Child protection: time to talk devolution

Kia ora koutou

The ‘devolution’of state social work, particularly child protection work, to Māori is the bone to be picked. It is a challenging debate and we are potentially at a critical turning point. For a start there are the “What is an old Pākeha man engaging with this issue for?” – “Isn’t it a topic for Māori to somehow resolve themselves?” kinds of questions to contend with. I’ll get to that part in the following paragraphs. We need to be talking about devolution – again – and we need to get it right this time.  

Recently we have witnessed worldwide protests about the legacy of racism in the institutions of liberal capitalist societies – racist processes and unequal outcomes historically and in the here and now. We have an opportunity to do something lasting about this in Aotearoa, but it requires a quantum leap of political will. We have a government that has looked to position itself as transformational. We have seen something of a transformation of leadership style from our able and articulate Prime Minister. However, the substance of transformation remains elusive.

Why is this? Because real transformation – fundamental radical change – involves dismantling privilege; challenging and changing dominant relations of power, the ideologies which support the status quo, the interests which benefit from it and the material inequalities which result. Devolution requires buy-in from the state: it needs a transformation in power relations and it is something that we should all be fronting up to.

With mixed success and in complex ways, Māori looked to find opportunities consistent with tino rangatiratanga as state structures and services were increasingly privatised and/or commercialised following the neoliberal turn ushered in by the Labour Government of 1984:

By 1986 the process of devolution was increasingly seen as a necessary option for Maori and this idea was given momentum with the release of Puao-te-ata-tu by a Ministerial Advisory Committee. The report, for the Department of Social Welfare, argued unequivocally for public institutions to adopt effective bicultural policies giving Maori communities the power to direct and allocate resources presently controlled by the state.  Consistent with Labour’s broad direction, the report was vehemently opposed to the central development and delivery of services and programmes and supported the role of tribal institutions in this process rather than central government.                                                       (Poata-Smith, 2002, p. 251)                                                                                                                                                                 

There was a lot of talk about devolution and a lot of talking past each other. Progress in the development of state-approved Iwi Social Services was tortuous, sometimes farcical and not as effective as it needed to be. Don’t get me wrong – I am not talking about the Māori / Iwi Māori services that exist or the quality of work that is done. The difficulty of achieving meaningful devolution has often been more about resistance to change, real or wilful ignorance of the implications, reluctance of the state to relinquish real authority and lack of commitment to developing the mechanisms and providing the resources required to make it work.

A long institutional memory is both a blessing and a curse. Managerial state social work bureaucracies tend to get obsessed with assembling evidence that some desired change action has been implemented – that measurable progress towards a set goal has been achieved. We see this in the countless restructurings of state social work – evidence of change is collected but no real change occurs. And the evidence collection mechanisms and targets become a ‘tail wagging the dog’ problem in themselves. This approach tends to obscure critical understandings of how to really go about the task at hand; what the implications of change might be, the planning and negotiation processes needed and the levels of authority and structure that need to shift. This is particularly true when you are communicating across barriers of culture and power.

Bureaucrats charged with making Iwi Social Services (ISS) work became increasingly desperate to get something up and running. At one point in the mid-1990s a National Iwi Social Services transition group visited the Site Office I worked at to explain that the site would be split in two – one side for an ISS child protection service and the other for mainstream. We asked a few questions: nga patai? Could Tau Iwi work in the ISS teams? – Yes, no problem. Would the same KPIs, assessment processes, intervention options and recording systems apply? – Yes, they would. Job done – box ticked. Bizarre I know, but this really happened. Not the proposal – it was too idiotic.

Of course, we have come some way since the 1990s and there are the beginnings of active partnered State – Iwi responses to child protection practice in some areas, particularly around the ‘placement’ of tamariki. Progress is uneven; needs and capacity differ between rohe. In partnerships where power is unbalanced there is always the question of who calls the shots – who holds the power of definition? (Hibbs, 2005). Given the recent revelations about racist practice in OT it is likely that there is something of a scramble to contract work to Māori providers, but is this enough?

As said, some of this is ‘Māori business’, and indeed Māori ‘business’ is one of the issues. The corporate Iwi structures supported by the state in the 199Os and 2000s to facilitate commercial Treaty Settlements, do not necessarily reflect the interests of ‘ordinary’ Māori. In 2002, Poata-Smith underscored the importance of understanding class differentials in Māori society within the liberal capitalist state:

The rejection of a class analysis of Maori inequality in capitalist society has seriously disorientated those struggling to oppose neo-liberalism and a Treaty  of Waitangi settlement process that has resulted in a substantial shift in resources and compensation to those sections of Maori society already wealthy and powerful.                                                                                (Poata-Smith, 2002, p. 316-7)

As I have pointed out elsewhere, it is not the children of wealthy middle-class Māori who come into state care. It is the accounts of young mothers struggling in poverty that we have seen and heard in the recent reports into OT practice – accounts of being threatened and monstered by state social workers. Not all OT practice is like this by a long chalk, but I think it is important to see this is a systemic organisational problem rather than merely the work of a few social workers who haven’t been adequately trained in te ao Māori.

The following quote from the historian Margaret Tennant (1989) describes social work in Aotearoa in 1920, exposing the gendered and classed history of child protection intervention and resistance which has carried into the present day:

Once they had children, such women were likely to be blamed for their callousness and their neglect of them, for failing to maintain Plunket-defined standards of care in overcrowded cottages, for their families less than faithful school attendance or antisocial tendencies … poor women were the obvious targets for the new social workers, though many remained staunchly resistant to interventions.                            (Tennant, 1989, p. 123)

The modern targets of statutory social work intervention are often the marginalised working-class mothers of tamariki Māori: the brown proletariat. In the recent inquiry reports these women tell us they want a social worker who understands their life; someone who has walked in their world, someone who will support them and be straight with them – preferably someone who is Māori. This is not rocket science.

There are other tensions, such as the sometimes-complex identities of urban Māori and the need to retain expertise in high risk situations which are always challenging to get right in real time. How do you manage the interface with ‘mainstream’ service? There are genuine difficulties – this is difficult work – but none of this is insurmountable. As it stands, there are fundamental weaknesses in the statutory ‘soft police’ structure of child protection: notify, investigate, intervene and protect. We need to imagine and create a new paradigm. Devolution of power and resources to Māori / Hapu-Iwi Māori must be a big part of the solution.

We need to start with a commitment from the state to a truly transformative vision. As the latest cadres of OT management have discovered, big bureaucratic ships are slow to turn – real social workers are engaged with real lives in a constantly moving process. Change needs to be carefully planned and resourced – we need a DTA – A Devolution Transition Authority – and above all we need the political will to make this vision a reality.

* I may have touched some nerves in this post. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do believe that the time is now …  all comments / discussion is welcome.

Nā tō rourou, nā taku rourou ka ora ai te iwi.

Image credit: Dubwise Version



Hibbs, S. (2005). The determination of problem. Te Komako, XVII (2). (Winter) 32-37.

Poata-Smith, E. S. (2002). The political economy of Māori protest politics, 1968-1995 : a Marxist analysis of the roots of Māori oppression and the politics of resistance (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy). University of Otago. Retrieved from

Tennant, M. (1989). Paupers and Providers: Charitable Aid in New Zealand. Allen & Unwin/Historical Branch.

7 replies on “Child protection: time to talk devolution”

Kia ora Ian
Good to open up this discussion. We are moving to move towards a Te Tiriti informed future and I don’t believe central state agencies are in the best placed / designed to lead this process. My hunch is that collaborations of organisations / groups who share a Te Tiriti committment and decolonisation process can play a key role. This has the potential to combine the best aspects of Tangata Whenua and Tangata Tiriti world views and insights.

Kia ora David – thanks for your comment e hoa – and good to be reminded (as Jude Douglas also shared in her recent post) that energy, inspiration and models for change bubble up from the flax / grass roots – and also to be reminded that there are differences among Pakeha in the same way as there are for Maori. Change to OT type practice needs a rejigging of how the power game gets played I think and some real energy from politicians who claim to have an interest in social justice.

Kia ora Ian
Thanks for another well written piece on this issue. “There are other tensions, such as the sometimes-complex identities of urban Māori and the need to retain expertise in high risk situations which are always challenging to get right in real time.”
I was interested in the above part of your writing and would like some clarity. Are you suggesting the need to retain expertise in high risk situations and devolution of power and resources Maori and Hapu Iwi Maori are separate? ie, Maori and Hapu Iwi Maori are not/can not be experts in high risk situations? I’m assuming I have misunderstood this so be good to hear your clarification. Thanks

Kia ora Paula

Thanks for picking up on that – very useful to point out. No, that is not what I meant to imply, but I haven’t expressed myself very clearly:

Maori organisations / workers are no more likely to ‘miss’ high risk situations and workers closer to whanau are probably more likely to make the right calls – if they are well supported.

One of the many issues with child protection is that system design can often be driven by tragic situations which are rare in reality. Also, although we are reluctant to admit it with child abuse and serious harm, no system yet designed has protected all children all of the time.

I have been involved with children being killed in family care and also in foster care … so what I added on here is that any system change must not lose sight of the need to recognize high risk situations and the need for strong protective work at times – although even in such cases whanau can be worked with in the longer run.

I not saying that this is some special area of Pakeha expertise – this is another illusion that needs to be let go of – just mindful that things can get lost in transitions and devolution needs to be done well. It is resource-intensive to do this challenging and important work and there are also many lessons from the past for the future of child protection practice.

Best wishes – Ian

Kia ora Ian…yes you may have touched a few nerves but it will take more than a few nerves shaken to bring about change.
If you speak from a Pakeha perspective…well done because we Maori need you and many more like you to convince your own that enough is enough.
I have worked for years as a Maori practitioner within CYF and I wholeheartedly support the devolution of the Ministry.
I say this with full knowledge of the inherent racist attitudes and practices that continue to flourish within the layers of policy and practice.
Yes much of it is unconscious bias but much of it is privileged conscious bias and it has been allowed to continue because too many people are afraid and resistant to change.
I have worked also for good Iwi social services who continue to scramble for conveyor belt scraps of funding that never never create real difference in the lives of our most vulnerable families.
Enough is enough Ian and it is so so overdue for devolution of a system that has failed so many years to empower and protect our most vulnerable citizens.
I saw the devolution of Maori Affairs. We have seen the introduction and normalisation of Tomorrows Schools.
Please let us see the Devolution of a Child Protection Service that fails to serve our most worthy people.
All professionals working in every social service in Aotearoa should be agreeing with you Ian.If they are not, they need to be questioning their choice of profession.
Kia kaha Ian and thank you for standing up for change.
Nga mihi Sheilagh Walker

Tena koe Sheilagh – Thanks for your tautoko. Yep, it is time to stop the tinkering – and the lip-service and the tokenism – time to put some sustained energy into finding / making ways and means to get this done – sensibly and thoroughly and not throwing the baby out with the bathwater (*not a good image in this context) … recognising the challenges and tensions and gaps and building a child protection system that works for Maori who have been caught in the state child protection net since the 1960s. We need to move past the mantras of child rescue and dangerous families. Best wishes – Ian

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