Child Protection Visions – Sticks, Carrots and Care

Looking at the budget announcement of a new specialist support service delivered from 5 Oranga Tamariki sites “employing family/whanau support workers to support children and young people who are at risk of harm to be safe in their home”, I am pleased to see that at least some form of initiative has come to pass, albeit 3.5 years out from the Expert Panel recommendation for an intensive intervention programme. Having said that, this response remains seriously underwhelming. It reflects the inability of Oranga Tamariki and the current Government to get its priorities right in relation to child protection social work. In this post I will consider some of the challenges in moving child protection practice from a statutory care focus to a social work support focus. I will also explore some of the tensions arising from the conflicted legislative mandate within which this particular specialist support service will operate.

I believe that the intent of state social work should be to support people (children and their whanau/family groups) who are in need and at risk of harm. This should be the core business rather than an innovative side-line. On the contrary, what we are seeing is a systematic re-focusing on state care as the central task of Oranga Tamariki. I understand the drivers for this. State care has an abysmal track record. We have damaged the lives of too many children and their families, especially whanau Maori. State care needs to be improved and it needs be adequately funded. However, this is not an appropriate recipe for the development of enlightened state social work. Puao te Ata Tu told us this. As the Australian social work academic Dorothy Scott graphically pointed out over a decade ago, the state in loco parentis is a cold breast and a dry nipple. You can’t fix things that are fundamentally flawed.

Let’s compare some figures. We are told that $33.2 million dollars will be directed to this new specialist service which will support 150 high risk families. By comparison, $450.00 million will be spent on ‘transforming’ the care system, including recruiting and supporting high quality caregivers. A further $70 million will go to educational, recreational and sporting resources to support young people in care and $153.00 million will be spent over your years to fund a new transition from care service. To reiterate, I am not saying care spending is not needed but I am saying that supporting high needs families to prevent entry in to care is not being prioritised and resourced as it could and should be.

Some of the spoken and unspoken arguments against state social workers engaging with the support of high needs families are as follows. This kind of practice hasn’t worked – children have still come in to care and children have been hurt or even killed: state social work should be about a strong child protection focus. Family support is best delivered by NGOs where trust can be developed because whanau are intimidated by the power and practice history of state social workers. The third element of this sort of argument is that the only way that whanau support services for Maori will be effective is if they are delivered by Iwi.

Now, I have a lot of time for these positions, apart from the first one. If effectiveness of past practice is the yardstick for resource commitment, the state should have bailed out of care provision long ago. Effective support work for high needs families can be delivered by state social workers. I have seen this done. An engaged understanding of risk is one of the things that means such practice can be competently undertaken by OT social workers. I agree that preventative and family support services must be delivered in partnership with NGOs. This is where much of the expertise in this practice field resides.  There is also no reason why state social work for Maori could not be devolved to Iwi in the longer run but we are talking about major funding, huge political will and probably constitutional transformation in Aotearoa New Zealand if we are serious about this. In the meantime, the state has the money and the authority, and the real money is going into care services.

Finally, a brief look at some of the tensions which the revised OT Act will bring to statutory practice generally and intensive support work specifically. The paternalistic right-wing Expert Panel (EAP) Review and the associated back lash against the draconian implications of the first drafts of legislative reform have left us with a complex and potentially conflicted mix of legal principles to be balanced and applied in practice. In the amended Section 4 (Purposes) we still have the injunction to ensure that “where children and young persons require care under the Act, they have – (i) a safe, stable and loving home from the earliest opportunity; and (ii) support to address their needs.” This concept was generated by the misapprehension that state care was an end game – a place where trauma could be healed, and citizens repaired in order to make them cost free into the future. However, this is now tempered by many competing considerations – the recognition of mana tamaiti (tamarki), whakapapa, the practice of whanaungatanga and the strengthening of family relationships.

Such tensions are, of course, inherent to the complex practice of child protection social work. The general principles set down in the amended section 5 and the specific child protection principles in Section 13 reflect this ambiguity. There is now an added injunction to place the well-being of children at the centre of decision making in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, the weight of the sub-sections which follow remain essentially whanau-centred – seeing the rights of the child as nested in the identity of whanau, as originally envisaged in Puao te Ata Tu.

The EAP early permanent care focus can still be discerned. It been substantially watered down but not eradicated altogether. For my purposes here, the key sub-section is 13(2)(i)(f) … “if a child or young  person is identified by the department as being at risk of removal from the care of the members of their family, whanau, hapu, iwi, or family group who are the child’s or young person’s usual caregivers, planning for the child’s or young person’s long term-stability and continuity of living arrangements should – (i) commence early; and (ii) include steps to make an alternative care arrangement for the child or young person …”.  Although the section goes on to suggest a priority for placement with wider whanau, this legal requirement means that the intensive support services that are delivered will rest on a stick and carrot or ‘threat-based’ practice approach: work with us or you will lose your kids and more than that we are legally obliged to make alternative plans for the long term care of your children while we are working with you.

I am not convinced that this framework provides the best basis for constructive engagement with high needs families who are impacted by multiple social stresses, poverty and historical disrespect. The constructive use of legal authority has its place, but social workers should be working alongside people rather than standing over them. In conclusion I believe that the primary focus of policy and practice development must be on stemming entry to care rather than making care work. Future funding and practice design must reflect this intent. We need to rewrite the narrative in my view – state care should be infrequent and brief.

Image Credit: vistavision

4 replies on “Child Protection Visions – Sticks, Carrots and Care”

Well said Ian,

I have been banging on for some years now about the increased creep of “Official Decision Making” based on the supposed logic of 1. Safety 2.Early intervention 3.Attachment 4.Permanency. Put them together you get increased numbers in care and earlier emergency uplifts of C or YP. With reduced family involvement initially they then have to fight against to undo the professionals “safety concerns”.

OT and the expert panel have taken us back to the Anne Hercus “officials know best” Children and Young Persons bill of 1987-88. That then was roundly rejected and here we are again making this possible through a slide of many years of not applying and maintaining the principles of the CYP&F act. To have the money now being offered to enable the Act to have been developed and applied as it had been intended would have had us in a very different place and not be utilising new processes to capture C&YP. The killing off of Maatua Whangai and the intended plans under the CYP&F Act 1989 for greater IWI involvement were lost opportunities and it sadly seems like the desire to recreate these or similar opportunities are as you infer “add-ons” to the overall plan of more state intervention.

Good to hear from you John – yes, we had the opportunity for real solid Iwi Social Services a long time ago and what a farce the bureaucrats made of that e hoa! Yep a lot of time, energy and money goes in to the OT hierarchy spinning a narrative to suit – enough to feed several impoverished families for years I would suspect – history is quickly forgotten so alternative voices are very important. Thanks for your input.


Thank you Ian for holding imagination
Society must assume it is stable however the artistic skill in social working (social work is informed by art and science) must know both this assumption, and must let us know that there is nothing stable under heaven. Art exposes the very nature of our unstable lives while in this very act simultaneously touches the eternal, the universal. It is though imagination that we becalm the ‘momentary tumults against the raging ocean that has washed and will always wash, the shoreline of the human spirit’ (Popova in 1st 2017). The artistic thinker is the carrier of imagination-seen also as the spirit that draws four walls of the house together as one shelter

Has social work policy and practice suffered because our capacity for imagination has been over looked, ever actively impoverished? “Imagination for individuals and in a cultural knowledge of a profession, loses reality as it ceases to adhere to what is real…for there are degrees of the imagination, as for example, degrees of vitality and therefore, of intensity. It is an implication that there are degrees of reality” It is a function of the imaginative or creative spirit to protect its interior integrity from the weight and intense declaration of reality, that place where increasingly contemplation is excluded and the impermanence of a future suggested. Consider how reality is sustained in The Daily Hourly News flashed through television screens in our homes. What therefore is the role of the imaginative spirit in work (Smith, G., personal communication, 2012). Smith suggests that if we may imagine ourselves differently we may become different in how and what we are to our self and the other

That one of the peculiarities of imagination that is explicit at the end of an era. Are we there yet, I hear? Imagination attaches itself to a new reality and adhere to it. Reality exist for individuals according to the circumstances of their lives, the characteristics with which they reason. The pressure of reality is a determined feature in the artistic character of an era and a person. It is the resistance to this pressure or evasion avoidance to the pressure with folk of extraordinary imagination which endures, and offers capacities into the imagining of ourselves and our way of being. Has this meant we cannot centre our self…we are no longer where our spirit has footing?… where ancestors speak of enduring ways to us? Does imagination resides with spirited passionate social work? How well as a profession do we welcome the analysis and passion that calls out: That ‘The Emperor has no Clothes/or is missing imagination?’ I too remember how the time of Puao Te Ata Tu (1986) was one of reimagining. I propose that the value in imagination understood in practices empower Statutory social worker and their Practice culture in the authority and skills required to notice, critique, to care and hope so the children/kin whom they work for may know they are seen, enabled into stability, and invited into the ongoing engagement of richness connected to kin, land, cultural ancestors and their dreams.

Kia ora Merrill

Thanks. I guess imagination is always the spark when we are talking about visions for a world as it could be rather than as it is.

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