Improving equitable outcomes in child protection: Messages from inequalities and decision-making research

Issues of equity in the child protection system are currently writ large in light of the recent Office of the Children’s Commissioner reports into baby removal practices for Māori, the Whānau Ora Report, and the Waitangi Tribunal hearing into Oranga Tamariki. These reports draw attention to the persistent inequalities for Māori in the child protection system. In addition to this inequity are other intersecting social determinants, and other sources of variable outcomes for families and whānau in system contact.

Last week I gave a talk outlining some of of the key findings from our inequalities and decision-making research projects that address these questions. The inequalities project set out to understand the social determinants of contact with the child protection system, and did so by describing the relationships between all children who had system contact and deprivation (using the New Zealand deprivation index). We found a very steep social gradient indeed in system contact between those living in the least deprived areas and those in the most deprived. Examining the intersections with ethnicity and region, including comparing equally deprived children, added further nuance. Drawing on the risk-bias framework can help understand disproportionate patterns of contact, though the regional differences remain mysterious.

Our decision-making study set out to answer the question: what causes decision variability in child protection when children are in similar circumstances? Through a mixed methods survey, and interviews and focus groups at three sites of Oranga Tamariki, we think we have a few answers. A combination of different site thresholds, management preferences, decision-making practices, team processes and site cultures create the conditions for decision disparities between and within sites. The individual values and beliefs of practitioners, and differences in the conceptual basis of decisions also contribute to variability in outcomes.

While decision-making in child protection is intensely difficult, wide variation is a problem because children and families should have their rights to protection and non-intervention applied consistently.

The abstract and PPT slides from the talk are available below, providing detail regarding these findings. Improving equity for families involved in the child protection system requires action at every level, from reducing the poverty many families experience and improving service provision outside the statutory system to reducing institutionalised biases and making decision-making processes more consistent within the system.


Variability in outcomes for children despite similar circumstances is a perennial problem in child protection. Where outcomes differ markedly, this raises important justice issues. Children who require protection may not get the intervention they need, while other families may be subject to too much state intrusion, breaching parent, whānau/iwi and child rights. Inequalities research shows the stark intersecting social gradients that shape differential chances of contact with the child protection system, and​ highlights the contributing levers of service supply and demand. Decision-making research draws attention to the contribution that institutional cultures, decision-making processes, and the ​conceptual worlds of practitioners make to outcome variability. This talk draws on recent research from Aotearoa to explore these two facets shaping divergent outcomes, and asks the question: how can inequities be remedied?

PPT Slides: Improving equity in child protection

Image Credit: Michala Lipvoka

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