The absent elephant in the 2016 ‘Modernising Child, Youth and Family Expert Panel Report’

 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.

On receiving the report  Investing in New Zealand’s Children and Their Families I used the very simple textual analysis technique of searching for the frequency of what I considered important words. Such a simple analysis does not necessarily create a window into the minds and thinking of the authors; however it does give some indications about what they consider important at least as measured by how frequently they talk about it.

In descending incidence of occurrence and not including the references and appendixes this is what my word count revealed:

Investment mentioned 240 times
Trauma mentioned 50 times
Love mentioned 36 times
Deprivation mentioned 4 times
Inequality mentioned 1 time
Poverty mentioned 1 time

Despite the often unspoken reality that the vast majority of return visit CYFS clients are poor, and that people on reasonable incomes seldom have long-term contact with CYFS, it seems that the authors of the report do not see poverty as having any great relevance to the business of CYFS. Given the truly astounding amount of data demonstrating clear links between poverty, deprivation and increased levels of neglect and abuse of children it seems an extraordinary oversight (Duva, Metzger, 2010; Wynd, 2013; Sedlak, Mettenburg, Basena, Petta, McPherson, Greene, & Li, 2010).

This seems even more the case when you consider the equally astounding amounts of data (Szalavitz, 2010; Murali & Oyebode, 2004) showing that poverty plays a causative role in many of the other factors associated with increased levels of child abuse and neglect: these are factors such as parental depression, poor mental health, high levels of family stress, insecure overcrowded and unhealthy housing, and increased levels of drug and alcohol abuse as self medication to manage misery (Brown, Cohen, Johnson & Salzinger, 2010).

None of this is news to social scientists, or to anybody who has spent any time at all working with abused and neglected children and their families. People have known this since the days of Dickens. It does not take a great leap of empathic imagination to understand that the fear, despair, and hopelessness created by trying to survive day to day without adequate resources are not useful additions to the tool box of good parenting.

Inequality also rated only one mention in the report. The fact that being poor and living in a starkly unequal society, such as New Zealand, correlates with higher levels of child abuse and neglect (and many other social ills) is newer information, but again well researched (Wilkinson & Pickett 2010). Sadly, New Zealand has been identified as one of the most starkly unequal societies in the OECD (Rashbrooke, 2014). What is striking about our inequality is that it is relatively new. From a reasonably equal society 30 years ago we now live in a country where nearly a quarter of our children live in poverty (Office of the Children’s Commissioner 2012 & 2013) and a small number of very rich people enjoy conspicuously opulent lifestyles. Social commentators such as Max Rashbrooke (2013 & 2015) express concern that New Zealand increasingly suffers from a compassion gap: an inability for the well-off amongst us to make sense of the poor as fundamentally like themselves only in straitened circumstances.

The withering of our capacity to see ourselves in the suffering other is not (in my opinion) helpful for the development of policies to create better parents and safer children. See Wynd at Child Poverty Action for a discussion of the role that poverty plays. Such a stunting of empathy may, however, provide an excellent addition to a national toolkit concerned with controlling and managing the poor and rescuing their children from their nastiness. (An unkind interpretation would suggest this is in essence is what the report aims for CYFS to do). Parental management and child rescue are able to be undertaken without ever naming the central problems of poverty, deprivation and marginalisation. It’s rather like one of those magic shows where a genius magician manages to hide a very large elephant in a very small room by paying frantic attention to everything but the elephant.

The report speaks a great deal about trauma and love; and of course it is impossible not to agree that trauma is a bad thing and needs to be attended to and that children need to be loved. This is not a new insight. What the report seems to ignore is that the experience of poverty itself is increasingly traumatic in New Zealand. Large numbers of people report terror at the idea of approaching WINZ and a Canterbury research study reports that many people report feeling deeply humiliated and wounded by their encounters with our increasingly punitive and harsh social welfare system (Morton, Gray, Heins & Carswell, 2014). Insecure low paid work is also frequently reported to have a traumatising effect on workers with high rates of depression and anxiety disorders amongst those struggling to get by on low wages (Reeves, Mckee, Mackenbach, Whiteboard & Stuckler, 2016).

Again, it does not take a huge leap of imaginative empathy to understand that when life is experienced as humiliating and brutalising the daily challenge of gifting one’s children with frequent and genuine displays of warmth and love becomes harder. Perhaps the solution is not to pluck children out of supposedly unloving homes and slide them into the supposedly warm embrace of well resourced middle class families; but rather to work as a society at creating the conditions for all New Zealand’s families where the flow of loving kindness comes easily. That’s the kind of investment I’d like to see.

References and other reading:

Sedlak, A.J., Mettenburg, J., Basena, M., Petta, I., McPherson, K., Greene, A., and Li, S. (2010). Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS–4): Report to Congress. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families.

Brown, J. Cohen, P. Johnson, J. & Salzinger, S. (1998). A longitudinal analysis of risk factors for child maltreatment: findings of a 17-year prospective study of officially recorded and self-reported child abuse and neglect. Child Abuse & Neglect, 22(11) 1065–1078

Children’s Commissioner’s Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty (2012). Solutions to child poverty in New Zealand: Evidence for action. Wellington, New Zealand: Office of the Children’s Commissioner.

Children’s Commissioner’s Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty (2013). Child poverty in New Zealand: Building on the progress to dateWellington, New Zealand: Office of the Children’s Commissioner.

Duva, J. Metzger, S. (2010). Addressing poverty as a major risk factor in child neglect: Promising policy and practice. Casey Family Services. Protecting Children 25(1), 63-74

Morton,K. Gray,C. Heins,A. Carswell, S. (2014). Access to Justice for Beneficiaries a Community Law Response. A Community Law Canterbury Access To Justice Research Project. New Zealand.

Murali, V & Oyebode, F. (2004). Poverty, social inequality and mental healthAdvances in Psychiatric Treatment (2004), 10, 216–224

Rashbrooke, M. (2013). Inequality: a New Zealand Crisis. Bridget Williams Books: Wellington, New Zealand.
Rashbrooke, M. (2015). Wealth in New Zealand, Bridget Williams Books: Wellington, New Zealand

Reeves,A, Mckee, M, Mackenbach, J, Whiteboard,M & Stuckler, D. (2016). Introduction of a National Minimum Wage reduced depressive symptoms in low-wage workers: A quasi-natural experiment In The UK. Health Economics. 1–17

Szalavitz, M. (2011). Yes, addiction does discriminate. The fix: addiction and recovery straight up. Home Features. USA.

Wynd, D. (2013). Child abuse: what role does poverty play? Child Poverty Action Group: Auckland, New Zealand.

Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2009). The spirit level: Why equality is better for everyone. London: Penguin.

[fac_icon icon=”camera-retro”] Image Credit |Guian Bolisay

21 replies on “The absent elephant in the 2016 ‘Modernising Child, Youth and Family Expert Panel Report’”

Thank you for this post David– your point about the roles poverty and inequality play in a great many injustices needs to be made – again and again. And though it may feel like it, you are not alone in making it. Recently at Wintec (in Hamilton) the social work teaching team organized an event that brought together a small panel of community members – a couple of social work practitioners, a social service agency leader and a politician, and asked them to address the issue of child poverty in this country. They were asked to help us, an audience of 100 or so social work students and local social workers, do something about it.

The interesting thing was, despite the fact that the “report” had been released the day before, any mention of it was strikingly absent. The discussion was necessarily about matters so much bigger; we had more important things to consider it seemed. This wasn’t because there weren’t concerns in the room that day about the implications of what was contained (or not) in the “report,” it was simply a stark awareness that before anything else, poverty and the economic policy behind it, and implications for Maori whanau in particular, were the first points of change. We knew we needed to “go big!” So thanks for your support with this. As one of our panellists wisely advised us: Tell stories, lean on community and create movements!

Thanks Deb,
I can only agree that we need to keep telling the counter-story again and again. This report seeks to make invisible a perspective and story that is central to our work as social workers.

We need to keep the view that includes a structural analysis and a recognition of the impact of colonisation at the fore-front. And – of course this is an active challenge when the ideological flavour of the day works to silence anything that opposes a hyper-individualised story of what makes for children’s well-being.

Thank you for your comments. I fully concur that ‘going big’ is what we need to do – and this is the big challenge in a political climate that seeks to keep our perspective and actions small.

Lets all of us keep the big talk going!

David K

Using your simple analysis David, the ‘Moa in the Room’ is that, not once do you mention the word ‘Maori,’ yet the investment in children report does often. Not once do you mention historical trauma and structural discrimination that impacts our people as much as poverty, as much as relentless colonisation and yes genocide. Maori make up 60% of the total children in state care and not once are they mentioned in your article. Rather you, like so many other authors on this platform mainstream mix Maori, rendering them, their experiences and the specific causal factors that contribute to their over-representation in child protection, invisible. Why if you are a social work educator, do you do this?

Kia ora Paora,

Firstly, I must acknowledge that yes indeed I did make a simple and in most ways a very one-eyed analysis of the report driven by a very simple textual analysis approach.

My hasty words in response to that text analysis were driven by my initial angry incredulity that the ideologies underpinning the report are so powerful as to be able to exclude from this nationally important talk the main common factors known to correlate with poor outcomes for children – they being poverty, marginalisation, exclusion and deprivation. I was so struck by these absences that my pen was hasty.

You might like to know that after reading your words today I went back to the report and again used the word search function: I found that the word colonisation does not appear at all in the document and I am appalled by this absence!

Secondly, I want to thank you for your powerful and useful response to my comment on the report that (as you say) very often mentions and targets Maori. It is timely to be reminded that any talk in New Zealand about poverty and oppression is always haunted by both the historical realities of the assault of colonisation on Te Ao Maori and the current lived and incredibly painful legacy of that assault for many Maori whanau.

In my zeal to name one kind of absence in (what seems to me) a document dominated by an individualising neo-liberal discourse, it was all too easy to inadvertently create another absence, that this report and its recommendations will impact disproportionately on Maori. This needs to be clearly acknowledged in all dialogue about the report.

I appreciate your wise reminder. This is a report and set of recommendations that needs all our eyes on it!

Naku noa, na
David K

Tena koe David. Nga mihi for your very full response and acknowledgement of the points I made. May I share it on my tangata whenua social work page? They will be very reassured by it. Oh and you are a very good writer. Mauri ora, Paora Moyle

Thanks Paora,
Happy for you to share.

One of the problems I see with the analysis that inhabits this report is that by so adamantly refusing to admit to structural drivers for social problems it seizes the right to define the problem entirely through its own terms of individual culpability being the causal loci of everything good and bad in the world of childhood.

This means it then seizes the right to critique everything done in the past though its own terms and to propose future solutions solely through its own hyper-individualising terms of reference. This kind of seizure of problem definition and solution proposition through what seems a starkly western capitalist view of world and self is particularly concerning for what and who is silenced.

In terms of the specifics of the report there are some statements on Page 15 that I think warrant some careful scrutiny in terms of what they are signalling. Particularly the paragraphs that start with:

“There has been considerable debate in the past three decades on the place of children in Māori society and on the place of whānau. Much has been said in order to emphasise the differences in Māori society from others and this is not always accurate or true. Some interpretations have confused the issue.
The safety of Māori children is paramount and any work we do must be childcentred.”

When held up against the absence in the report of any acknowledgement of the impact of colonisation on Maori and the structural inequities Maori face I am concerned about what ‘differences’ and ‘interpretations’ are about to be thrown under the bus under the rallying cry of ‘save the children’?

I also worry when the report makes statements such as:

“The safety of Māori children is paramount – and any work we do must be childcentred.”

Two quite separate propositions are linked as if inevitable when they are quite clearly not. The sentence could as easily have read:

“The safety of Māori children is paramount – and any work we do must be whanau centred.”

Childcentred is an easy to sell phrase – but the suspicious question in my mind is by promoting the adoption of child at centre in an almost TINA (there is no alternative) kind of way what is then pushed out of the centre?

I think the more critical eyes on this report the better. Keep up the good work and I hope your Tangata Whenua social work page colleagues will be super active in the dialogue too. Their voices are needed!

Noho ora mai
David K

Two thoughts:
– Could it possibly be that “the often unspoken reality that the vast majority of return visit CYFS clients are poor” is because middle class social workers don’t want to find “respectable” middle class people abuse their families, so focus on the powerless they know are easier to deal with? In New Zealand those with a tertiary education happily discourse about “poverty” but find “class” a little too hard to pronounce. Possibly because that would start to challenge their discourse.
– More directly, the line taken in your article is deeply depressing. Its interesting that you quote the children’s commissioner on poverty but not his criticism of CYF and his support for the changes. Whatever the role of poverty and inequality,there would still be something deeply, endemically wrong with CYF staff and the way they operate. hand waving about poverty does not excuse that, or excuse academics defending their students above the needs of vulnerable children.

Sometimes when I think about CYFS I am reminded of the old saying about communism.

”Great idea, pity it’s never been tried”.

The implication being that every time something that purported to be Communist arose it was very quickly overshadowed by some form of dictatorship.

I think it’s important to remember that the extraordinary intentions that sat behind the CYP& F Act never really had a chance to be implemented in the ways that the designers envisaged. Instead that very beautiful vision of social workers empowering families and communities to create better outcomes for their children was delivered through the inadequate device of a rigid managerialism that was the neoliberal flavour of the day all through the 90s.

Combine that with chronic underfunding and risk averse policies and you have the recipe for a system that certainly doesn’t work as well as it should.

A problem with this report is that it appears to make the assumption that the problems with CYFS are much to do with the thinking underpinning the Act rather than acknowledging that CYFS as a living institution has been starved of resources for a very long time and at times managed in ways that were very much counter to the original spirit of the Act.

So – I don’t disagree with you that this report does offer things that are greatly needed; more support for children leaving care; more resourcing of CYFS caregivers. These things have been desperately needed for a long time.

My concern is with what the report does not acknowledge and frankly – while not everything is known about the drivers of use and neglect; what is well known is that the most reliable correlates for increased incidence of neglect and abuse in a population are poverty and the sorts of marginalisation that colonisation inevitably produces.

This is not a matter of middle-class social workers showing class solidarity with middle-class abusers by ignoring their abuse. Instead it is a very well researched phenomenon – (in every society that has cared to pay attention) – that children get hurt more when they grow up in social contexts of poverty, deprivation, exclusion and marginalisation.

I do not tend to see the challenge of doing better by New Zealand’s vulnerable children as an either / or binary of: reform CYFS – or – tackle the issue of poverty in New Zealand.

Instead I think it has to be very much both. Our children need skilled social workers who are:
1. Able to work sensitively with the difficult realities of families in which children have experienced trauma.
2. Be aware of and sensitive to the kinds of structural disadvantage that trap families in impossible and painful situations.

Most social workers I know are very good at this. The capacity to work sensitively in the small space of individual families but also understand the larger forces that effect families lies at the heart of good social work and we have very many good social workers in New Zealand.

“as a living institution has been starved of resources for a very long time and at times managed in ways that were very much counter to the original spirit of the Act …. more support for children leaving care; more resourcing of CYFS caregivers. These things have been desperately needed for a long time. ”

But you are assuming the issue is resources, not the state sector people delivering the services . In 2005/6 CYFS had a three year injection of $111m in response to the baseline review. This made no difference whatsoever to the quality of service, at least if that is understood as outcomes for children and their families. At the minimum there is a strong case extra resources will only make a difference if there are changes to delivery of the service.

When you talk to non-government employers of social workers they are scathing about social work training and the kind of people the university system encourages into the profession. What they are most unhappy about is how people coming out of the system know the words “client lead” but their training makes them unable to properly defer to a client’s knowledge of their own situation.

The challenge to the members of this group is whether or not “re-imagining” is part of that problem? University is very good at providing the language skills needed in bureaucracies like government, university and big business; but the equivalent in social work is making students better at “managing up” inside a bureaucracy – such as getting $111m extra funding for your department – rather than providing help for the people who need it?

Chris James writes that:

“When you talk to non-government employers of social workers they are scathing about social work training and the kind of people the university system encourages into the profession. What they are most unhappy about is how people coming out of the system know the words “client lead” but their training makes them unable to properly defer to a client’s knowledge of their own situation.”

That is an extraordinary claim for which there is no evidence whatsoever. A number of claims have been made about social work education, by government ministers and others in New Zealand, based solely on anecdote and opinion. For those of us who work with social work students every day the idea that social work training “makes them unable to properly defer to a client’s knowledge of their own situation” is utterly contrary to the primary emphasis of actually existing social work education.

The education of social workers, in the academy and on placement, is about developing the skills, knowledge and values to be able to intervene effectively in complex and uncertain situations. They must learn how to support the right to autonomy of service users whilst limiting unnecessary risk; to sustain the ties of family and whānau, whilst securing the safety of children; to support the aspirations of clients for a decent income, a damp free house and a life worth living, whilst working in cash-starved, risk-averse bureaucracies in a grossly unequal social order.

Of course, that too is just an opinion. One way to establish the reality of the outcomes of social work education is to conduct research, research that includes the perspective of employers, which is precisely what some of us are doing in the enhanceR2P project.

Completely agree research is needed, but the claim that the anecdotes just come from ministers is not true. They are just the one reported by the media.

In honesty, to believe arguments like ” For those of us who work with social work students every day the idea that social work training ” is a very good example of the problem I noted in my earlier posts

Chris, you make reference to the baseline review but that information is 10 years old now. A much more recent document outlined the workforce needs for CYF at the end of 2014. The Workload and Casework Review reported on a large project undertaken to explore the levels of work and staffing. The acknowledgement page tells us that the project included input from the Executive Committee members of Child, Youth and Family, the New Zealand Public Service Association, an Expert Advisory Panel and numerous government and non-government partner agencies, Iwi partners and the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, all contributing knowledge, ideas and time. Wow: actual experts !

The Chief Executive said in a media statement

“Social workers do an important job. They have to make sound, professional judgements in the most complex of circumstances. We’ve seen a six-fold increase in notifications into Child, Youth and Family in recent years. Last year, our contact centre received just over 148,000 notifications. The pressure of this demand is considerable and right now Child, Youth and Family holds the lion’s share of responsibility for what happens to these kids”.

Minister Bennett said:

“she welcomed the report, which was “one of the most in-depth pieces of work” she’d seen on the department.
“It means we can have a really honest view about where we’re at, where we’re going and what we need to do next,” she said.
“So I applaud the department and I think that they’ve done a great job with it.”
Bennett confirmed more social workers would be needed, but considerable discussion had to be held first.
“It certainly raises a number of issues for us, and certainly around the recommendations I think that yes, they will need more social workers,” she said.
“We just need to make sure that we’re getting the right ones for the right caseloads and for the right place. So the chief executive has said he’s going to go away and do a bit more work on that.”

The report made widespread findings and recommendations based on a very thorough and well regarded process that brought all the important parties together. A note (p.94) worth repeating here says:

The model estimated that, if the current volume of care and protection work were to remain the same, Child, Youth and Family would require an estimated 1,109 care and protection social workers. That is, to deliver a sufficient standard of practice to the current volume of children, and to keep social worker caseloads at manageable levels, there would need to be a 47 per cent increase in the number of care and protection social workers.
12.37 At the other end of the spectrum, if the volume of Child, Youth and Family’s assessment work were to decrease by 30 per cent, the model estimated that 968 social workers would be required – a 29 per cent increase in Child, Youth and Family’s currently funded care and protection social workers. That is, even with quite a large reduction in Child, Youth and Family’s current volume of assessment work, the model estimated more than 200 additional care and protection social workers would be needed.

Despite all the work and all the recommendations and the support if the CE and Minister Bennett , we got not much progress (little moving forward in bureaucrat speak); instead we got the Rebstock review. A panel of people who knew nothing about the work of social workers and still don’t. So I’m not sure your comments help much to generate intelligent debate on this subject. And I am also not sure about what you base your remarks about social work practice as you don’t supply any evidence. Or tell us who you are and where your interests are.

My rather naive interest is in seeing children free of violent homes. I hadn’t realised this was a closed group, so i shall withdraw as i started with two thoughts:
– Your site offers two arguments: that dealing with poverty is the ultimate way to deal with family violence; and that lack of resource is the main reason CYFS failed. The correlation between poverty and the activity of child protection agencies is evidence for the first. The fact previous funding increases made no difference to CYFS’ performance is evidence against the second.
– The almost universal support for CYFS reform among non-government agencies providing child service suggests there was something deeply wrong with the organisation and the people working for it. Don’t kid yourselves this was about some kind of financial pressure or threats to withdraw contracts. It was because they honestly believe, rightly or wrongly, that CYFS was damaging children and there is a collective sigh of relief that it is going.

Not a closed group but we encourage people to state their positioning especially when being highly critical of social workers.It is after all a social work blog developed for critical writing to unpack relevant policy developments and contribute to the dire need to re-imagine social work in child protection which has been forced into an increasingly narrow investigative role by successive governments. So I start from a point of critique of the current system, as you will see from very early posts.And we all want children to be in homes free of violence. We are simply just not convinced by the rhetoric and emotional posturing of the current minister. Who this week announced policy to a national party conference- for me that says who she really cares about. A minister who has steadfastly refused to engage with social workers, 80% off whom don’t work for CYF and who have much to contribute in support of our beleaguered colleagues and in the development of new services which start with supporting families not policing them.

As I read the report David, I’m reminded of a biblical quote Moana Jackson (the lawyer, not the singer) used to use to describe the imposition of settler culture on Maori: ‘The namer of names is the father of all things’. It seems the term ‘child centred’ is being used to define the correct focus of practice as equating to the diminishing of the role of families and whanau. The hyper-individualisation of the child is proposed as a way to address the over-representation of Maori in the child welfare system. This dovetails nicely with social investment logic: Maori children in particular need rescuing from their own families earlier in order to stop them being such a cost to the state down the track. So rather than back up and address ‘upstream’ causes, related to both colonisation and its intertwining with poverty and discrimination, let’s just remove and ‘fix’ the problem by putting them in ‘loving families’. So I agree wholeheartedly with your imploring to keep ‘telling the counter story’. In a counter story, children are embedded in a relational network that needs support. Who controls the story, controls everything: they are the father of all things.

Yes Emily and I too am reminded of Paraire Huata’s observation that those who have the power of definition will always have the power- and Paulo Friere’s observation tha Freedom is the power to name the world. Reimagining social work is – of course- about taking this back!

Teenaa koutou e hoa maa. Ka nui taaku mihi kia koutou. Talofa lava malo e lelei.
I have read Rebstock and the Ernst and Young Investment Approach for Vulnerable Children and the three Cabinet Social Policy Committee Reports on the Overview of the Report, the New Operating Model and the new Legislative Changes. If you read Bill Rosenberg (NZCTU) on Social Investment you get a clear picture of Social Investment and what it does NOT deliver. Our focus needs to be on the proposed ACC – like new Board that is being put in place, the new Chief Actuarial Executive position and the actuarial (yes just like Insurance Companies Risk management) methodologies and the reduction of government funding balance sheet liabilities and the reduction of debt. Vulnerable Children and their families are but a device to drive the Social Investment policy framework. These changes have nothing to do with Care and Protection and addressing the murder of children. At $2,000 per day Rebstock drives the agenda of Social Investment. If you commodify the vulnerable children you create a market to contract out everything in terms of services. Just look who sat on the Rebstock Committee. Today the NBR Rich List is published. Rebstock is part of the last 34 years of the neo-liberal agenda. Rebstock is about the Structural Adjustment and privatisation of Care and Protection. Rebstock is not good news for Vulnerable Children. It is not Good News for the Poor. In Policy Analysis, Social Work and Community Work we do Politics.

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