Elephant outing

I would like to invite some elephants to reveal themselves and vacate the child protection room.  This might give us some more space to breathe and think. In other words let’s name some of the uncomfortable realities.  Let’s be frank: child protection social work in Aotearoa New Zealand is enmeshed with social inequality.  Pelton’s (2015) summary of recent research studies presents compelling evidence of the link between poverty, child maltreatment and entry into state care.  It does not take a rocket scientist (luckily) to work out that a range of negative outcomes for children – including a greater risk of maltreatment – result from inadequate incomes, second rate education, deprived neighbourhoods, inadequate housing and poor health.  Social workers are aware of this.

Often the most vulnerable children are parented by the most vulnerable adults in our increasingly divided society.  Relative inequality has grown in this country for the past thirty years.  This is not the society it could have been or should be.  Child protection targets families who are socially and economically marginalised, and whānau Māori are disproportionately represented. Parton (2014) has suggested that if we look for the causes of child abuse and neglect we should look beyond the narrow notion of irresponsible families.  We should consider the concept of systemic or societal neglect: the violence inflicted upon vulnerable citizens by neoliberal governments which place corporate profit ahead of social well-being.

We are being offered three related policy visions by the current Government.  Firstly, to our collective relief, the Government has discovered that a class of dangerous and abusive families are responsible for our problems.  We just have to find them and fix them more effectively.  The answer to the social threat posed by morally corrupt benefit dependent underclass is work – any work will do.  Social workers could help to drive these people into low paid work and save their children from ruin into the bargain.  However, as they are not particularly efficient at these sorts of tasks (queasy stomachs, silly ethical qualms) private corporates might be a safer investment.  Dies this sound bizarre, ideological, or neo-fascist? Well, it would do if the threat wasn’t real.

Our professional history has not always been one to take pride in.  As we know the care and control dilemma goes with the territory.  As well as being a force for redemption and liberation, social work has often contributed to punitive and damaging state programs.  The idea that social problems are caused by dirty and dangerous families has been with us since social work began in the late Nineteenth Century.  This emotive idea is rolled out in times of economic liberalisation.  It is comforting to know that it is not “us” who abuse children – it is the feral and ill-disciplined ‘other’.  If these people can be identified and corrected our society will be okay – perhaps we could all lead the comfortable and idealised lives of middle class consumerism?

Do you want to be part of this banal agenda?  Is this the sort of social work you trained for?  As social workers, are we prepared to accept the role allotted to us – to more efficiently pull some families back from the brink (if they deserve it) and shut the door on the others? It is time for a hard look at the road which social work should take.  Can I urge you to think for a minute, in a room emptied of our large grey friends?  What does the social work voice have to say? What do you have to say, as thinking people, in these challenging times?  Poverty and disadvantage is cyclic but it is not ‘caused’ by work-shy, benefit-dependent, violent brown skinned individuals.  Poverty and disadvantage is in fact the flip side of social and economic policies that promote the accumulation of private wealth ahead of social care.  Social work does not have to be revolutionary but we do have a proud history of providing a voice, speaking with and for the excluded. Are you prepared to have this taken from us?  The answer lies in our individual and collective hearts, minds, and hands.  Call me old fashioned but I think we, as social workers, can ‘push back’ against the neoliberal tide and make a difference in our structurally unjust society.

Ian Hyslop, Lecturer in Social Work, University of Auckland.

(The opinions expressed in this post are my own and do not represent the views of my employer, or any association to which I belong.)


Parton, N. (2014). The politics of child protection: contemporary developments and future directions. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pelton, L. (2015). The continuing role of material factors in child maltreatment and placement. Child Abuse and Neglect, 41. 30 – 39.

8 replies on “Elephant outing”

I agree with Ian’s korero above but yet again Māori only get referred to as an ‘add on’ to everyone else. As in “disproportinaltely represented” and “violent brown skinned individuals.” Until commentators cease to lump us in with everyone else, like continuing colonisation, institutional racism and bias practice doesn’t or has never existed then tangata whenua continue to have their voices and experiences marginalised. We love intelligent korero, particularly critical analysis but if commenators are going to speak on our behalf then at least mention some of the social and cultural drivers that have contributed to the deprivation and vulnerability of our people. Great to talk about Elephants in the room but when more than half the families being transacted through care and protection in this country are whānau, be assured that it’s the ‘Moa in the room’ we’re interested in.
Paora Moyle at Moaintheroom.

Yes Paora, I also agree with your words. I am speaking here to prejudice, ignorance, stereo-types, and the manufacture of scare crow images to justify oppressive social work practice – as opposed to engaging with the lived historical and present realities of people (the kind of social work practice I think we need). I don’t mean to speak for Maori but I do want to challenge myths and name some of the issues which we either hide or mis-name. Moaintheroom! … what can I say!!


Great article Ian, Im not sure our ‘grey elephants’ will comply with your request. Occupying over half of our professional social work ‘team’ (I use that word lightly) and countless positive outcomes despite the frustrating trends in child abuse, the necessity for high end care and protection deserves a response that is ‘watertight’. The recent re-shuffle in Statutory child ‘minding’ and an expectation for community to ‘do more’ with less isn’t going to achieve this to any noticeable level. I believe the social worker needs to think about their role everyday. Regardless of contextual situation, social workers may need to pay attention more to the ‘environment-person fit’ as our ‘market Government’ threatens to provide us with yet more changing socio-political environments that undermine and distract. It is unfortunate that neo-liberalism promotes poverty by the its very nature, and quite ironic that it employs half the ‘team’ to fix it up! Targeting a few high risk families certainly isn’t going to earn the respect of a neglected child (or their case manager) that doesn’t ‘qualify’. Perhaps the ‘elephant’ and the ‘moa’ could make room for the global banker as well, while our social work profession is left to ‘spot-clean’ the mess up. Our social policy isn’t wonderful news, we need to speak up more.

A useful thought in considering the direction of this governing regime ….”It is characteristic of conservative revolutions … That they present restorations as revolutions ” (Bourdieu 2001). Helpful for an analysis of why conservative governments are wanting to return to the child welfare policies of the 1950s and 60s.
So we can expect to see the proponents of the coming ‘new’ approach using words like radical, revolutionary etc to describe what may well be a restoration of the ‘muscular’ child protection referred to by Parton I think. And this fits with the restoration of inequality and narrowing of participation we have already seen at the hands of the Key administration.

Very helpful analysis Ian thank you
As you say
“The answer to the social threat posed by morally corrupt benefit dependent underclass is work – any work will do. Social workers could help to drive these people into low paid work and save their children from ruin into the bargain.”
Sadly the government is taking a ‘relentless’ focus on paid work as the answer to poverty without even the vestiges of analysis or monitoring. I have just asked for basic stats from IRD re the flagship work incentive policy -working for families -and they dont collect it any more nor do they do any more evaluations. I think we have to demand more from them- what are social policy analysts doing in the Ministry/IRD these days? writing protocols for social bonds? Where is the statistical report? last published 2012!

Thanks for the input Susan. I think you are right that the glaring social consequences of income inequality do not appear to be a focus for Ministry policy analysis – their political masters are more interested in bang for the buck and the associated targeting of deviance. Detect is the other half oF rescue. The rescue mentality child protection discourse takes on such emotive power that it serves to reinforce and fuel the simplistic and persuasive neoliberal ideology of dangerous parents making poor choices.

My point is not to deny the reality of individual child suffering or to deny that individual children sometimes need to be removed from their parents / care-givers. I have seen and done too much social work not to know this. The problem is that (in policy and practice) we also need to understand the wider context of social suffering and to appreciate that careful /well-resourced / ‘responsibilised’ social work can work effectively with multi-stressed families where elements of ‘abuse’ and neglect are present. Context is not an excuse – it is a means for understanding and collaborative change with those who we so easliy marginalised and demonised. This is where the focus of child protection development should be concentrated.

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