way forward.

Before other authors address the focus and task of this panel it needs to be pointed out that its composition can hardly be described as independent. Rebstock and Bush are both closely aligned with major state service operations. Rebstock is the chair of the ACC Board, Chair of the Work and Income Board and lead reviewer for the Improvement Framework for the State Services Commission. Rebstock is associated with welfare reforms that have been widely critiqued as draconian and callous. That the minister refers to the Welfare Working Group as an example of what she wants is hardly likely to fill the social services sector with hope.

And where is the person with a strong understanding of the CYF “operating environment….or a comparable operating environment in a similar jurisdiction”. Might we have reasonably expected that such a person might be a child protection expert from another country? Appointee Duncan Dunlop “has been Chief Executive of Who Cares? Scotland, an independent advocacy charity for young people in care, since January 2012. He has led the development of youth-work infrastructure and programmes in a range of environments from Lithuania and Ghana to the Balkans and across the UK”- apparently not a social worker with child protection practice or research expertise? Helen Leahy is a former teacher and political operative. No direct service or particular ‘operating environment’ expertise in child protection there either. If external expertise was required one would have thought that expertise in the operation of child protection was essential. There are many potential candidates but one outstanding choice would have been Professor Eileen Munro of the London School of Economics. Thereports she produced for the review of child protection services in England and Wales are so expert that they are included in the curricula of many schools of social work throughout the world.

There are many alarming aspects of this review that will need to be addressed: the timing, given the current rollout of the Vulnerable Children’s Act; the coming of this review so soon after the workload review; the lack of clarity in the terms of reference; the way it was announced and the timing. Overseas attendees at the ACCAN conference were staggered that the minister spoke to the conference on Tuesday but didn’t mention the review which was announced the day after.

Missing are the lucid voices of those closest to the issues- where are the local NGO leaders, those involved in advocacy for carers and children? Why have the articulate spokespeople for Iwi and Pasifika communities who work every day to support the health and wellbeing of their people been silenced? Where are those who devote so much of their time to researching child welfare and family violence in this country? In the cabinet paper on the expert panel two governance diagrams show that the minister has removed an Advisory Group, where other voices were being heard. This decision has removed the voices of Māori, Pasifika, unions, educators, researchers and other major stakeholders.

And, whilst the government could make a case for excluding current CYF staff from the review panel, in the interests of signalling independence, there is no excuse for the deliberate exclusion of a social work voice at the table. Is Minister Tolley unaware that thousands of registered social workers practice beyond CYF? Could she not seek advice from the Chief Social Worker’s office, the ANZASW or the SWRB for their nominations of a suitable ‘independent’ social worker to be on the panel? Had she consulted she would have had no difficulty locating a shortlist of those who could contribute to the panel.

And they would not be uncritical apologists for CYF. We all know that CYF is not perfect. Which agency is?Many social workers welcome the opportunity to examine key questions about our statutory child welfare service. Some of the issues that will be examined are very significant, for example support for care givers and consideration of the needs of young people leaving care. But if these are important questions why exclude social work from the review panel? Can we imagine a review of a health service with no doctors? A review of education with no educationalists?

There are concerns and always will be as it is nearly impossible for a statutory child protection service to be perfect. Any more than a police force or a public health system. Citizens’ expectations always exceed what is possible with the resources available. And with all services there is a need to be accountable and subject to periodic review. But why does this government feel it is acceptable to set up a review panel with no expert opinion from social work in New Zealand?

Forgive us Minister Tolley if we are very cynical about your review and what you expect to achieve. We are not surprised – this follows on from decades of under-resourcing of social work practice and education, years of marginalising the voices of service users and practitioners. The failure of your government to address the recommendations about mandatory registration and improved education and professional development for the CYF and NGO workforce that have been around for more than a decade. We are not surprised but very angry.

The twitter hashtag for this discussion is #CYFReview

[First published on the blog Social Work Research in New Zealand]

Liz Beddoe is a social work educator/researcher at the University of Auckland.

The views expressed in this blog post are her own and do not represent views held by her employer or any association to which she belongs.

4 replies on “Not independent and not expert- so what is the agenda?”

Totally agree with above comments made by my fellow professionals.

As a practising SW for the last 15 years I regularly see the short comings of this service and am amazed at some of the interventions that happen. This is not an attack on social workers but an attack on the system they work in. You cannot, regardless of the experience and degrees that follow your name, be effective in this system as it is now and has been for as long as I can remember. I believe the system could be altered in a reasonably easy fashion. Remember we are supposed to be agents of change – we need to be creating this change – isn’t that what we preach to our clients? There needs to be a SW voice on this panel and I urge all the CYF SWs to make a stand. Positive change can come about if the workers at their desk (I would like to say coal face,but that is becoming less and less) advocate for themselves and the families/whanau they support and say enough is enough.

Why have previous reports been ignored? Why are workers still carrying case loads of 30 plus? Why don’t they receive external supervision? You cannot be effective in your work with case loads this big and the reality is that at least half of that case load is not getting any kind of useful service from the agency anyway. You could cut the workers case load in half and no one would notice-this is a fact.

If you cant advocate for yourselves, then I’m afraid that this review is going to offer us nothing and what are you doing in your work if you cant stand for this injustice-isn’t that what most of signed up for? Come on, this is the time, while the profession is in the limelight, let’s use this to our advantage. Instead of the media telling us how it is, we need to be saying how it can be…..(I believe that may be someone’s quote).

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