Child Protection: Why doesn’t fixing it work?

Child protection social work involves risk. It always will. The right decisions cannot always be made and sometimes it can be a question of choosing between the least damaging alternatives.

We have had a long list of child abuse tragedies for over thirty years now – in Aotearoa New Zealand and in comparable jurisdictions – and we have had an almost continuous process of crisis-driven review and reform. Child abuse – under or over intervention – is emotive at a very primal level and it is an enticing political football (Warner, 2015).

To varying degrees reforms are always politically motivated and they are then operationalised by management systems obsessed with targets and performance. As far as quality practice is concerned it is a bit like putting the fox in charge of the chook house.

Such reforms seldom make the job of child protection easier for social workers engaged with high needs children and whanāu and there is little evidence that this has been the case with the OT roll out over the last several years. As suggested, child protection practice is bloody difficult.

Social workers need to have time to make careful assessments, build relationships, talk to the right people, establish trust and share the load of responsibility appropriately. Tools, frameworks and checklists have their place, but good practice is driven by careful and informed judgments that are made in a complex social context. This involves two-way communication and the development of insight into the dynamics of whānau. Often it involves three-way communication because child protection practitioners are wedged between the families that they engage with and the organisation which employs them.

Demanding bureaucratic recording regimes, accountability mechanisms, compliance measures and complex hierarchical oversight (the kind of safeguards which crisis practice review responses generate) tend to make the job of child protection social workers harder. Paradoxically, these top-down environments also tend to deskill practitioners.

More audit and more protection of the institution from criticism is the default response of machine bureaucracies under threat: so that in response to the current practice controversies we now have another layer of internal audit mechanism when complaints are made about uplifts and placements; perhaps the next thing will be an advisory manager for whānau liaison when young people commit suicide in care?

I have argued for some years that the managerial tail has been wagging the dog in child protection practice for too long. In the case of the current OT leviathan we seem have reached new heights as Vivienne Martini has very clearly pointed out. A self-serving centralised bureaucracy has spiraled out of control with a plethora of principal and senior advisers / analysts concerned with operations, projects, programmes, development and administration, information / intelligence coordinators, directors of various special managerial sub-units; not to mention the media spin-merchants.

Social workers need to be clear sighted in situations which are often conflicted. They need to be supported, well supervised and provided with the time and space to get it right; the complex task of balancing safety and empowerment with real humans in real time.  This is the key to better applied practice. Child protection bureaucracies, by their nature, struggle to do this and OT is no exception.

More support for practitioners is required rather than more surveillance, more audit, more managerial damage control. A pay rise, welcome as it has been for over-burdened staff, was never going to be the whole answer. Neither is a sharper crack of the whip.

We need to look at the design of child protection systems in terms of how social workers can best be assisted to do a very demanding and often conflicted job: how child protection social workers can be enabled to practice their craft.

And even then, of course, social workers have neither the mandate nor the resources to resolve the real economic pressures which impact upon the people who have always been the clients of child welfare systems in capitalist societies. It is convenient for politicians to either pretend that social workers are capable of this task or to redefine the problem as a dangerous group of families that need to be rooted out – as per the nineteenth century blame of a dysfunctional self-reproducing underclass (Flanagan, 2018).

Inequality has escalated under the neoliberal political order over several decades and whānau Māori are disproportionately affected by this social deficit. In this sense a different system is required if we really want to make a difference to the well-being of children. This is the message that I read in the recent Whānau-Ora report.

Whatever the provider, Māori or the state, the job of child protection social work practice needs to be understood and supported. It happens mostly in living rooms and kitchens, not behind a desk and certainly not around the increasingly overcrowded and reactive corporate table in Wellington.

Image credit: Enrique Salvidar


Warner, J. (2015). The Emotional Politics of Social Work and Child Protection. Bristol: Policy Press.

Flanagan, K. (2018) ‘Problem families’ in public housing: discourse, commentary and (dis)order. Housing Studies, 33:5, 684-707, DOI:10.1080/02673037.2017.1380784



8 replies on “Child Protection: Why doesn’t fixing it work?”

The Monsters Lament:

On this day the monster decided to do what monsters do – it decided to be big and scary. It decided to be a monster.
Now the people lamented that the monster couldn’t, nay shouldn’t be doing this. In today’s world being this type of monster was not okay!
The monster heard their laments and thought, well to change I’ll need to do something different. The monster thought long and hard and decided to put on a new shiny jacket to cover the spiky spikes, false teeth to hide the fierce fangs, and finally black boots and black gloves to hide his cutty claws.The people thought this looked good, the monster was admired for such a significant change.

Then one sunny day the monster was walking in the forest and saw some yummy looking cows being looked after by some yummy looking farmers – with one and a half gulps he ate them all! The monster burped ever so loudly!
The people saw this and screamed. You can’t do this monster – you’re not supposed to be a monster, you’re not a monster anymore! You’ve changed! And burping is ever so rude!
The monster heard their cries, was truly sad, and decided to change! The monster earnestly rolled up its long and talony tail, and hid it in under the shiny black jacket; even adding some new shiny buttons to the jacket, and a lovely coloured wig – in the hope of losing his look of being the monster. The people saw this. Surely this time the monster was no more.

The monster was walking around the village on a brighter sunny day and spotted a group of yummy looking people. Try as monster might, shiny jacket, boots, gloves, false teeth, wig and all…. monster just couldn’t resist the urge…

So, after decades of allowing the monster to be, why should we be surprised when the monster scares, hurts or eats someone… isn’t that what monsters do? Our multiple attempts over multiple decades to change a monstrous behemoth aren’t working. We keep regurgitating the wrong question – ‘Why is our monster so monstrous?’ ‘How might we change this monstrosity?’ Have we bravely considered that the monster just isn’t, nor will ever be able to anything other than a monster. From it spikey spikes to its fierce fangs. And if you like working with or trying to tame monsters – then by all means keep working with them! But don’t expect the monster to be anything other than a monster.

But… if you’re wanting something different, then have we considered that we need to first stop feeding the monster, let it die, and consider what creature is better suited to working with the people. Then we might be more able to protect the people from the monsters trying to get in; rather than muzzling the monster after it munches from within.

(no actual cows or persons were harmed in the telling of this story)

Watching my partner try and navigate her journey through OT frontline mahi with integrity and a fading passion for what she studied for (for 5 years) is a challenge for both of us.
Reading this post and the realities within, leaves me wondering if she can continue to hang onto hope for positive change that will support her in the work she is so effective in, or if the inherent issues are so entrenched, it will only be a matter of time before she too, sells out to become an institutionalised robot or stagger away, disillusioned and bone tired?

Kia Ora Jim

Yeah I feel for the workers who battle away trying to humanise the system at the sharp end of practice – good supervision and open teams where space can be made to share the challenges and uncertainties does help but statutory child protection practice does seem to exist in its own intense world and the work is consuming – especially for people who think for themselves and swim against the tide when it is the right call for their clients. Some very good work still gets done – sadly, I think, despite, rather than because of the organisation and I guess individuals just have to count the cost as they go when they are on a ‘more than a job’ mission – as so many capable social workers are.

We all bow to lofty mountains somewhere along the line / The main point I was trying to get at here is the way the organisation still fails to understand what enables quality practice and seems almost incapable of coming to grips with that: management speak and the counting and measuring that go with techno-science rationality has no affinity with the language of careful communicative human understandings about the challenges and possibilities confronting children and families under severe stress – the kind of understandings that are the meat and drink of engaged social work. Even where inquiries do stress the need for more support for practice decisions, local autonomy and discretion, it is as if the system can only deliver this in a foreign tongue.

The review that set up OT was essentially pretty hostile to social work. Different planets really – lol – but they also reckon that the state is an ideological battle ground rather then a monolith so that struggles for a stronger voice for social work in child protection systems are happening as we speak – for understandings of how power works, better ways of getting alongside those in need without being blind to risk. T’is a challenging job often made harder by a paranoid bureaucracy, but live in hope we must Jim. Hope all is well with you and yours. Ian

a note on the mind of the monster…

from deep within its 17th centuary origins the mind of the monster is festooned with visions of superstition and fantasy, of good and evil, God and the Devil, right and wrong….

across the centuries , culminating in a ideology requiring the control shaping of successive generations to serve the monster…

monarchy and democracy, liberty and control, nationalisim and globalization…

capturing and perverting the struggles of the masses to rise free and live equally
the monster breeds inequality through oppression and fear,

the mind of the monster turned its attention to the hyjacking of social work, and in the creation of ‘statutory soial work’ and the monster knew it had won.

Kapai e hoa.

Yes, the monster is typical of many sectors within social work where it has colonised the mahi. Often our excuse is one of “good intentions” …. yet our good intentions continue to perpetuate white systems that reflect white racism and white privlege…something we white folk find hard to hear, to acknowledge, or to address.

So what does decolonizing social work practice look like for us pakeha social workers? As the coloniser, we have the responsibility to address our own and broader colonizing monster’s.

The good news is, that answers in responding to these colonising monsters can be found within the heart and practices of Te Ao Maori, Te Reo Maori, and Tikanga Maori… where our monsters can be reenvisoned as the purposeful Taniwha…

Take heart whanau!
Nga mihi nui,

Kia ora Jimi

Thanks for you input – good to see a positive message! You are dead right that nobody likes to be considered racist but that really giving up power is a different story altogether.

For what it worth I do also think – old Pakeha bloke that I am – that we also need to be careful of falling in to the trap that tikanga is a whole answer (*cultural solutions to material problems), because the economic drivers of inequality – tangled as they are with colonisation for Maori – need to be addressed.

Whanau need to be supported from where they are at – but, yeah I have to also agree that Pakeha welfare hasn’t chalked up too many runs on the board in this mahi – and this is the message in the Ko Te Wā Whakawhitiwhanau ora report as far as I can see.


Thanks Ian,
I don’t wholly agree – but that’s kapai!
Our dominant white perspectives and practices continue to maintain the status quo of a colonising response. When I think of what an alternative discourse/ narrative to this dominant white perspective would look like within our colonising context, I am drawn back to indigenous perspectives.
Nga mihi e hoa

Kia ora Jimi

Fair enuff – ae, we don’t have to completely agree if we ever going to get anywhere eh? I have been reading Aroha Harris’s Dancing With The State thesis:
The thick history of the colonial relationship is fascinating:

” Matters of Maori land development and Maori land title provided some clear examples of the systematic erasure of difference: the government could not tolerate Maori owning their land differently than other New Zealanders. In the post-war years, the government regarded it the duty of every good citizen to make full use of the soil, the foundation of prosperity. However, Maori farming was impeded by the multiple ownership of Maori land which in turn obstructed the overall cultural adjustment of Maori people to the modern world and indulged their so-called sentimental attachments to the land. ”
This goes in a pretty straight line back to the history of liberal politics – the philosophy dreamed up by guys like John Locke (1632 – 1704) who placed private property, individual title and the productive development of land for the accumulation of wealth at the centre of the universe – ideas built on later by Adam Smith and others to explain and justify the development of capitalism and colonisation. This philosophy still sits at the heart of the politics of the ANZ state.

People often see social work – and especially the emotive power of child protection – as sitting outside of politics but it doesn’t. And politics doesn’t sit outside of economics. By Maori with Maori has to be a way forward for social work and Pakeha /Tau Iwi have a lot to learn about … me included – lol – but we all need to get untangled from the net of capitalist social relations I reckon or we will continue to reproduce social suffering.



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