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”.
I was involved in the Practice Reference Group for this Review. It soon became apparent that two matters were essentially non-negotiable: a focus on the earlier removal and secure long-term placement of high risk children and the adoption of a trauma-centred practice framework. We met with the Independent Expert Panel once – for twenty minutes at the end of our fourth and final day of the consultation process.
Let’s take a look at the narrative which has been built. The argument for change in practice direction is premised on the alleged failure of the current CYF system, with a specific focus on care processes for children and young people. As outlined in the Interim Report these shortcomings are exemplified by ‘churn’ in the referral system and drift / re-abuse in care – particularly whānau care. Churn is the idea that if families are re-notified, it means that CYF have failed by not fixing the problem the first time. The concept of re-abuse (re-victimisation) in whānau placements, or following return home, is employed to justify earlier out of family permanency. Both of these constructions are simplistic and superficially persuasive, yet deceptive. They disguise a lack of effective support for family placement and family support services more generally.
The challenges facing the CYF system do point to the need for changes but they don’t point to the need for ‘these’ changes. This is the central illusion of the Final Report. It is well-known that escalating media-driven demands for child safety in the face of child abuse tragedies, and the exponential growth of notifications in a risk-averse environment, have created a very demanding practice context over many years in Aotearoa-New Zealand and in similar societies (Ferguson, 2004; Connelly & Doolan, 2007). The bigger picture of a widening gap between the wealthy and the poor in an unforgiving market economy is, of course, also implicated.
In this environment the tail has increasingly wagged the dog. Practice has come to be dominated by site office budgets and ‘league tables’ of administrative efficiency known as ‘traffic light reports’. Coupled with Ministerial anxiety, this focus has seriously distorted the intent of the CYP&F Act. Timeliness and recording compliance became the key measure of practice quality, and whānau placement without adequate support and resourcing became the default response when out of family care was needed.
These systemic problems are largely political and managerial rather than connected with a failed vision of child and family centred practice as presented in this report. Issues of gross demand over-load and practice centred on compliance and risk-aversion were identified in the Workload and Casework Review (MSD, 2014). This review indicated the need for smaller case-loads, more social workers, better assessment, engagement and greater assistance to enable whānau to look after their own. This is the road not taken. It did not fit the broader political agenda.
The Report also relies on the narrative which it creates to justify a further rolling back of the vision of Puao Te Ata Tu: specifically the concept of the Maori child as inextricably bound in ties of whakapapa. The intent was to re-weave the plaited mat of whanaungatanga worn thin by colonisation, urbanisation, economic deprivation and institutional racism. The whānau-centred principles of the 1989 Act will be further diluted in the coming legislative amendments. Opposition to this is framed as some kind of vaguely misguided nostalgia for times past – the kind of attachment you might have to an old jacket when a modern one is far more fit for purpose ( see Cabinet Paper 2).
The report does talk of buying preventative and intensive services for targeted whānau. I am not against the development of preventative and intensive support services. Both of these things are much needed. However it is the surrounding context – the social investment propaganda – which is alarming. If and when whānau are judged as unable or unwilling to respond to targeted intervention early calls for out of family permanency will be made. Make no mistake – this is a return to rescue mentality foster care. We are told that we may even be able to instantly calculate risk and future liability on our mobile devices. All of this will occur within a trauma-informed and evidence-based practice framework. This kind of data driven diagnosis and treatment of family pathology is a move away from the context-informed relational engagement that is central to quality social work practice in child protection (Munro, 2010, 2011).
This Report signals a de-centring and redefinition of social work in child protection. Child protection social work is being refocused on healing the traumatised child in safe and loving homes: social workers will be required to shape up or ship out. Whānau engagement is seen as the role of Iwi and the NGO sector, provided it is sufficiently evidence-based and trauma-informed. The mantra of safe and loving homes is so soothing and self-reinforcing that it serves as the perfect foil for the positively ‘eugenic’ policy focus which it conceals ( Beddoe, 2015; Fronek & Chester, 2016). The dogma is that vulnerability – or more particularly the cost associated with it – will be significantly reduced if the families that cause it can be fixed – forcibly disrupted and re-made if needs be. This is the central illusion of social policy in the neoliberal investment state. It will mean the removal of poor, disproportionately Māori children from their homes for placement with permanent middle class carers.
Nau mai haere mai ki Aotearoa. Welcome to God’s own country people!
Beddoe , L. (2015). Making a moral panic – ‘Feral families’, family violence and welfare reforms in New Zealand: Doing the work of the state? In V. E. Cree (Ed.), Moral panics in theory and practice: Gender and family (pp. 31-42). Bristol Policy Press.
Connolly, M., & Doolan, M. (2007). Responding to the deaths of children known to child protection agencies. Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, 30(March), 1–11.
Ferguson, H. (2004). Protecting children in time: Child abuse, child protection and the consequences of modernity. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Munro, E. (2010). Review of child protection in England: Part One: A systems analysis. Retrieved from Department of Education website https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/175407/TheMunroReview-Part_one.pdf.
Munro, E. (2011). Review of child protection in England: Final report: A child-centred system. Retrieved from http://www.official-documents.gov.uk/document/cm80/8062/8062.pdf
[fac_icon icon=”camera-retro”] Image Credit |Remon Rijper