Given the extensive and harrowing testimony presented to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in State and Faith-Based Care we should not be surprised by the recent whistle-blower evidence of physical abuse in a Care and Protection residence. I have read copious case records of young people placed in institutional care settings in the 2000s which document incidents of violent and coercive behaviour by residential staff during this period. Not all staff were guilty of this sort of practice and it didn’t happen all the time.
Any such behaviour is unacceptable and indefensible, but we don’t really need our politicians to repeat these platitudes to us – we already know that. What we need is a plan to abolish the residential incarceration for children in need of care. Andrew Becroft is right to point out that secure residential regimes are not fit for purpose. They are challenging workplaces. Staffing gaps tend to be filled by casual contracted workers. High needs young people grouped together in rule saturated behaviour management systems form hierarchies and actively push back against the system. They are gold-fish bowls – small prisons for kids – and they don’t work. All too often staff end up controlling children with bullying and intimidating practices of their own.
Again, we all know that this is a predictable outcome and the authorities act surprised and look for scapegoats whenever the failings of this system are exposed. This can be changed. Better, smaller, more humane facilities can be developed.
However, the wider issue of state child protection reform is more challenging. What is required here is a comprehensive, transparent, intelligible, and communicable process of systemic change to our state child protection system. There is still an opportunity, but we are a long way from this destination. Watching Kelvin Davis and the new OT CEO Sir Wira Gardiner on television tonight did not inspire confidence. They both appeared like startled rabbits frozen in the headlights. There was a hint of fear in the eyes, but it wasn’t fear about the fate of children – it was fear of political consequences. Sadly, I think this mirrors the tensions at the heart of Oranga Tamariki’s problems.
Kelvin Davis has seemed somewhat disabled by this portfolio for some time now. He could and should have accepted the proposal from the Wai 2915 Report to appoint a Māori transition authority to chart a course towards a devolved child protection system. He hasn’t done this and appears to be persevering with a ‘review’ of child protection appointed by a smaller Māori Advisory group of his own choosing. I can only guess at the underlying politics afoot here, but we do know that Davis is wary of devolution and ‘separate’ service delivery mechanisms. We also know that some Iwi are positioning themselves for a greater role in service delivery but there is no sign of a coherent plan. Paralysis happens in child protection practice when decisions are too hard / too ambiguous. We are – I suspect – seeing this paralysis reflected at an institutional and political level.
Change in an organization like OT is far from easy because child protection is a continuously moving practice concerned with state intervention in the lives of children and families. As in the beleaguered mental health system, you can’t simply shut up shop and start again. However, this is not an excuse for inaction. Davis seems to have settled for as neither fish nor fowl ‘bob each way’ approach to child protection reform. We don’t have a devolutionary brief or a tangible and coherent way forward. Flax roots reform will involve more than issuing staff with laminated copies of te Tiriti principles.
What we do still have is a bloated National Office structure courtesy of the Grainne Moss era, top heavy with Managers who know next to nothing about the realities of child protection practice. There still appears to be a yawning gap between the politically attuned risk-management mechanisms at national and regional levels and the needs of social workers on the ground who are faced with complex and difficult decisions in relation to the safety and care of tamariki and whānau. Risk-aversion has simply shifted from the danger of under-intervention to the risk associated with over-intervention.
Trust in social workers’ judgment has been in scarce supply for years now and this does not seem to have changed. More centralised risk management simply worsens the problems of decision credibility which it aims to address. Wira Gardiner may well appreciate this. He is an old political operator, but I am not sure that we have the reform formula right by a long chalk. Appoint that transition authority Kelvin – negotiate a brief – make sure they speak to everyone who understands the state child protection system. Learn from the history and delegate authority to Māori. The existing managerial bureaucracy is not designed for this and it needs to be changed. Fill your boots!
Image credit: Daska