Waiting on those inquiries – untangling child protection from capitalist economics

This one is about the politics of dispossession, poverty and incarceration in neoliberal New Zealand. It is no secret that Māori, Pasifika and working-class families generally carry a disproportionate burden of social suffering in our society. Look around you if you don’t believe me. We need to dismantle the structures that perpetuate social inequality.

As suggested in my most recent post; at the risk of stating the obvious, child maltreatment is a social problem. Like all social problems it has structural (social and economic) causes (Parton, 2019). Social causation is a wider concept than individual fault and blame. Accordingly, the problem of child abuse will not be fixed by simply locating and fixing child abusing families or rescuing children when such families are (at some contested point) identified as being unfixable.

This is the problem with much of the early risk screening and intervention rhetoric – an over-simplified view of causation (Gillies, Edwards & Horsley, 2016). It is naïve and misleading to think that you can reform a socio-economic system which reproduces unequal life chances and marginalises a significant section of the population by reforming one family at a time. To borrow the language of the market, social workers are never going to run out of customers by taking this approach. It is a bit like expecting the American dream of individual social mobility to prevent the reproduction of chronic poverty in the U.S.A. This hasn’t happened yet, and I am not holding my breath.

So, what might a social understanding of child maltreatment tell us about possible solutions? This is where we leave the comfort of simplistic understandings and enter the realm of the complicated. Complicated? – Yes. Quantum physics? – No. Of course, child abuse does occur in families, but not in families full of dangerous and diagnosable individuals who have fallen from the sky. We are more often looking at young families experiencing a wide range of stresses which are systemically generated – such as inadequate income, housing and education. There are complex layers of non-linear causation: destructive intergenerational experiences in care and state institutions have left a painful legacy (Stanley, 2017). Too many people’s life histories have been shaped by experiences of violence and alcohol abuse, and we cannot ignore the complex damage that systematic, sometimes violent, colonisation has caused for Māori since the 1850s.

We need integrated social services that offer meaningful help to families in need. We need practitioners who can work alongside whānau who are not always likely to be trusting. An adequately funded Whānau Ora programme may well make a difference. By Māori for Māori Iwi services, including the devolution of child protection services is not impossible, although this is also complicated and an initiative as bold as this would take time to design and support. The need to sometimes remove children from dangerous situations is also not likely to go away any time soon, although the aspiration to never place tamariki outside of whānau / hapū is achievable if we are prepared to extensively resource this intent. I have heard the call for more authority for hapū and Iwi and less for the state: to stop throwing money at the OT system. However, we need to be careful here – whānau responsibility without state funded support and resourcing for decisions is what we ended up with in the 1990s and the results were not encouraging.

As important as it is to strive to meet the undelivered promise of equality within difference which is enshrined in the Treaty of Waitangi, there is more to tino rangatiratanga than simply embracing a  vision of social mobility within a capitalist model of development for Māori as well as Tau Iwi (for collective whānau as well as nuclear families). Material social mobility for all is not the answer to the problems which capitalism produces: in fact, it is part of the smoke screen that sustains it as a system of exploitation and uneven accumulation. Look around, travel between suburbs in our cities, look at the global context of power relations – smell the fermenting inequality. Other worlds are possible.

So, let’s keep our eyes open as we think about child protection reform and the genesis of child maltreatment. Well-being for all will not be delivered until we have a socio-economic system that is genuinely concerned with the well-being of all, unlike the various shades of market capitalism that we currently subscribe to. Child abuse is a complex social problem that is ingrained in the exploitative way in which we live and relate to one-another. This will not be rectified with simple remedies but there is much that can be done, if we are prepared to let go some of our best kept illusions.

                                                                                           Image Credit: Sona Mankyan


Gillies, V., Edwards, R. and Horsley, N. (2016). Brave new brains, families and the politics of knowledge. Sociological Review, 64 (2), 219-237. doi /10.1111/1467-954X.12374

Parton, N. (2019). Addressing the Relatively Autonomous Relationship Between Child Maltreatment and Child protection Policies and Practices. International Journal on Child Maltreatment: Research, Policy and Protection.

Stanley, E. (2017). The road to hell: State violence against children in post-war New Zealand. Auckland, New Zealand:  Auckland University Press.

2 replies on “Waiting on those inquiries – untangling child protection from capitalist economics”

Thank you Ian
Let go of illusions..sums it up for me
I speak for Pasifiga with 20 years of frontline practice. The inequality, poverty and lack of knowledge is rife within Pasifika families. The inter generational gap widens from island born to New Zealand born, with young parents and youth where expectations are low, self esteem and sense of belonging often are missing.
I like your article as it is very clear on the role of aiga and the close knit Pasifika communities that are heavily church monitored. Back in Samoa, the separation of state and church exists. The fa’a Samoa is stronger and it follows that communal life is for the benefit of all- much like the Whanau Ora principles
What we Pasifika professionals see here and deal with is very complex and unless there is a deep understanding and lived experience, child abuse cannot be uncovered until the informed generation speak out. This can cause further dislocation from aiga
Thank you again Ian. Enjoyed reading your article

A massive “Kia ora!” from me, Ian. You’ve expressed the issues so eloquently and succinctly.
An analogy I’ve heard regarding working with traumatised/ abused children & young people is that of the man walking a beach, saving the starfish one at a time, noting in response to being told that he ‘can’t save all of them’ that with each one he returns to the sea, he’s “made a difference to that one”. This is an admirable outlook, in that the knowledge one person cannot solve a wicked problem alone does not cause him to be ‘hands off’, and he still does what he can, however more people getting involved in devising a method to ensure that the starfish do not end up stranded on the beach in the first place would have a greater effect in the long term.
In regard to child welfare/ safety/ protection, while we do need those who can ‘make a difference to that one (or several), we would all be better served by a system which ensures that all our people have (not just ‘have access to’) whatever they need to support them to be the best they can be.

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