The spotlight is on us- an apology is due

Lesley Max’s book ‘Children: An endangered species’ in 1990 opened the eyes of many in Aotearoa NZ to the horror of child abuse. And in a recent story on Newsroom Max expressed her feelings about how little has changed. In this post I’m not saying that we can’t do so much better because we have to!  Social workers must apologise when we do wrong and take responsibility for poor practice in our name and work to fix the systems that hamper good work. We have to stand up for a human rights-based social work against the orders of risk averse managers. As a social work educator and researcher I want our students and graduates to go into systems that support the best practice.  We can’t let overwork and scarce resources become an excuse for not treating whānau with respect and kindness. We have to fight for much better support for families. We have to ensure that practice is principled, honest and can stand the spotlight. It is time for child protection in Aotearoa to be more transparent, see for example the UK based Transparency Project.

With that said, I’ve been thinking over the last few days about the massive outpouring of anger over the ‘baby uplift’ video ‘New Zealand’s own taken generation’ . What is it about this story that has caught public attention now when these issues are not new? Criticism of child removals is certainly not new. What I see in so many of the comments from people who aren’t social workers, health professionals or lawyers is that the video has forced them to look deeply into the reality of what ‘taking children into care’ means. Most people luckily haven’t a clue. They haven’t seen it. And regardless of how it’s done it is brutal, even when many children are placed with kin, it’s still a traumatic rupture. Because child abuse is brutal. Neglect and deprivation are horrible.

So, when there is a child death it’s easy for commentators on every story to call ‘take their children, sterilise them, lock them up’ and so forth. They don’t see a traumatised young mother. They don’t see how imperfect ‘care’ is. And, as in the current situation, it is easy to talk about social workers ‘stealing’ babies if you’ve never seen babies with head injuries. Because child abuse and the ‘uplift’ process may be abstract if you’ve never seen it. Never seen the pain.

Child removal is something terrible that you know happens, but off to one side, not in the centre of your gaze. Something raw and searing that you don’t want to think about as you cuddle your own children.

Lesley Max’s book shocked the middle classes in the 1990s. It foregrounded the incredible work being done on implementing the 1989 legislation that was meant to guarantee and centre whānau decision- making (see Miriama Scott for a review) after the challenges about institutional racism in the DSW. And now Max is asking what went wrong? Thinking about the way child abuse stories flare up and die down may help us to understand why so many people are so very angry about the Newsroom video that sparked this current outpouring of distress, and why the story is not going away.

It’s awful for social work as an entire profession to face this rage but we forget sometimes how insulated so many people are from seeing poverty, inadequate housing, terrible health inequalities and the sheer brutalising of P and alcohol addiction. So it’s easy for the sheltered people to be devastated by child removals because their own experience is so different. And they haven’t been hearing the bad news about the disproportionate impact on Māori whānau.

Māori commentators have been trying to get wider awareness for a long time. Why weren’t you listening when Māori have been talking about this for years? (Parahi, 2019).  When Māori have been so vocal about the ongoing nature of abuse in state care?  (Cleaver, 2019) Why weren’t you listening when so many people with expertise were warning about the direction of Anne Tolley’s (non) expert panel in 2015? Many social workers also think what took you all so long to notice? Why weren’t all the journalists, with the award-winning horror shows and stories, noticing then that child protection was being redesigned  over 2015-16 to fit a right wing child rescue agenda?

So, this last week the scales have been lifted off the eyes of many of those sheltered from the painful reality of child protection. Maybe one good thing that can come of this bonfire of justifiable outrage is a really good case to fund alternatives to children going ‘into care’.  An inquiry has been announced today. First, let’s apologise properly for harm done.  Let’s listen to Māori about what resources they need to stop this ongoing tragic loss, and act on what they say.  Let’s massively expand support services for families, not just run a few pilots. Spend the millions on prevention, not growing foster care services / ‘trauma informed ‘care to ‘fix’ people our own systems have screwed up. Let’s drop the individualising and toxic obsession with neuroscience and resource social workers to support whānau, work closely with aunties and nanas, ensure families have food and a washing machine in their dry, safe affordable house. Let’s  look wider and work together to stop the punitive, intrusive and downright aggressive processes in WINZ, that trample on people’s dignity.

It might cost twice as much but if it keeps babies with their mamas it’s worth it. So much more use than us banging on about trauma and ACEs checklists when we’re part of systems manufacturing trauma.  I’m sorry we’re in this place. Let’s work now to make this the moment everything changed.


10 replies on “The spotlight is on us- an apology is due”

Thanks Liz, I’ve been mulling over this awful week and it’s taken me a few days too to decide what I think in amongst the confronting Newsroom story and aftermath. Actually your piece pretty much reflects where I’ve got to too – as a starting point we need universal services that honour all children and their families and whānau, we need social policies that place people first, that rapidly attend to the poverty so many are forced to live in, the housing issues and therefore the additional stresses experienced by so many families. And yes, we finally need to honour the intent and spirit of Puao-te-atatu and work out how we tau iwi as treaty partners can better support Māori aspirations for their babies and whānau. Māori voices have been sidelined for too long. They need to be centre.

In 1985 a Govt survey of all females in State custody in Prisons or Dept Social Welfare reported about 70% giving first disclosures of being sexually abused before into custody. In Specialist Services Units ( multidisciplinary), as Child & Youth & Forensic Psychiatrist, I was consulted by Senior Social workers, in Offices, Kingslea Home, Family Group conferences, on Child Protectioen Committee, with
Foster Parents, and working in Maatua Whangai with Paramount Chipef of Ngai Tahu, and , doing reports for all Courts, and expert evidence, and was Chair of Foundation ChCh Family Court Assoc . After hearing many females and males re their derogatory voices in their heads, etc, in 1980s I diagnosed PTSD, and helped get ACC Sensitive Claims Counselling. I led lobbying that persuaded Geoffrey Palmer to establish Kia Marama Prison Unit for sexual offenders. I found it very hard ro get PTSD recognised in Psych Hospitals or Community. It had 50% co- morbid depression and higher suicide rate.
DSW Specialist Service Units were made redundant..
All new parents need access to free supportive parenting local centres with their child from aged 3 months. They should receive financial incentive to attend. Prof Fraser Mustard in Canada showed benefits for those children through their school years.
We need early interventions in each child’s first 1000 days, decided on “best interests of the child”.

Thanks Liz, for articulating the need for a reappraisal of current social work ideals under this new dammed structure. I agree with Jude that going back to honoring Puao-te-atatu and the values held within that document to focus on the rights of children to be placed first in decision making using strength based practice.
What will it take to acknowledge and support initiatives that allow Social Workers to stand beside Maori whanau to become providers and protectors of tamariki? Here’s a idea how about funding programs that are community based, culturally safe and provide wrap around services to hold and nurture whanau or will that take too many $$$$$’s?

Thank you, another great article providing a bigger Overview that is balanced and looks at the whole system that has been a part of the design for the processes that are currently in place. No Social Worker ever wants to take a child into care. Our Code of Ethics states that we, as SW’s should take the least form of compulsion necessary when working with service users.
I fail to see how ‘not one more Maori baby taken into care’ can truly be achieved when our child abuse rates in Aotearoa NZ are so high. A child dies approx every 6 weeks in this country due to abuse, lets shine the spotlight on these figures and work on getting these figures down. Then the children in care rates will also come down. I am pleased about the discussion this has raised and hope that it can bring about positive change for whanau.
We need intensive in-home services to support our families in their homes. They need more than a 1 hour visit, once a week or fortnight to be truly effective and support good parenting.


We were wisely alerted to the insidious creep of neoliberal capitalist ideals into the arena of ‘social work’ brought about by the ‘Expert Panel’ review.

But did we not notice how the ‘professionalization’ of Social Work has priviledged the voice of those who have access to sufficent social capital to attend University, undertake 4 years of study, including two three month unpaid placements, and graduate, above the voice of whanau, Hapu and Iwi?

Have the ‘gaslighting’ practices (which I believe are deeply embedded in the culture, structure and function of Oranga Tamariki due to it’s role as an agent of the State), survived despite review, reorganisation, and rebranding, effectively extinquishing the ethics and silencieng the voices of Social Workers who go there, stay there and strive to keep children and young people safe?

Did we not notice how the creep moved to a crawl with the inclusion of ‘toxic neuroscience’ woven into the design and institution of the primary assessment tool Oranga Tamariki mandated Social Workers to use to determine the capacity and suitability of caregivers to meet the needs of and provide safety for their children or young people?

Did we not ‘see’ how the collection and use of ‘personal information’ under the mandate of ‘data analytics’ has contributed to the identification of ‘feral’ whanau, identifying them as ‘meeting criteria’ for scare and poorly resourced assistance to ‘reform’ them?

And do we now ‘see’ how the institution of the current ‘information sharing’ legislations removes whanau’s opportunity to seek assistance from social services with some protection of their right to privacy as they seek help in personal struggles? .

Yes, there are children and young people being raised in Aotearo New Zealand in circumstances that put them at risk of serious harm. Yes, there is personal accountability for parents responsible for thier care and protection. There is a mandate for the State to intervene, and in some circumstances this is imperative.

It is equally imperative that the social work profession work to ensure that children and young people in need of care and protection, and their whanau have access to Social Workers who are supported and required to meet the competencies required by the SWRB, to stand by their Code of Ethics, to advocate for whanau’s rights, strive for social justice and who are not are not subjugated to political ideaologies.

Thanks Jenny- there’s a great deal to think about in your comment. It has felt like a battle on so many fronts as you say. We’ve been lucky to have researchers like Emily Keddell interrogating the impact of using ‘big data’ in approaches like the PRM in child protection which is sadly rolling out in other jurisdictions. We need to research and write about the impacts of all these tools that seem to be produced relentlessly. One of the problems I see is that social workers themselves are hampered from their own critical analysis of what they are asked to do by a lack of time and access to read research and critical social policy analysis. So tend to take on trust the ‘latest’ heavily diluted training which is reduced to talking points in a rushed event. But that’s a subject for another blog.

It is a profoundly difficult environment in which to practice Social Work . The lack of time for critical analysis and lack of access to research is combined with an inundation of institutionaly created ‘training’ to accommodate the latest changes required to meet performance standards……

Whilst likely to be highly uncomfortble for those involved, a review of practice must be welcomed – thats how organisations learn….

Kia ora Liz,

Thank you for your well balanced response to a very long, complex and torturous saga which is the child protection system in Aotearoa. One point where I don’t quite agree with you on is where you say that we need to stop “banging on about trauma” and that there is a toxic obsession with neuroscience. On the contrary, I believe that a solid understanding of trauma and a genuine trauma informed response actually leads to us challenging the very idea of “poor parenting” as we can consider the immense trauma that has been done to the whanau we work with, mostly by the State and undoubtedly by colonisation. Being trauma informed means that we understand the damage that is done by relationship ruptures, disconnection from the family unit, and the wider community. This SHOULD empower us to act holistically, providing long-term safety and support to children and their whanau, not risk-driven, “rescue” responses. If OT were truly trauma-informed, they would be spending their money on early prevention, on rehabilitation, on Iwi empowerment, the list goes on and on!

So my point is that we should bang on about trauma and neuroscience, and we should apply it consistently to all that we engage with! I agree that it has been misused. But we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. This is integral to seeing whanau treated with dignity and care. If social workers understand it fully, and apply it consistently, it can no longer be used as a tool for promoting a racist, right-wing agenda.

Thanks for your comments Bex. We’ll have to disagree about the misuse of neuroscience. I am not alone- there is a significant and growing critique of the increasingly wild claims of DNA changes and so forth. We’ve summarised some arguments here. The book “Blinded by science: The social implications of epigenetics and neuroscience’ by David Wastell and Susan White is essential reading if we are to understand the impact of science being misapplied in current social policy.
But more fundamentally for me I fear that what we can call neuro-neoliberalism is distracting us from focusing where we need to focus-the ravages of capitalism, where we have seen the wealthy get wealthier while real incomes for working class people fall. The ongoing and seemingly intensifying misogyny that see women’s reproductive rights eroded by rich old men whose perverted religion oppresses and ultimately kills. The double impacts of class and racism that have seen profit gouging businesses create income and housing precarity, lethal for many working class communities Māori, Pasifika,and others.
In Aaron Smale’s excellent article today he provides a historical overview of postwar Māori material circumstances:

…the second/third generation [of Māori ] after the post-war urbanisation and they were being hammered again….What also changed was those communities became targeted and punished further for their poverty, material and spiritual, by the very government agencies that were set up as a safety net. Those agencies were no longer a safety net but a drag net to capture people who were not “performing”.

I have no objection to deepening helping professionals’ understanding of the potential impacts of traumatic events. I grasped that way back in the 1980s in my social work education without a whiff of neuroscience.I do object to the bizarre obsession with ACEs. As both Eileen Joy and I have noted in earlier comments, such frameworks are being applied in ways never intended by their original developers. So I would throw out many of the current faddish preoccupations. Neuroscience will not help us to get past this moment where we are under the spotlight. Profound and painfully honest discussion of how we can work for deep social change to address the deepening of class inequalities together might.

Publication of the ‘uplift’ video has succeeded in exposing this issue to the public at long last in ways which compassion cannot be silenced.
From the Dominion Post this week , and responding to public reactions * The author, who does not want to be named, is a family lawyer in the North Island.
“….If you are lucky enough to not be faced with these issues, you are privileged and you have a duty to use that privilege to help those without.
….Drug reform? More supportive live-in facilities for new parents? More stopping violence education? Further Māori education?
…..( We need to ) have a think about how you(we) can become an ally to improve our culture for the sake of our children. * The author, who does not want to be named, is a family lawyer in the North Island.

Where is the support program and facilities for parents and children who need extra support, perhapsa period of extended residential care?, during the pregnancy and birth process?
Traditionally, in most cultures support was provided by family, mothers, as new grandparents rallied to support the new mother in the home postpartum. Increasingly that support has been compromised, by social reaction to ‘welfare crisis’ propaganda, combined with the demonization of a vulnerable social group, eg sole mothers, and the ‘valorizing’ of an approved social group, eg foster carers, public are moved emotionally rather than cognitively to support the status quo, but also public thinking polarizes, in support of persecuting sole mothers, their partners and their children.
Lifestyle changes imposed on families from within labor and commercial markets also erodes the ability of the wider family to support sole mothers. Many employers, and social policy creators often ‘drag the chain’ (for whatever reason including laziness) when implementing ‘family friendly’ welfare eligibility and workplace administrative options. They form lobby groups and insist on dragging out and filibustering arguments for reform unless it fits their narrative, which is often self-serving.

In many ways the mother at the center of the publicized OT uplift was fortunate to be able to rally family support. It is clear that without this the interview would never have happened. The administration model imposed upon OT by the regulations is similar to that traditionally used for administering services for people whose life is placed under regulation of the Mental Health Act. Mental health is often called upon when social workers are dealing with an ‘uplift’ situation. Any emotional reaction by a relinquishing family can be viewed through a ‘mental health/domestic abuse risk’ lens, which is commensurate with ‘risk averse’ social policy. The issues which arise for people caught up in these protocols can be very difficult and stressful to explain to lay people. Under this regime it is easy for stressed fund-starved social services to fall into rationing these services, and misapplying such principles as (for example) “the scrounger narrative”.

In the past,cultural norms in Pakeha culture mean that many ‘child relinquishments were instigated by a young single mother’s family, unwilling to support her. Protocols existed where the family would not and in many cases could not support any other pathway for the parent concerned. It was made difficult for a single woman to keep her child. The family support for this single mother such as we saw in the Hawkes Bay incident was (historically) mostly non – existent in Western Culture, and even now cannot be assumed to exist.
Faced with such circumstances many families capitulate and relinquish the child to adoption under pressure. In this instance the matter of “child protection” is separated from where the child was; with first or adoptive parents. It was only when this social policy was challenged by the advent of welfare support for sole parents that the matter of child abuse became so focused on identifying first parents as ‘at risk’ parents, and a wider view has been taken about child abuse risk factors: to the point where finally, when children who experienced foster care became adults and were in a position to have a voice, that authorities have been placed in a “zero-choice” situation. The demonization of sole mothers, and the ‘valorizing’ of foster care all contributed to this ‘crisis’.
Until relatively recently bias sensitivity training was non-existent. The community also needs to consider the needs of OT professionals, especially the needs of frontline social workers. Bias sensitivity training could be a major support for caseworkers and enable new approaches to safety issues for children and young people.(Abridged by moderator)

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