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He Take Kōhukihuki

I have been awaiting the Ombudsman’s Report into policies, practices and procedures for the removal of new-born pēpi by Oranga Tamariki with great anticipation. Earlier reports have provided us with sobering insights into the experiences of parents and whānau in their dealings with the state child protection system.

In my experience former Principal Family Court Judge Peter Boshier is an exceptionally competent individual with a comprehensive grasp of the big and small picture of relevant law and practice. The report is even-handed and constructive. It recognises pockets of exemplary work, but it is crystal clear that Oranga Tamariki has comprehensively failed to meet the required practice standards in terms of ‘fairness or the law’. This conclusion is damning, and the evidence is compelling.

I think it is vitally important to remember that this whole inquiry process was generated by Newsroom journalists lifting the lid on uplift practices. All this would very likely still be buried otherwise. Up until now we have also had a continuous process of denial and reframing from the Oranga Tamariki hierarchy and from the Minister for Children. We were told that an internal audit had revealed no other cases like this. Yeah, right! As I write this post we are being told that all is well – everything is under control – these things take time, the future is bright.

The fact is that neither Minister Martin nor Grainne Moss have demonstrated a firm grasp of what good quality child protection practice under the law should and could involve, and it is inexcusable. Tracey Martin staunchly refused to even watch the disturbing Newsroom video of the Hastings uplift debacle and appears to have blindly defended her CEO every step of the way. The relentless fattening of the national office corporate octopus and the unremitting media spin has been gob-smacking to witness at times.

The Report focuses on the removal of pēpi between 1 July 2017 and 30 June 2019. Boshier found that Section 78 Orders were used in all 74 files examined across 9 sites. This process is theoretically reserved for rare cases involving immediate risk of serious harm and it presupposes that other less drastic interventions will have been attempted where possible. What the Report says is that applications for without notice interim custody orders were used as a default procedure and that urgency was created by lack of earlier social work engagement:

I found that urgency was created through the Ministry’s inaction and lack of capacity to follow processes in a timely and effective way. As a consequence, parents were disadvantaged—first, by not having an opportunity to respond to the allegations or challenge the information relied upon by the Ministry before their pēpi were removed, and second, by having to challenge orders after they were made, and when the parents were vulnerable because they were either heavily pregnant or had just given birth.

I found that the rights of disabled parents were not visible in either policy or practice. All the cases I reviewed required a disability rights‑based response from the Ministry but this did not occur. That is a significant breach of the Disability Convention.

In my own experience the use of interim custody order applications has been the default practice for many years, in OT and its earlier organisational incarnations. It is administratively convenient. It means that the state can take the driving seat by securing immediate custody, and crucially ‘placement rights’, without fronting up to the whanau – kanohi ki te kanohi. This short-cut negates social justice and human rights for parents.

This is what the Boshier Report is saying: that under our law and in terms of natural justice in a liberal society (both legally and morally) you can’t provide human rights to children by trampling on the rights of their parents.

In part I think the problem involves a back-grounding of social work values and principles in state child protection. In part this goes back to the narrow vision of child-centred practice that informed the Expert Panel process. This formula has also informed recent practice development across the wider neoliberal Anglophone world – that we are only here for the child: the traumatised child is our client.

This is not what the law says in Aotearoa. It is an overly simple take on the child protection social work mandate, and it is not what decent practice requires. The reasons for practice shortfalls are complex. Workloads are still often unacceptably high and as the Report notes, supervision practice is often inadequate. I sincerely hope that we don’t rely on more simplistic fixes in response to these recommendations – we need much more than a further raft of technocratic measurement and compliance requirements on over-loaded front-line social workers.

Ultimately this is about more than the abuse of section 78 orders. It is about how the function and purpose of state sponsored child and family services are conceived. If child protection practice is simply about rescuing and protecting ‘the child’ in a narrow sense, then you can justify putting reports of concern on the back burner until birth is imminent. If you want to support the capacity for long term whānau care, meaningfully assist struggling parents, grow linkages and promote healing – then this work needs to start much earlier, as this Report explicitly recognises. Barriers of them and us need to be broken down. Call me old fashioned but this is what good social work in child protection should look like.

Ultimately decent child protection social work, like all social work, is connected to the question of what sort of society we want to live in. Do we want a society that rescues children from parents who are deemed incompetent in an unforgiving social context? Is this the way to reduce our social deficits? Are we happy to see a section of the population as carrying lesser rights: as undeserving? Parents with impaired abilities, with intellectual or mental health challenges can parent children, or have a key role in the care of children, but it depends on what we are prepared to do to support and facilitate these arrangements.

What is social work for? What values underpin it? You tell me, because if we don’t embrace human rights and social justice for all we will get the same class-configured, racist, sexist, able-ist social outcomes that we have at present. This is what neoliberal child rescue accommodates us to. Progressive child and family services do not have to look like this.

Could child welfare practice be informed and led by notions of rights and justice? Could social work promote human rights and social justice, and actively resist inequality rather than being part of the problem? Could the voice of Māori be centre stage? It looks like the Ombudsman would like to think so. What do you think?

Image credit: Veronica Olivotto

13 replies on “He Take Kōhukihuki”

Very interesting post Ian. Raises some pertinent/relevant questions- particularly for me this “child centered” practice. Good to be reminded of the influences which creep into what can, unconsciously, inform practice. Keep up these posts- in the day to day grind of frontline social work its refreshing to be reminded of the bigger picture!

Thanks Amee – For what it worth focusing on that big picture stuff often helped me decide the right way forward in tough situations – even if the right thing can be a harder choice – helps you sleep better in the longer run. And yeah child-centered practice can justify a multitude of sins.

Post 7/08/2020- The NZ ombudsman’s report- Re “Are we happy to see a section of the population as carrying lesser rights: as undeserving?”
Unfortunately in many cultures – including those belonging to Western Democracies large sections of the wider population are quite comfortable with the current application of this social policy – a proportion of whom do not think that the harsh treatment of for example – often identified by default, “[young] female, unmarried, sole parents goes far enough; and there is an even larger section of the NZ population who do not loose much sleep at night over the issue, and when asked to vote, take the majority decision because they are [sometimes perversely and almost ‘superstitiously’ ] “not interested”, especially if the subject reflects matters which are ‘too close for comfort’.

Stigma and negative social response narratives influence policy creation and implementation processes. Many of these narratives are politically conceived, and are aimed at destroying social credibility and access to positive personal social networks for many unwanted social groups, many exist which [for example] perceive women who are parenting alone as an “unwanted and dangerous” as a social group.

I hope we are entering a time when this situation is discarded by popular demand as we move forwards.  

Thanks as always Ian for your thought provoking commentary. I appreciate that you are in a position to be able to speak out and am so thankful that you do.

Nice of you to say that Barb. Yeah we try to provide a critical social work voice and of course I myself have a lot of history invested in child protection practice. And we only one of a chorus of voices in the current shemozzle, which is as it should be – although I am still bothered by how silent the profession has remained for so long. We have a couple of gutsy mid-wives and journalists to thank for busting this open.

Natural justice and fairness of treatment before the law has not been provided for in OT child uplift practice and this is very important because of the consequences for whanau (small picture) but also in the big scheme of things because that is the assumption that liberal democracy is based on. And, of course, you need more than procedural fairness in an unequal socio-economic system to establish a fair society.

When the playing field is tilted as it is in Aotearoa you only have to look at health, prisons, education etc to see that liberal democracy under capitalism delivers unequal outcomes. BUT when the minimum foundation of liberal democracy – ‘equality of rights before the law’ is undermined by the state as it has been in recent OT practice, then you have stopped pretending that the system is fair – and this is a very slippery slope! (# ref Trump madness). And this is the watchdog role of the Ombudsman!!

A few more issues of course – lol – because liberal individualised justice was not really designed for a group-centered Indigenous world, so this needs work – and ideally that would mean constitutional recognition of Maori authority (not holding my breath).

Also the offer / idea of a large Ministry of the State reporting to the Ombudsman about implementation of recommended procedural changes is very unusual – and a very interesting precedent if it happens. The ‘how high would you like us to jump m’lord?’ reaction also interesting given the way critique has been marginalised and brushed off up to now. I guess we will see how all this moves after the election.

Useful place in the scheme of things for the RSW blog – I think – in providing social workers with some socio-political-practice critique – hard to muster this when you working for the man … and sometimes practitioners are so busy thinking about the context of their clients that they forget to notice that they are located in a context of contested power themselves. Enough from me for a Sunday I am sure! Cheers, Ian

Ian – as ever your article is both very thoughtful and insightful, and thanks for helping us all by producing it so quickly.

Over the weekend I read some (but not all) of the report’s 232 pages (I thought that the report’s 20 page executive summary was particularly clear as was the Ombudsman’s 3 minute YouTube video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSonNYtzW2A&feature=youtu.be). I also went back and watched some of the Hastings video material. The report is grim reading, and possibly even worse than was captured in the media coverage. The material on disabilities and Oranga Tamariki’s additional responsibilities here was also compelling.

My child welfare focus since coming to New Zealand in 2002 has primarily been residential care, foster care and transitioning from care (and more recently early intervention). However, in Scotland one of my early management roles was to convene all multi-agency child protection case conferences and reviews with families in our area, including new-borns. The Ombudsman findings goe against all of that experience, universal social work values, and the university post-qualifying certificate in child protection training that managers and specialist practitioners in my organisation were all expected to undertake (on the course we had some of the top academic, practice, child development, and legal experts in Scotland). The report clearly goes against the principles of the Oranga Tamariki Act.

However, while I agree with much of what you say which I won’t repeat here, I would offer a couple of additional comments:

1. I very much agree with you that “former Principal Family Court Judge Peter Boshier is an exceptionally competent individual with a comprehensive grasp of the big and small picture of relevant law and practice. The report is even-handed and constructive” and he and his team are to be commended for their very thorough and comprehensive piece of work. I also agree that the Chief Ombudsman’s decision to regularly follow up with Oranga Tamariki is also an important one. However, I would have thought that the report also has implications for Family Court Judges as well as the Ministry of Justice. While presumably beyond his remit and the report’s terms of reference, it would have nonetheless have been helpful for this to be clearly acknowledged in the report and the associated commentary from the Chief Ombudsman. While I accept that Judges may have felt that they had little choice but to grant the orders in individual instances given the circumstances as presented to them, Family Court Judges have likely been making such decisions for years and possibly decades in response to such applications, and I would have thought that ensuring that their decisions reached were based on evidential thresholds and standards being met was also one of their responsibilities?
2. If we’re agreed that these practices (at least in the multiple sites where they exist) are probably long-standing, in taking its two year review of cases from 1 July 2017 (3 months after Oranga Tamariki came into being), to me the report says as much about the practice, policies, practice standards and guidance that were inherited from MSD (the government agency responsible for child protection from 2006-2017) as it does about the new Ministry, and particularly over the new entity’s first few months. Similarly, in designing (be it at a high-level) the new organisation’s operating model, I expressed concern at the time about the Exert Panels lack of experience, understanding of, and focus, on child protection in my own two-part Reimaging Social Work article at the time https://www.reimaginingsocialwork.nz/2015/10/part-two-of-the-modernising-child-youth-and-family-expert-panels-interim-report-the-good-the-bad-and-the-potentially-ugly/) While it is extremely disappointing to see that these practices were still happening two years into the life of the new organisation, given the massive programme of change and new responsibilities that social workers are grappling with as part of the five year ‘transformation’ programme, this perhaps shouldn’t be such a surprise?

Oranga Tamariki has a lot of work to do to try and (re-)build trust in relation to section 78 interim custody orders and their work more broadly.

Greetings Iain

Thanks very much for this contribution. Like you, I would encourage people to read the report material themselves if possible. I also agree that the Judiciary have not covered themselves in glory by upholding their constitutional role re these Section 78 processes, which have indeed been a long-standing default practice.

I am empathetic over the challenging practice environment / specific difficulties that OT social workers can find themselves in – particularly the way that an anxious organisation can stifle initiative and careful, sensible, consultative on the ground decision making – as was clearly on-show in the Hastings scenario.

The work of child protection can be very tough but also very rewarding when it is done well. People who don’t understand it shouldn’t be in charge of it.

I am a little less sympathetic to the structural changes driven by the Expert Panel Review because I personally witnessed just how politically / ideologically driven this piece of work was – I spent several days in Wellington on a pretend practice reference group shouting into a strong wind.

And I do think that the spike in new-born uplifts – which has now dissipated it seems – was a direct and predictable outcome of this child rescue / social investment thinking – and all under the cloak of Children’s voice rhetoric. Galling stuff Iain.

We will undoubtedly have forms of change now – there is too much momentum. It is certainly a long road to develop trust and the historical wisdom of many families tells them to be cautious of state social workers at the best of times. But all hope is not lost. AND IT IS TIME TO BE CONSTRUCTIVE.

There are many excellent social workers / teams working their guts out in OT – BUT we still don’t have an organisation that actively resources and consistently promotes the development of ‘best’ social work practice with children and whanau at the local level.

A lot of promises to do better and a strictly audited recording focus on top-down driven compliance , ticking off new training or supervision processes, the meeting of managerial targets often makes matters worse I am afraid. It is social work without soul.

It was a major mistake for this Government to accept the OT reform as ‘a too big to change’reality. A lot of whanau have suffered unnecessarily as a result.

I believe that the OT template with all of its central bureaucracy is a failed model filled with counter-productive managerial grandiosity. For mine, a large scale re-orientation is needed (a real nuts and bolts practice-centered system re-think) and this must include meaningful and effective service devolution to Maori.

Interesting times Iain – thanks again for your thoughts!

Ian

Surely these social workers are accountable to the SWRB, i.e we would like to have a discussion with you personally about your involvement in the case of the removal of this child. What social work values underpinned your practice? What knowledge and skills did you draw up on in your decision making? We see that your notes here are quite poorly written and derogatory towards the family, do you think that’s an acceptable standard as a social worker? Did you discuss the case in supervision? Did you use reflective practice, what were you thinking? What would you do differently now? etc, etc, etc.
If these social workers are not adhering to good practice then they need limitations placing on their practising certificates as much as they need support, otherwise they as social workers will continue to do harm. They are still employed by OT (who are desperate for staff and as we know allow bad practice to thrive) and they have not been held accountable by SWRB. In that case these social workers then believe “well no-ones questioned my wrong doing so therefore I must have done no wrong”. Unfortunately this further allows progressive bad practice. Come on NX, other countries have mechanisms in place to scrutinise practice and for good reason, we are social workers and poor practice is the responsibility of SWRB.

Hi Tanya – The SWRB is a Government appointed regulatory body and they probably wouldn’t get involved in case-work reviews etc – although they could. The SWRB seems to me to have taken a very passive approach to the whole question of troubled practice at OT – as if they don’t see it as their business really – apart from some soft comments about the importance of professionalism and supports for the challenging work etc.

The problems with oppressive practice identified in all of these reviews are more to do with the OT organisation and systems rather than individual social work practice – although social workers do need to be better challenged, supported and resourced in a consistent way if racist practice outcomes are to be prevented in the future.

The work is difficult but it can and must be done better and I believe we may see major change – genuine devolution and a more central role for supporting quality child and whanau social work. But we are not there yet by a long chalk! You are right, I think, that the SWRB has contributed very little which is both disappointing and unsurprising.

Thank you for a through and insightful article. I am still left wondering about us as social workers. Why,and how our sw profession itself became silenced along these many years of advocating Aotearoa social work aligned significantly to social justice, to a Ti Tiriti based society? Could I discover why radicalised insightful voices were silenced, and why appeasing conservative professionalism became our centrefold? There are many questions. This is not a single narrative story, and you have kept alive many of the complex layers.

Thanks Merrill – yes we do learn to be very conservative and these things are ethically complicated so we get stuck or complacent, or both I guess. We get so bound by procedure and compromise – As someone said recently there is a risk in worrying about doing things right when the question is ‘what is the right thing to do?’ And we need others to keep us honest because it is too easy to lose your way on your own. We gotta do what we can to walk the talk – not always easy and none of us perfect, but life too short not to use the voice you have – because plenty of people never get the chance – and we don’t live in a fair and just world.

One of the major issues with Oranga Tamariki is that none of the senior management (bar the Chief Social Worker) have any background in social work – this for a social work organisation, albeit statutory. Even the CSW is very much a ‘yes man’ – which is why he was appointed. Nothing will change until there is more social work voice in that happens at OT.
The other big issue seems to be a concerted anti-thesis for the voice of social workers in the organisation. There are numerous roles within the organisation but very little social work roles – I assume due to the additional costs of social workers imposed by that evil pay equity.

Yes Bob –

A key problem for sure – in the main OT has not been an organisation driven or informed by social work knowledge and values apart from ideas that can be adapted to fit the corporate agenda. And one compliant and outnumbered social work voice at the (business speak) “top table” of the organisation says it all.

Mind you, some of the Minister’s best friends are social workers apparently. I should try to be less cynical perhaps, but it is time for a real overhaul of the current model – and this is a question of political priorities and will – and, of course, we live in the time of Covid-madness. More to come on a vision of devolution in the 2nd part of the Becroft Review is due very soon. And the Waitangi Tribunal report will be crucial.

The National Party not about to endorse too much change – they set OT up as it is after all – although they may be interested if it provides a route to cost cutting. The NZ First Minister has been little more than a cheer-leader for the expert panel plan. We will have to wait and see if the centre-left has energy for reform post-election.

I not so sure that an overdue pay rise informed by pay equity thinking is the problem – of course it would be good if the NGO sector etc had the industrial strength (and the state funding) to pay wages the work deserves. Interesting times Bob – thanks for your input. Ian

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