The Ministerial appointment of an ‘expert panel’ to oversee the development of a ‘future CYF operating model’ supported by a ‘Detailed Business Case’ is a deeply disturbing turn for those concerned with the future of social work practice in Aotearoa / New Zealand. Statutory child protection is carried out by social workers. I am concerned by the panel composition which features no child protection social work practice expertise or experience. Most of all I am uneasy about the intent which lies behind the rhetoric of modernisation, efficiency, and the emotive panacea of a child-centred approach to practice. This intent remains obscure but as Bob Dylan once suggested, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”.
I have argued (Hyslop, 2013) that the White Paper for Vulnerable Children was a missed opportunity for the development of child protection social work. The final Paper reproduced and selectively organised a plethora of information about the detrimental effects of child maltreatment but failed to suggest a comprehensive social response to the problem. Essentially this is because the analysis applied is narrow and naïve. The flawed assumption appears to be that a specific group of violent, dangerous, and/or morally degraded individuals and families are responsible for the abuse of our children. If these individuals / families can be identified and treated / punished or prevented from contact with children the problem of child abuse can be solved. It is difficult to think of a better example of Mencken’s dictum that simple solutions to complex problems are both seductive and wrong.
The above analysis fails to take account of the fact that social work has been entangled with marginalised families since its inception in the late 19th Century (Ferguson, 2004). Such families do not go away. Also, there but for the grace of God (and money), go you and I. The elephant in the room of statutory child protection is that vulnerable children are located within vulnerable families. Clearly – and unsurprisingly – child maltreatment is more frequent in multi-stressed, relatively impoverished and deprived families. This sort of hardship and disadvantage is often inter-generationally reproduced. Child protection social workers see this every day. To demonise and separate such families and, in so doing, to imagine that some sort of finite definition and treatment is possible, is a little like cutting the grass and not expecting it to re-grow. This is particularly true in a climate of increasing socio-economic inequality.
As depicted in the CYF logo, children exist at the centre of layers of nurture: family, community and wider systems. Solutions need to be seen in this context. The difficult and demanding art of child protection social work lies in the capacity to engage constructively with multi-stressed families and this is where resources, training, and policy emphases need to be developed. The Munro Review of Child Protection , carried out by Professor Eileen Munro on behalf of the UK government, critiqued the debilitating compliance driven regime of technocratic assessment, recording and monitoring which is advocated in the White Paper. In the dominant climate of conservatism and austerity the U.K is now seeing a spike in Court applications and forced adoptions (Featherstone, White & Morris, 2014). By developing a ‘detect and rescue’ emphasis in child protection against a backdrop of efficiency and risk aversion this is the direction we are on the verge of embracing. What is not being said is that this policy prescription is at odds with the intent of the CYP&F Act which was about moving away from rescue and care as core business. As in the United States we are in danger of accepting that the social and economic structure of Aotearoa / New Zealand produces and reproduces problem families who are morally unfit to care for future citizens and that the most cost effective way to deal with this is the authoritative removal of said children. It follows that the resources that are available need to be placed into the development of effective alternate care. Welcome to modernity revisited. It is crucial that social workers recognise the political nature of the challenge which this initiative poses for our profession.
Ian Hyslop is a lecturer in social work at the University of Auckland. Prior to becoming an educator/researcher he worked for twenty years as a social worker, supervisor, and practice manager in statutory child protection practice in New Zealand.
The views expressed in this blog post are Ian’s own and do not represent views held by his employer or any association to which he belongs.
Featherstone, B., White, S., & Morris, K. (2014). Re-imagining child protection: Towards humane social work with families. Bristol: Policy Press.
Hyslop, I. (2013). The ‘White paper for vulnerable children’ and the ‘Munro review of child protection in England’: A comparative critique. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 25(4), 4-14.
Ferguson, H. (2004). Protecting children in time: Child abuse, child protection and the consequences of modernity. Basingstoke, U.K: Palgrave MacMillan.