A new paradigm for child protection practice

Across the English-speaking world social work in child protection has taken an authoritarian turn. Child protection social work will never foster social revolution, but it does not have to be the soul-less practice that it has developed into. The rationale for child welfare intervention in family life and the appropriate form of such intervention is contested (Fox-Harding, 1997; Grey & Webb, 2013). We have a choice about the shape of future practice and to make an informed choice we need to examine the wider political and economic context of current practice. Our child protection paradigm does not exist in a vacuum. It is tangled with the failed political ideology of neoliberalism – and it needs to be untangled!

The attraction of risk science in contemporary child welfare is related to the problem of persistent poverty in capitalist societies – specifically the problem posed by the children of the poor. Child protection is often explained and understood in terms of children’s rights to live free of abuse and neglect. The elephant in this particular room is that most of the children who come to the attention of child protection systems in countries like Aotearoa New Zealand come from impoverished families. A renaissance of interest in child welfare inequality Is reflected in recent social work research which has highlighted an incontrovertible correlation between poverty and child maltreatment (Pelton, 2015; Davidson et. al, 2017). Poverty is enmeshed with place, race, class and gender.

Social workers know this, but the system doesn’t allow them to put this knowledge to use effectively in their practice.  Rather the child protection system focuses on the harm caused by the deficiencies of individual parents. This fits perfectly with a neoliberal view of causation and responsibility. It also chimes with the Victorian idea that the poor are a danger to themselves and are different to ‘us’ – ‘they’ create more poverty through their ignorance and immorality. In the Aotearoa New Zealand context, a discourse of personal and family responsibility for the reproduction of trauma has become associated with both poverty reproduction and child maltreatment (Expert Panel, 2015).

The complexity of state social work needs to be accepted and engaged with – new scientific understandings and tools can’t really simplify everything and make the moral challenges go away. In fact, this approach tends to conceal more than it reveals. Part of the complexity I am talking about is related to the way that social workers are positioned as mediators at the interface between the regulatory state and the semi-autonomous realm assigned to family life in liberal society (Warner, 2015). Dominelli (2004) describes the insight and advocacy that social work is capable of as follows:

Social workers engage clients in exchanging knowledge about their life experiences so that their voices can be heard, and their stories can expose the inadequacy of official constructions of their lives. By supporting the creation of counter discourses social workers assist those outside their circles to understand the world from client perspectives. (p. 38)

This critical voice and the public role which social work potentially generates has been severely diminished in recent times (Cree, 2014). It has been completely silenced in mainstream child protection practice. In this blog post I am going to consider why this is the case and what might need to be different. While international social work organizations have embraced a commitment to the pursuit of social justice (Global Agenda, 2014), child protection practice is increasingly focused on protecting the children of the poor rather than addressing the social conditions which foster unsafe environments in increasingly unequal societies (Parton, 2014). What is going on here?

The key to understanding this hypocrisy lies in examining how neoliberal ideas have colonised our view of the social world. Perhaps it is unhelpful to just criticise neoliberalism without saying a little more about it. It is an aggressive form of capitalism that says that large multi-national corporations should be permitted to scour the world for cheap labour, materials and markets to generate profit and growth. Globalisation in this sense has nothing to do with progress or democracy. In some important ways it is a return to the radical, creative and destructive expansion of capitalism in the nineteenth century. The main difference is that modern neoliberals (new liberals) understand that capitalism needs a bit of help to really thrive. Governments have a role in de-regulating markets, de-regulating the environment, allowing free flows of capital and disempowering trade unions.

A form of social security contract between the state and its citizens that came to be called the Welfare State grew out of the Depression of the 1930s and World War 2. Social work became an important part of this arrangement. The rise of a new phase of capitalism associated with neoliberalism has eroded this sense of shared community since the early 1980s. It has also re-shaped social work. Neoliberalism has delivered profit and growth, but it has created glaring inequality for those swept aside in the gale of creative destruction that has been generated. Poverty and inequality reminiscent of the nineteenth century has come back to haunt us.

This is what capitalism does: it hurts powerless people (Garrett, 2013). Everything becomes a marketable commodity – even our human selves. We are responsible for making ourselves and our children market-ready. The insecurity that goes with this way of organising society has generated a volatile political climate: the rise of right wing populism in Europe and most notably the election of Donald Trump in the United States. Trump’s appeal is an odd mix of liberalism, nationalism and racism – it is all about American business, and by extension of course – all about Donald.

Gillies, Edwards, and Horsley (2017) build a powerful case for understanding contemporary policy as something of a perfect storm. The coming together of a social investment policy framework, brain science and corporate interest has generated and justified an unprecedented growth in early intervention programmes targeted at impoverished mothers. The racist, classed and sexist implications of this approach have gone largely unexamined:

Left aside in the seemingly common sense and straightforward scenario of early intervention to save young brains is the unequal gendered, classed and raced environment in which parents and children live out their lives. (pp. 131-2)

This construction diverts attention from the macro-economic causes of social deprivation and obscures the connection between social outcomes for children and the multiple stresses associated with parenting in poverty. State-sponsored processes of surveillance and behaviour management interventions take the place of a politics of social rights and economic redistribution: poverty in this analysis isn’t caused by systemic inequality – it is caused by the dangerous poor and their hapless parenting. Gillies, Edwards, and Horsley argue that a resurgence of child-rescue-driven practice in what might be described as late-neoliberal times amounts to the state being mobilised on behalf of the market to ‘secure the production of clear thinking, flexible, self-directed brains able to withstand the pressures of a global competitive system’ (p.38). This is the neoliberal take on social justice if you like.

Now, I think we need to put this incredibly regressive ideologically-constructed bullshit in its place. This does not mean that we should ignore risk, or that parenting support is pointless. But we need to reject the idiotic idea that children are socially mobile individual products that need to be made market ready. Children are enmeshed in the variably adequate shelter of their family constellations, cultural histories and community relationships. Social work is about understanding social context – we know that people are essentially social subjects rather than rational, context free, economic actors. And we need to ask ourselves whose interests we are currently serving? Child protection social work needs to reject its assigned role of disciplining the poor in the name of child well-being.

In the Aotearoa New Zealand setting, the children who come to the attention of the statutory child protection system are drawn disproportionately from the brown proletariat – often young families, young Maori and / or Pacific families who are often engaged in resisting their circumstances – struggling to live adequately and to parent in poverty. This is a socio-historical-economic reality rather than the result of imprudent choices made by individuals in need of correction (Hyslop, 2017). Child protection practitioners see the way that public issues translate into private troubles. We need to reconnect this insight with our practice. Focusing on what a whanau needs to thrive is often a more productive approach than calculating the risk that parents pose to their children (Featherstone, Gupta, Morris, & Warner, 2016).

Child protection can do more than the dirty work of neoliberal social hygiene. We are over-organised and paralysed by the all-consuming focus on nothing but individual risk and our anxiety about the consequences of getting this wrong. We need to trust our practice skills. We need to better understand how the big picture of social power and resources pans out in the lives of citizen service users, including the effects of isolation, racism, prejudice, stigma and shame. We can do this by building trust rather than creating fear; by getting close to the lives of people rather than assessing their danger from a distance. This respectful engagement allows insight into the way in which pressures associated with poverty impact upon communication, choices, relationships, resistance and the possibilities for change (Krumer-Nevo, 2017). We need to listen and speak our truth – not somebody else’s clinical language.

The credibility of the neoliberal project is beginning to unravel, although I fear it will have a long and dangerous tail. I am hoping to provoke people to think about where child and family social work should stand. Do we want to be part of the solution to poverty and inequality or are we happy to be part of the problem?

Image credit: MrHayata



Cree, V. (2013). New practices of empowerment, in Grey, M.& Webb, S.A. (Eds.). The new politics of social work. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave MacMillan.

Davidson, G., Bunting, L., Bywaters, P., Featherstone, B., & McCartan, C. (2017). Child welfare as Justice: Why we are not addressing inequalities.  British Journal of Social Work, 47 (6) 1641-1651.

Dominelli, L. (2004). Social work: Theory and practice for a changing profession. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Expert Panel – Modernising child, youth and family (2015) – Final Report. Wellington, NZ :NZ Govt.

Featherstone, B., Gupta, A., Morris, K., & Warner, J. (2016). Let’s stop feeding the risk monster: Towards a social model of child protection. Families Relationships and Societies. ISSN  20467443  

Fox-Harding, L. (1997). Perspectives in child care policy, London, UK: Longman

Garrett, P. (2013). Social work and social theory: Making connections. Bristol, UK: Policy Press.      

Grey, M., & Webb, S.A. (Eds.). (2013) The new politics of social work. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave MacMillan.

Gillies, V., Edwards, R., & Horsley, N. (2017). Challenging the politics of early intervention – Who’s ‘saving’ children and why. Bristol, UK: Policy Press.

Hyslop, I. (2017). Child protection in New Zealand: A history of the future. British Journal of Social Work, 47 (6) 1800 – 1817.

Krumer-Nevo, M. (2017). Poverty and the political: Wrestling the political out of and into social work theory, research and practice. European Journal of Social Work20 (6), 811-822.

Parton, N. (2014). The politics of child protection: Contemporary developments and future directions. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave MacMillan.

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

Warner, J. (2004). The emotional politics of social Work in child protection. Bristol, UK: Policy Press.


6 replies on “A new paradigm for child protection practice”

Thanks once again, for telling the story like it is! re “the neo-liberal project is beginning to unravel,” ( let’s hope so!) ” although I fear it will have a long and dangerous tail” which is firmly embedded in the wider NZ community mindset. This is where the battle front line is taking place?
Symptoms of this are the increasing militarization of Police, and a process driven social service administration. Administration has less to do with ameliorating the living conditions of people on low incomes, and becoming more a matter of social control/containment of the recipients and managing any resources that control may produce than a matter of social justice, equality and fair distribution of resources. Privatization/commodification of social services is another way of creating an exploitable resource, generating profit by doing business.
The original welfare safety net was enabled as a response to the fact that the world had filled up and there was nowhere to transport “the poor” to get them out of the way of civilization, and allowing for the reorganization of new technology for greater production and creating new infrastructure for the next era in human development. A long series of escalating wars and colonization was beginning to be ineffective at maintaining the economic and social status quo. A rising tide of angered and expanding population of working people gained enough political and social power to demand change.
The western world’s policy of child ‘rescue and transportation’ was also beginning to fail, finally breaking down altogether in the 1960s. Families were beginning to be able to reunite.
The “resurgence of child-rescue-driven practice in what might be described as late-neoliberal times amounts to the state being mobilized on behalf of the market ” is just that. Using the “poverty as child abuse” platform which fitted presisly into the neo-liberal mindset, the state has found new ways to break down family ties and resilience of those social groups which threaten the inequality which is the backbone of ne-oliberal wealth distribution. The children of the poor are a resource. Their parents are less of a resource. – Because inequality is growing does not mean that it is not supported by a considerable section of the population as a ‘good’ thing. Approximately 2/3rds of the population in developed western countries (including in NZ) benefit from inequality. Many of those people approve of authoritarian welfare delivery- they view it as a wall of protection for their own interests.
I have just had a discussion with someone about the new social housing policy, during which it occurred to me that the emotive arguments being used to justify restructuring of the provision of public housing in NZ absolutely reinforces the stigma which separates “respectable home owners” from less than worthy “residential renters”. People who are identified with being eligible for public and social housing are generally treated by the wider community with a mixture of condescension, skepticism and suspicion within the communities in which the housing is located. Because of this, social and public housing recipients are vulnerable to community instigated harassment. Freedom of association is severely restricted. It is difficult to lead a ‘normal’ life in this environment.
In this way the Real Estate industry is co-opted into manipulating wealth distribution. One critique offered to the new government is that aside from it’s “warm fuzzy” approach to housing issues, states that social housing be created (which is the transfer of the responsibility for public housing and the rights to eligibility out of government responsibility) and into public acceptance of policies which focus on “the most needy” in our community, (which translates to singling out social groups who are defined as having special needs to which the corporate charities gravitate as a way of continued justification for access to philanthropic and taxpayer funding to maintain themselves as service providers) and also prioritize the needs of first home buyers- ie people who already have access to wealth enough to have access to enough wealth to provide a home deposit and be eligible for mortgage finance. The NZ publicly supplied housing was never intended to create access to a home for every poor person in NZ. The reality of this is reflected in NZ history. The existence of NZ public housing has been under attack on multiple fronts from its conception. People who have access to neither are either left to flounder until they join either first home buyers or sink to being part of the “most needy” social group. Under the incoming neo -liberal regime, people who belong to the “most needy” social group are unlikely to be able to be left in peace to parent.
The proportion of people who are well off and whose expressed conscience presents a challenge to this status quo, who do care about the rise of inequality, are often seen as counterproductive and ‘dangerous’. Creating opportunity for a conversation about social justice outside of justification for the “less eligibility” mindset with someone who is not convinced about the reality of social justice becomes like pulling teeth. Even in a democracy it is always a power struggle to even out inequality with justice. Neo liberalism is the same as plain old Liberalism – a dictatorship to manage the poor in the making busy trying out its new toolbox…

This is both interesting and telling as far as social work is concerned. Unfortunately the ‘Expert’ panel review had no sense of what social work is or what it is about and they were more than happy to simply rescue children and transport them to loving homes. All fixed.
I am not so sure that neoliberalism is unravelling, I wish it was but the signs from governments around the world and from the alt right populist responses suggests to me that this will provide a fertile ground for neoliberal economic and managerial work to continue, at least in the foreseeable future. That said, is there a possible point of rupture in the ways in which the change of government is positioning the state , state responses to such core issues as child poverty, the sense that budgets are more than just economics. And does the renaming or Oranga Tamariki portend anything more than a name change. Not sure, but I do know that there is a different environment currently and room for committed social justice based social work to reassert itself, and if needs be test the space in the current environment.

Kia Ora Mike

Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I should have said that neoliberalism is a set of ideas that make inequality appear natural and legitimate – an ideology that gets into our heads and tells us that aggressive capitalism and human development are the same thing … And that it seems to me (from my own little privileged corner of the world) that this old lie is becoming less and less credible. You are right that a look at global geopolitics probably tells a different story but I agree that in Aotearoa there is a window now for new visions and practices of social work that re-think social justice.
At the risk of being a bit glib – change involves ourselves – How does power work? / what do social workers do? – Challenging and invigorating times I reckon.


It is a sad but understandable fact that there is a large, and growing sector of NZ that doesn’t give a rat’s rarzoo about the welfare of NZers living in poverty, and a good proportion of those actually approve. Due to psycho-neo liberal propaganda, many of those belonging to the “left behind” social group support this regime, over solidarity with their peers.
This could be a reason why….
Sure its about UK, but-as it says in the article, this social services delivery pathway is an import. Universal home ownership is a cornerstone of family development and wellbeing particularly for the working population. This has been under attack for a long time. Even in its heyday, the universal home ownership pathway failed to deliver universal access to a home for everyone. The institutional approach in the form of public housing, and institutional care was still needed. In the face of government and business withdrawal from social responsibility, the statistic below show a stark reality.
Take a look at these stats-
…and these are nearly a decade old.
Access to housing is a cornerstone of population welbeing and survival. Multiple grass roots social justice action is now emerging to promote “renters rights”. But, unlike historical movements in the 19th century the social structures of friendly societies, unions etc no longer exist. The NZ landlord is likely to be a “mum and dad” cottage industry, and efforts to promote social justice for “renters’ is likely to favor the corporate PPP “Carillion”model. (Carillion is a British multinational facilities management and construction services company).
Through the lens of “child poverty” the social status of the ordinary first family has been identified as a “dangerous” environment to bring up children. Organized foster care has been transformed into a business resource with parenting being identified and resourced as a career path.
In NZ, widespread social acceptance of reducing the social status of “first family” has effectively removed the issue of maintaining ‘first family solidarity from social services delivery prerogatives regarding “children’s welfare”, and therefore from the social justice argument for access to housing as a “human right”.
This move has weakened the rights of ordinary people to social justice in service provision, and this is reflected in the way the Real Estate industry governs access to housing. It is not illegal, and no longer considered unconscionable to deny services and block access to essential resources to increasing numbers of the NZers. Social acceptance of this reality also makes it difficult for people to ask for and receive help.
“Carillion” is a British multinational facilities management and construction services company headquartered in Wolverhampton in the United Kingdom.
The administration model described in the article about the collapse of Carillion, is absolutely the preferred social services administration model being promoted by NZ political leaders, governments and their corporate sponsors. Its marketed as “common sense”, which creates a challenging environment for promoting any other social service provision pathway. For an organization to challenge this social construction they have to literally buy into it, and provide their own services. Many former social justice organizations have already done so in NZ, and therefore arguably are lost to the creation of genuine social solidarity for universal social justice.
The recent welfare reforms which treat child welfare and the welfare of people with disabilities are absolutely in step with progressing NZ social services distribution towards using the “Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and Local Improvement Finance Trust (LIFT)” contracts style social service provision model. Supporting and promoting early interventionalism into family welfare government policy, especially when foster care services are used over support for first families doesn’t just let business and government off the hook regarding social obligation, but also creates valuable returns when, through the administration of those members of the “left behind’ NZ community into an exploitable human resource and separates them as a social group, from access to democratic processes.
Hope this isn’t too long for you Ian, hope you can use this information.

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