Dissent, Struggle and Change: OT – The world in a teardrop

As many others will be doing at this uncertain time, I am hunkering down and wondering about the state of the play in the world as I know it. On a global scale the hypocrisy and ultimate futility of the US project in Afghanistan is gobsmacking. On a bigger scale still, the growing evidence of a planet pushed to breaking point by the extractive profit driven commodification of all things is chilling. Closer to home we have a virus to surround and conquer. It does seem that our politicians and public health specialists are close to being on the same page and we can have some confidence that this outbreak will be isolated and extinguished. We also have winds of change blowing through the bureaucracy of our state child protection system in Aotearoa. In this blog post I want to touch on the indirect connections – the conjuncture – between some of these things.

It seems we are soon to see a report from the group appointed to review the operations of our state social work agency, Oranga Tamariki. As I have suggested this exercise was something of a pre-emptive move from Minister Kelvin Davis and falls short of the fundamental re-set process urged by the Waitangi Tribunal. However significant change is in the air and it is not too difficult second-guess the direction of reform. In the medium term we can assume an emphasis on greater collaboration with the NGO and Community sector and a more aggressive effort to devolve services to Iwi and Kaupapa Māori service providers. We are also likely to see a greater emphasis on local service autonomy within the OT labyrinth. Already there is anecdotal evidence of a shedding of staff from the overly centralised managerial bureaucracy which has mushroomed in recent years.

Much of this is reminiscent of the late 1980s and I am hoping that we will learn something from the lessons of the past this time around. First there are important issues of organisational capacity and capability. If OT social workers are to forge productive and trusting partnerships with Iwi social service organisations and community agencies at a local level, some significant operational shifts will need to take place. This will involve time, money, and training. In my experience most reorientations of state bureaucracies fail to take account of the resources required to sustain business as usual – and the ‘business as usual’ of state social work involves the safety and well-being of thousands of children, young people and whānau. Accordingly, it is important to dismantle the oppressive status quo with care.

Secondly, if social workers are to get alongside and work with high needs whānau, they will need a skill set (and an organisational support system) that differs from much of the high paced system-driven practice currently built into the statutory child protection process. A practice shift of this magnitude will take significant resourcing of social work within the state agency. More and most importantly, whānau, hapū and iwi will require both resourcing and empowerment if they are to care for their own in the way which the Treaty ‘partnership’ implies. So, it is not simply a matter of robbing Peter to pay Paul – the transition that is envisaged can be made but it cannot be made cheaply. Thirty years of recent history tells us this.

My book about the political history of child protection in Aotearoa is due for publication in January 2022. History isn’t just in the past, it is embedded in the present:

In  many  countries  with  indigenous  populations, child protection and justice systems have a long history of disproportionate treatment involving both child removal and incarceration rates much higher than experienced by other groups. In New Zealand this difference has led to rates for Māori that are often around seven times that of the European population, particularly since the 1960s.                          (Cook, 2021, p.365)

Racist practice and biased institutional settings are clearly a driver of these disproportionate outcomes. However, there are also economic causes which cannot be ignored. It is Māori at the bottom of the socio-economic pile who have been drawn into disproportionate contact with the state child protection system. State social work is also riddled with gendered inequality. Try asking a statutory social worker who their home visits are made to. Tennant (1989, p.123) notes that as social work increasingly gained a foothold as a legitimate field of professional practice in Aotearoa after the First World War, ‘problem families’ associated with gendered poverty became the obvious targets for intervention:

Such women carried the burden not only of poverty, frequently of brutal or broken marriages, of chronic ill-health and overcrowded homes, but they were held collectively responsible for racial decline and social disorder. Their experience was a far cry from the almost spiritual picture of radiant-motherhood and cosy family life promulgated by women’s organisations and in popular magazines of the time.   (Tennant, 1989, p.124)

Young brown working-class women struggling with parenting in economic and social hardship continue to be primary targets of statutory intervention, begging questions about what has changed in the past one hundred years. People positioned – largely by capitalist economic forces beyond their control – on the frayed edges of the working class have always been disproportionately targeted by state social work. The legacy of colonisation has left Māori disproportionately represented within this group. It follows that solutions will not simply be found in processes of cultural empowerment and inclusion, as critically important as such initiatives are.

Obscene levels of private wealth and privilege have grown across the developed world over the last forty years and New Zealand is no exception. Despite the rhetoric of well-being and inclusion, the current centre-Left political grouping shows little interest in a progressive Social Democratic redistribution of wealth. Nobody really wants to challenge the power of Capital, so we label and blame the poor for their misfortune. Within the liberal capitalist rubric, as was the case a hundred years ago, persistent poverty and inequality are routinely associated with the ‘behaviour’ of a marginal section of the population. It is too confronting to be clear that class-based social suffering is a function of our economic structure. Much of this was screened by the post war welfare state and has become visible again in a new liberal world.

We can’t go on saying that social and economic inequality is not a legitimate part of the child protection project if we expect the outcomes of the child protection system to be radically altered. Whānau, whether in or out of paid work, need a living wage, access to secure healthy housing and meaningful coherent community support systems. This is a social project that requires sustained social investment. In the unique context of Aotearoa, devolution to Māori is a crucial part of this project but it is important to understand the upward mobility for all (New Zealand’s version of the American dream) is not actually possible within the current economic policy settings. If you don’t believe me look around you: look at the grim circumstances people are forced to live in, then glance over at the super-yachts bobbing in the viaduct harbour.

How is all this related? The farce in Afghanistan, the global environmental crisis, grinding urban poverty in Aotearoa and the over-representation of the brown proletariat in child protection statistics? The common denominator is that the interests of the economically powerful and privileged come before the interests of the ordinary working people who are so often pawns in a much bigger game. Can any of this be changed? I would like to say yes, not without struggle, but, ”yes”! As Paul Michael Garret (2021) has pointed out: there is a world to be won.

Image credit: Ramon Llorensi



Tennant, M. (1989). Paupers and Providers ­– Charitable Aid in New Zealand. Wellington: Allen and Unwin / Historical Branch of Internal Affairs.

Cook, L. (2020). Evidence, accountability and legitimacy: The oversight of child welfare  services. Statistical Journal of the IAOS, 36, 365-373.

Garrett, P.M. (2021). Dissenting Social Work – Critical Theory, Resistance and Pandemic. London and New York: Routledge.





6 replies on “Dissent, Struggle and Change: OT – The world in a teardrop”

Kia ora Ian,

Thank you for your piece.

What a year it’s been – what a couple of years really – I feel like only now do I have the head space to really read, digest, and write a response to these very important pieces of commentary.

I don’t work in the child protection space; I have chosen not to while also applauding my colleagues and peers who do this very hard job. I chose not too because I don’t think I would handle the role as it sits currently in the current OT processes.

I feel myself very fortunate to be in the employment that I am in insofar that I can pick my caseload numbers. I also openly discuss with my staff appropriate caseloads for each one so that that can ‘do social work’ as opposed to ‘running’. And by ‘social work’ I mean having time to critically analyse the structural issues at play with every case and have the time to try to do something about that – write a paper, lobby the local MP / Minister, write to MSD, do some extra training

We are appropriately resourced and the outcomes we are required to achieve are not quantitative. They’re what the community we are serving say the outcome is which is invariably qualitative in nature:

I require a warm dry home
I require help with my WINZ paperwork
I require easy access to a hospital
I do not have enough food – I require access to a food bank
‘Figuratively’ old my hand as I grieve the loss of my partner
I am socially isolated – what are the local connections in the community
to name a few

While I must report on numbers, it is not the numbers that gets us the funding, it is the words from the community we serve that ‘keeps the wheels moving’. We have no time limit on how long we spend with our clients / community, and while we do not want to encourage dependency, the sector we serve requires a more nuanced approach to social work.

I am not saying we get it right all the time or that it is all beer and skittles, but it seems to work and we’re able to get the outcomes – more often than not – that the person / community we’re working with required.

Why am I saying this?

I was reading your piece and kept thinking that while it will be expensive to resource OT appropriately – and for goodness’ sake we know it needs to be resourced up – I think this is not the biggest challenge it faces.

The biggest challenge it faces, in my opinion, is to flip its operating model on its head so that the social worker has the time to fully help implement the outcome the client / community is wanting as opposed the outcome OT thinks is required. To do that the social worker must have the time to be fully invested in the community it is working in / serving.

The social worker should have the time to be out in the community in local meetings with Iwi, NGO’s community groups etc.

It must also allow its social workers to feel safe in critiquing policy and legislation without any fear of retribution because only though self-reflection can true insight be achieved.

It needs to give its social workers time to ‘do social work’ as opposed to ‘running’.

While an ideological sea change seems like a far-fetched dream, if it doesn’t fundamentally change the way it operates then it will be destined to be at this very same place in the future.

In regard to Afghanistan, I can only speak through a South American lens.

I am saddened at the numbers of innocent Afghanis who have died because of this failed project and can only hope that Western nations finally get it through their heads to leave us – Middle East and Latin America and the World – alone.

Stay safe


Kia ora Ian,
Good to read your ‘big picture’ take of our current situation. Your link with international capitalism and privileged groups in Aotearoa wanting to retain this status can suggest that deep change can only happen when the economic power is shared. While a clear truth, this could be somewhat demoralizing for those of us actively trying to be a part of the solution in the current dynamic OT system. I have found there are stepping stones to systemic change that start within the current realm of what is possible. Putting simply – by creating space either outside or on the margins of the formal system for whānau be in the driving seat, and providing them with the support that they want – then radical effective change can happen. This is despite the challenges in the big OT system.

Kia Ora David – Thanks for your input. Yep I think we have to fight the fight for social justice on all fronts as best we can – and engage with the complications that go with that. There is no need for the level of inequality that we have and this is a question of political will as much as anything else. I guess I am just pointing out that liberal tolerance for cultural difference is not enough, in itself, as a recipe for fair outcomes in our current economic system. But a lot of change can be made and it needs to be … so we should never say it is all too big to fix. As Luis has also pointed out supporting whanau to meet their needs is critically important work and wouldn’t it be great to see OT workers engaging with communities and free to speak their minds – this in itself would be a seismic shift. There is an opportunity for really progressive change and I keep telling our students that the opportunity is there to be part of this. I also think that we should have no illusions about the challenges. Cheers!

You are also seeing social work professionals leaving disillusioned by the ongoing lack of management accepting (or even possibly understanding) that social work case loads are still far too high – especially given the move to a more Te Ao Maori approach to social work practice.

I hope I am wrong, but I can see clients referred to Maori NGO’s, only to come back to State systems because the Maori NGO’s just don’t have the expertise to work with trauma damaged children. There will be an element of ‘creaming’ and Maori NGO’s will have successes with higher functioning clients, however they will simply close cases that are “too hard” or who don’t or won’t buy into their culturally exclusive approach.

It never ceases to amaze me when I hear proponents of Maori social services banging on about how mainstream western approaches have not worked for Maori, then nearly in the same sentence, proclaiming that what works for Maori will magically work for everyone!

Hi Bob – I’d be careful of assuming that kaupapa Māori services are unable to deal with the issue of past trauma because this is what holistic healing processes are all about. I think you are right about staffing levels and workloads as better services need mere time and resources. And your last point is interesting because I don’t hear anyone saying that Pākehā service users will have to accept Māori services, but in my experience the inclusive nature of Māori service processes mean that they are more likely to work for Pākehā / tau iwi than the other way around. Change is in the air as it was in the late 80s – let us hope to be wiser this time and make sure that reform is sustainably resourced – much depends on how the kind of transition path we are looking at is made and managed and supported.

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