Residential Abuse and Child Protection Reform

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

6 replies on “Residential Abuse and Child Protection Reform”

Thankyou for articulating the truth in this way.
Most people who know what it is like to be on the ‘sharp end’ of this entrenched social control system, which at times can throw children and families lives into a present day “Orwellian” enclave, will find it difficult to be heard without processes to facilitate that action.
Such a process NEEDS to be created which preserves the wellbeing and dignity of people who wish to contribute their views, and work with the information.
Such a a mechanism needs to have a pathway to protect the integrity of the message without destroying the messengers. This is because these accounts are often fodder for sensationalizing the process of discovery, and the wrong people get to deliver the messages in the wrong way, for the wrong reasons.
People who wish to contribute to this process of discovery deserve protection from the processes which creates spectacle to attract attention of an audience. A ‘hats off’ to the brave people who came forward with the footage which brought this into the light. We need to create processes for change which do not require ‘whistle-blowers’ to have to scream in public as individuals in order to force the ‘system’ to ‘do the right thing’. Cheers!

Hats off to those who have always been whistleblowers and still are, everyday. To all of the survivors brave enough to tell their stories of State imposed violence. Hats off to those like Ian who call these human rights abuses out, and cleverly. Hmmm keep your hat pulled down tight to those who sit back, watch it all go on at every level and comment on how awful it is. Ngā mihi Ian, one of of your best pieces yet. Respect and look for our big research on Māori in State custody 1950 – 1999, due out soon. 🙂

Thanks Paora Crawford Moyle – Appreciate the tautoko. I’m not much of a whistle blower but I do think we all need to do what we can / speak up when we can – especially people like me who are in a position to do so. The 1999 cut off was always a cop-out when we all know about the institutional abuse that ran into the 2000s. Some of the national institutions were a mess / Whakapakari only closed in 2004 and it was pretty clear it was riddled with systemic violence a decade before that. I hope some validation of all that abuse of young working class Maori that the Tribunal has heard will lead to some sense of justice and healing and some real change. There are none so blind as those who will not see …

This is a comment about my perception about living in the sort of situation which is often the focus of CYFS and later OT service delivery.
The information comes from a study – “A life sentence in jail is the most severe form of punishment the English Criminal Justice System can hand out,….. how do those sentenced to a Life-term in jail cope?
This recent Thinking Allowed Podcast features Ben Crewe, Deputy Director of the Prison Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, who recently published some research on this topic” information source- Karl Thompson Posted on July 8, 2021Categories Crime and Deviance Tags crime, Gender, prison, punishment, realism.
I edited the statement to better reflect the context of the experience. comment-” I noticed this dynamic when associating with women who were involved in the NZ MH system, as well as those who had experienced family, systemic, peer and public violence. NZ’s social justice system, including MSM, often interprets womens’ experience as if it is the same as that experienced by men when the social and economic environment for men and women is totally different. This is not a political statement but a fact. – Coping with ‘outside relationships’ and socially supported violence. There is a different dynamic between men and women in this regard.
A majority of those [women]who still had relationships with people outside of their situation terminated them [the relationships] when they [the women] realized that many of these previous relationships had been toxic. I often witnessed and heard about them talk about some of the mean things relatives who were involved with their treatment programs did to them [either unwittingly or otherwise] as ‘support’ people. Often these women dreaded ‘visitation’ but endured it ‘for the sake of their hoped for future relationship with their child. In many instances ‘visitation’ had similar dynamics to visiting someone in prison. Also many people who were involved eg parents, neighbors etc had a ‘special way’ of behaving towards that person. To emphasize- service delivery and many ordinary social interactions were experienced as overwhelmingly genderized and ‘depersonalized’.
Many men said they had improved their relationships with their parents; [in contrast] many women in this situation had been ‘abandoned’ – or worse treated with what felt like ‘fake’ friendship and managed ’emotional sincerity’, and for most those who had children had either lost them, or lived in fear of loosing them. Often the experience has lasting effects on the relinquishing parental relationship into childrens’ maturity as adults.”
Living under these welfare regimes is like living in a ‘prison-like’ environment.
I think this is an important point when constructing future social services resources.

Plenty of comment around the problem but, as usual, no practical or realistic options offered. Really wonder about the social work profession and growing divide with academia, but, this is not to say that the systemic violence for children in care is okay, because clearly it is not.

Yes, Bob it not easy work providing residential care to children and young people. Staff need to be well trained and supported. A key problem is that big secure lock up style facilities have serious systemic flaws. The history clearly tells us this – I think most social workers recognise this. As Andrew Becroft has argued for some time, smaller and more therapeutic set-ups are less likely to generate institutional abuse. There are other underlying issues of course but understanding the need to stop doing something that doesn’t work is always a good starting point for reform. Cheers – Ian

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