Hard to get into, but harder to get out of: understanding recent trends in child protection

Examination of basic trends in child protection statistics provide insight into the overall functioning of the child protection system. Statistical trends are the ‘canaries down the mine’ of child protection systems, showing how policy changes, practice changes and social conditions are playing out in the child protection domain. This blog presents statistics obtained through the Official Information Act process, as well as publicly available data, to describe patterns in contact with the child protection system. It also provides some speculative commentary as to the causes of emerging trends. As these statistics are gathered from several sources, time periods differ and in places direct comparisons may not be possible. Nevertheless, the clear pattern is one of a care system hard to get into, but even harder to get out of, and increasing inequities for Māori children and whānau.

Several major changes are evident:

Despite overall reports of concern remaining stable (at around 150,000), there has been a decrease in substantiated child abuse between 2013 and 2017, caused primarily by a large reduction in emotional abuse and neglect substantiations. The rates of emotional abuse have nearly halved, for example, from 11, 386 in 2013, to 6, 737 in 2017, and neglect from 4,957 to 3,226. Sexual abuse has dropped slightly, but physical abuse remains very stable. While reports of concern overall have remained stable, within that count, general care and protection reports have slightly reduced, while Police family violence referrals have increased steadily from 57,776 to 77, 081.

Comment: One explanation for the reducing care and protection ‘reports of concern’ is that those notifications accepted as reports of concern have to meet a higher threshold for acceptance by OT, or that certain types of cases are no longer accepted. Such sharp reductions in substantiations without equal reductions in notifications suggest that the cause is changes in the application of decision making tools at intake, leading to differences in how cases are categorized, rather than true changes in the incidence of child abuse.

There has been a marked increase in children in care, particularly those under age ten. The number of children in the custody of the Chief Executive has increased by 15% between 2013 and 2017. However, children in out of home care (not all children in the care of the Chief Executive are removed from home), have increased by 23%; an increase in the rate per 10,000 children of 19% (using the ERP child denominator*). The biggest increase is in children under the age of ten: children aged 5-9 (31% increase), then aged 2-4 (17%) and 0-1 (16%).

Comment: While I’ve heard claims that the increase is due to the raising of the age for leaving care, this is not borne out in the numbers. Even before the increase to the age of care leaving took effect (April 1 2017), care numbers and rates were increasing. More recent increases may well reflect the increase in age. As those with custody orders are increasing more slowly than children in out of home care, it appears that remain home or return home placements, in the context of custody orders, are losing popularity. This may be reflected the next point.

Although overall the numbers of children in care have increased, entries to care have reduced 2013 – 2018 by 10%. When we look at exits however, these have reduced much more sharply, by 34%.

Comment: This shows that the increase in the overall number of children in care is not due to more children entering care, but those who do staying in it for longer. This appears a direct consequence of the intention clearly stated in the expert panel report, that children should be removed earlier and permanency established more quickly. While stability and children’s timeframes are important, so are family connections, relationships and rights.

In the overall care numbers, Māori disproportionality continues to rise, with an increase in rates from 100 per 10,000 in 2012, to 132 per 10,000 in 2017.

Comment: Despite the fierce battles over the inclusion of Māori whānau rights in the legislation, this is not having the desired effect, as disproportionality is increasing, not decreasing. Whether this reflects the over-exposure of Māori communities to risk factors, or direct bias, or lack of prevention services, needs careful untangling (Keddell & Hyslop, 2019).

There has been a sharp increase in babies removed. In the time period 2015 – 2018, there was an increase of 33%, or a rate increase per 10,000 births from 35 to 46 (2015- 2018). Before, this, numbers were fairly stable between 2010 (210 babies removed) and 2015 (211 babies removed).

Comment: This increase clearly coincides with the policy reform began in 2015 with the modernising panel report and birth of Oranga Tamariki. However, it does not appear to be directly caused by the ‘subsequent children’ legislative changes, as only 1 baby removed in 2017, and 4 in 2018, were removed under this provision. It’s possible, however, that the spirit, if not the letter of the law has affected practice. The assumption that earlier system contact or removal should be considered a major risk factor may be shaping practice, even if the ‘subsequent child’ category is not being pursued legally. It may also reflect judicial reluctance to use this section.

The disproportionality of Māori is especially concerning in newborn removals. Māori baby removals are driving the overall increase, with newborn removals in 2018 at the rate of 102 per 10,000 births, compared to the non-Māori rate of 24 per 10,000 births. The non-Māori rate has been stable since 2015 at 23-24 per 10,000 births, suggesting that the brunt of the increase is borne by Māori communities. The Pacific baby removal rate has not increased – both sole Pacific and Pacific-Māori baby removal rates are stable 2015 – 2018.

Comment: For comparison, there was an outcry in England recently due to the rate of baby removals over the last ten years doubling to 35 per 10,000 births – but our overall rate is much higher at 46, and for Maori, now very high at 102/10,000. This should shock us, especially considering the many inclusions in the Oranga Tamariki Act amendments purportedly to address Māori concerns and the long history of inequities for Māori in the child protection system.

There are large regional differences in newborn removal rates, for example Auckland had an increase of 46% between 2016 and 2018, but the southern region had a small decline.

Comment: Regional and site variability can be extreme in all child protection data, suggesting sites themselves practice differently, as well as reflecting inequalities in NGO service provision and the populations each site responds to (Keddell & Davie, 2018, Keddell & Hyslop 2016).

There is a large increase in the use of kinship placement to provide care, up by a huge 48% between 2013 – 2017, while non kin care placements increased by only 5%, and residential placements reduced.

Comment: At least this commitment to whānau and kinship care is clearly in evidence. Ensuring good supports for kinship carers is essential.

What does all this mean, and why is it happening? We need a clear research project to really answer that question, but my informed guesses are as follows. It’s clear that while substantiations drop and entries to care have dropped, once children get through this higher threshold, they are likely to stay in care for longer. At this interface, it appears entry to OT has been tightened, reflecting an effort to only accept the most serious cases of abuse. Once they are accepted however, it appears that the focus is on investigation and a tougher, more authoritarian ‘child protection’ response (Gilbert et al., 2011).

The multiple causes of the increases in care can be understood as factors affecting the ‘demand side’ – those factors increasing demand for OT services; and factors on the ‘supply’ side – those factors relating to how OT responds to that demand. On the demand side, some of the increase may be grounded in the realities of increasing pressure on families themselves, with ongoing poverty/housing issues, poor access to relevant adult services, and not enough tiered support services available in the community (from general family support services, to tertiary ‘edge of care’ preventive services). There can also be poor targeting of services, for example, the need for culturally appropriate service provision, and increasing drug saturation in some communities, all of which might be pushing up real family stress and risk to children.

On the supply side, (internal OT policy and practice), there are also several reasons that appear to be key contributors. The pattern of increases reflect a confluence of several powerful discursive concepts shaping policy and practice. These concepts briefly are: the ‘safe and loving homes at the earliest possible opportunity’ (repeated ad-infinitum in the Expert Advisory Panel report) that encourages removal early and discourages returns; the individualizing influence of neo-liberal politics that focus on individual responsibility and blame (of parents); the social investment ideas of getting in early to prevent later cost (translated as removal rather than prevention service provision); and the trauma-informed/child-centered practice approaches that can obscure social understandings of family difficulties and diminish whole of family responses. Institutionalised bias, as mentioned above, can also contribute to the supply side, as Māori whānau come to be seen as inherently risky in some contexts (Keddell & Hyslop, 2019).

How knowledge is used in practice to assess risk is also influential. Assumptions about past history, for example the notion embedded in the subsequent child legislation that earlier reports/removals should result in subsequent ones, may be leading to the development of heuristics that create a sort of automatic, coded response to some family issues. If institutional cultures develop that elicit a response to past history because ‘that’s how we do it’, instead of assessments that explore how the specific family issue does/does not affect children, then knee-jerk reactions can follow. Also, if the only aim is to assess for risk, rather than work with the family to reduce risk, improve family capabilities and improve overall health, this necessarily narrows the remit of practice. Conflation of risk to the child, with risk to the perception of the agency may also be at play. All of these influences can lead to a narrow focus on the child at the expense of family support, and could be contributing to increasingly intrusive, risk averse practice decisions.

When commenting on the reforms in 2016, I wrote that: “the potential for a lack of adequate resourcing .. of prevention systems, when combined with the stronger imperative to remove children earlier and place them in permanent care arrangements, means that a strong ‘child rescue’ outcome is likely. Child rescue approaches valorise foster care despite the mixed evidence regarding its outcomes, downplay the harm of removal itself, and diminish the importance of family and community relationships. For Māori, this emphasis is likely to be particularly pernicious … In the CYF Review, this disproportionality is mentioned multiple times, yet the emphasis on swift removal as the solution shows a diminishing of the role of whānau, hapū and iwi in the review proposals. With the broad emphasis on removal as a key remedy, lack of consideration of contextual issues that also affect Māori more than other groups means that the rates of removal for Māori are likely to continue their increasing disproportionality” (Keddell, 2017, p. 26).

I wish I was wrong about this, and I’m not sure my causal attributions are correct, but this direction of travel should concern us. While OT designs the intensive intervention and prevention services that are eagerly awaited, families are losing their children into the uncertainties of the care system. The NGOs and Iwi services who have been doing prevention work for a long time need to be included in this design process, as do parents and other whānau members who have been through the system and can give a service user perspective. Addressing poverty and precarious housing arrangements also needs to remain firmly on the agenda. Resourcing adult services like drug rehabilitation, and NGO and iwi services to support families needs urgent attention. Without a multi-pronged policy approach that addresses social conditions, properly resources preventive services, and provides a ‘capabilities of the family’ rather than ‘failings of the mother’ approach to practice, these patterns will continue.

Decisions about children’s care are not easy. There are many factors to weigh up in coming to decisions to remove children. Decisions are influenced not only by the individuals making them, but the organisations, policies and institutional structures they are embedded in. Understanding how this web of influences can be untangled to reduce the recent increases is important going forward. Rapid increases should be of much concern to us all, particularly the justice issues raised by the inequities in those removals for Māori. Families, whānau and hapū, have a right to participate in the decisions made about their children – that is both a moral and legal imperative. Increasingly authoritarian removals are at odds with this.

Image credit | janneke staaks



All baby removal numbers and exits/entries to care are from various OIAs – email me if you want them

*Denominators are from NZ Stats births and the estimated resident population, (ERP) by age.

All other statistics on notifications, substantiations and children in care from this website:

Gilbert, N., et al. (2011). Child Protection Systems: International Trends and Orientations. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Hyslop, I. & Keddell, E. (2018). Outing the elephants: Exploring a new paradigm for child protection Social Work, Social Sciences, 7(7), 105.

Keddell, E. & Hyslop, I. (2016) First findings from phase one of the Child Welfare Decision-Making Variability Project: Research briefing paper. Unpublished research report, Dunedin, University of Otago.

Keddell, E. & Hyslop, I. (2019). Ethnic inequalities in child welfare: the role of practitioner risk perceptions, Child and Family Social Work, online first Jan 9th, DOI:10.1111/cfs.12620

Keddell, E., & Davie, G. (2018). Inequalities and Child Protection System Contact in Aotearoa New Zealand: Developing a Conceptual Framework and Research Agenda, Social Sciences, 7,(6) 1 – 14.

Keddell, E. (2017). The Child Youth and Family Review: A commentary on prevention. The Policy Observatory. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University of Technology. 35p. Retrieved from

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