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.