The road not taken

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.

Fronek, P., & Chester, P. (2016). Moral outrage: Social workers in the Third Space. Ethics and Social Welfare.  DOI: 10.1080/17496535.2016.1151908

Munro, E. (2010). Review of child protection in England: Part One: A systems analysis. Retrieved from Department of Education website

Munro, E. (2011). Review of child protection in England: Final report: A child-centred system. Retrieved from

[fac_icon icon=”camera-retro”] Image Credit |Remon Rijper

9 replies on “The road not taken”

Kia ora Ian, a well articulated analysis with a suitably chilling prognosis. The counter narrative must be clear even though it swims against the tide.

Hi David,

Good social workers inevitably have to swim against the tide at times e hoa! Yes, in such a along Report with so much recourse to smoke and mirrors ( not to mention motherhood and apple pie) I think it is important to strip it back to some of the glaring implications for future practice. Mind you critique and deconstruction then needs to be the base for building future visions of ‘child and whanau’ focused practice.
Only ever a day in the field David … never the war is won. However it is encouraging to know that so many of us are committed to something better than this …

A recurring image that keeps coming to me is the thought that we are returning to old style social policy where children were removed from their families and placed in institutional care to facilitate a better life for them. … Many years later, stories of abuse, trauma and other harm continue to emerge. The recent documentary on Epuni is one such example.
So, I keep wondering, as our government is determined to send welfare reform back to the practices of the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s … with the resultant claims against the state for mistreatment pending in twenty to thirty years time. Will a significant factor in the trauma and dislocation those people claim for be the forced removal from their families of origin into a ‘caring and loving family.’ … And when the failures of this system are exposed – will the responsibility for this be heaped onto the shoulders of social workers who are expected to comply with practice guidelines set by a government unwilling to make an ongoing investment into the health and welfare of this nations children? Will the Liability Insurance held by social workers be sufficient to meet the needs of the claimants?
The lack of structural analysis in regard to housing, education, employment for many families (again often driven by government reform and other political directives) results in a blaming and punishment driven response to families in need. More supportive policies and collective sharing of the burdens families face do not seem to be considered.
I believe it would take a very courageous government with a will and determination to commit to the welfare of our nations children – and currently I am not convinced that any of our political leaders have what it takes to fully commit to the findings of numerous reviews that have been published previously.

Hi Mary – You raise some good questions here. MSD is currently facing a raft of historic abuse claims and the transition to the safe and loving home model will not be straightforward. We don’t claim to have all the answers – either individually or collectively within this RSW group – but we are interested in finding better solutions than what is proposed in this report.
The Report repeatedly talks about securing safe and loving homes at the earliest opportunity and urges all New Zealanders to help with this process. The inference is that a group of people in our society are unsafe and unloving and that we need to identify them in order to break this costly chain. This narrow approach ignores the fact that our economic system produces marginalisation in the same way that it produces excessive wealth. You can’t stop disadvantage by punishing the disadvantaged.
Those of us who have done social work in this area know that most adult clients are young, many are Maori, and almost all are coping with the multiple stresses that go with parenting in poverty. Sometimes situations are so dangerous that permanent removal of children is justified but this is rare. If relationships are built, fear and anger overcome and resources provided, change and safety can be created. Also the bonds of whanaungatanga can be rewoven with patience, time, and care. This is the realm of child and family social work. It is tricky and demanding and it begins from seeing people as living, breathing and unique – working with human possibility – rather than seeing people as assemblages of actuarial risk and cost (as the architects of this report do).
As Emily Keddell pointed out a couple of posts back, social workers need to be aware of trauma – and cognizant of its effects – and they are! However it is not an adequate central structuring lens for all of child protection practice, particularly if the child is seen as divorced from the context of whanau and community relationships. As Tariana Turia has observed it is not ethical or realistic to save the children and leave the parents behind. Call me old-fashioned but we need child focused and whanau inclusive practice that is adequately supported and resourced – and we need social spending that redistributes wealth and opportunity.

Shocked to read this. We think of New Zealand as climbing toward the light on the hill in protecting children and strengthening indigenous families. OK they make mistakes; they stumble sometimes as they climb. But to decide in the face of some terrible mistakes to turn back to the Valley of the shadow of death, I just can’t believe New Zealand will do that. The political short-termism of myopic “child saving” is something New Zealand is too wise as a people to allow its system to grind back into.

John Braithwaite

Yes, John – Appreciate your interest and supportive comments.

I have obviously summarized / cut to the chase a little in this post but this narrative and outcome is the crux of what the safe and loving homes rhetoric obscures. Given the socio-cultural-economic realities of Aotearoa / NZ, this policy agenda amounts to sleep-walking back to times I too thought we had left well-behind. Mind you I once thought suburban street beggars were something you saw in far away lands until we ‘successfully’ reformed /reduced the cost of our benefit system.

However, better ways forward – in politics, policy, and practice – are being articulated and the aim of this blog site is to contribute to the buiding of these alternate visions.

Reading these informed commentators is an uncomfortable and chilling experience. This description of early removal of vulnerable children to foster care gave me immediate thoughts of the wide social trauma experienced around the “stolen generation” of Aboriginal children across the Tasman. Surely there must be a better response to multiple stressed families than removing children deemed at risk?

Where are all these “safe and loving” middle class homes? I know there are some outstanding foster families, but my understanding is there are nowhere near enough. As a reader above commented, the way that was phrased also reminded me of the Aboriginal “Stolen Generation”. Seems like a cop out from creating real resources and empowerment for families to move beyond unhealthy patterns.

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