Kahu Aroha – Opportunities and challenges

I read the Ministerial Advisory Board Report on Oranga Tamariki – Kahu Aroha – yesterday. The report is a mixed bag. It does not go as far in terms of devolution to Māori as it might have done and much of the detail remains unclear. It walks the line between two commitments which is likely to generate ongoing tension: strengthening the authority and capacity of  ‘Māori collectives and communities’ on the one hand and re-centering social work within the OT bureaucracy on the other. I will consider the relationship between these two initiatives and discuss some of the challenges and opportunities of each in turn.

In relation to the re-invigoration of social work, the central influence of Shannon Pakura is clear. This is not surprising given that she is the only member of this group with a background knowledge of the trials and tribulations of statutory social work. There are also clear echoes of the kaupapa that she pursued as Chief Social Worker two decades ago. This is not necessarily meant as a criticism – there is little that is new under the sun when it comes to the convoluted history of state social work in Aotearoa as I will illustrate in this post.

As Chief Social Worker in the early 2000s, Shannon Pakura sought to elevate the professional social work voice in relation to the development of practice and policy. Arguably social workers, supervisors and practice leaders of that time did not step up to the plate as they might have, although I am also aware of the institutional barriers that frustrated this intent. There now appears to be a new window of opportunity. Our state social work service has long been an organisation that employs social workers rather than a social work organisation. I for one am sick and tired of child protection social workers’ voices being muted outside of fortress OT (and often little more than a background hum within the Ministry itself).

As one of twelve voices in the corporate board room the Office of the Chief Social Worker was not a central player in the post Expert Panel OT set up. As an aside, thank the good lord that we have moved on from the eugenic ideology of rescuing tamariki Māori from high cost beneficiary parents and placing them in safe and loving homes at the earliest opportunity to break the cycle of inter-generational transmission: what a crock of crap that was! Amen!!

As suggested, the report gives a few mixed messages but there is a focus on the need for a renewed emphasis on training and support for social workers and an invitation for OT practitioners to take some of the lead in practice development. There is also an emphasis on the need to clarify / define / redefine the nature of the social work role in OT and to shrug off the fetters imposed by an insular focus on organisational risk management. If the much needed whānau empowerment and support functions of social work are to be nested in ‘community’, what should ‘core statutory social work’ which is not solely focused on child rescue look like? If the proposed ‘two track’ transition process is destined to take ‘at least a generation’ (Kahu Aroha, p.20), we should have started envisioning this yesterday. This is an opportunity that should be taken by all those in a position to contribute.

Now, to look at the question of collective Māori / community authority and responsibility. The outline provided does not equate to the radical transformation recently advocated in the Office of the Children’s Commissioner report – Te Kuku o te Manawa:

Our call, and the key recommendation in this report, is for a total transformation of the statutory care and protection system. By that I mean nothing short of a ‘by Māori, for Māori’ approach and a transfer of responsibility, resources and power from the state to appropriate Māori entities, as determined by Māori.    (OCC-TKOTM , Part 2, 2020, p. 6)

Similarly, the proposed Governance Board falls a long way short of the appointment of a Transition Authority with the capacity to oversee a process of radical devolution consistent with the spirit of te Tiriti o Waitangi (as proposed in the Wai 2915 Report):

… with a clear mandate to design and reform the care and protection system for tamariki Māori, coupled with authority to work in genuine partnership with the Crown to ensure a modified system is properly implemented.                                      (Wai 2915 Report, p. xiv)

Predictably, then, we have a more politically cautious approach. A lot of stock is placed in a proposed three months of engagement with ‘Māori collectives and communities’ in order ‘to understand what their ideas for the change they want to lead are and what resourcing and support they need to achieve it’ (Kahu Aroha, p.9).

Some of the elements of this proposal resonate with the long and fraught history of political shifts in state social work. The notion of service development plans being created locally, or at least regionally, rather than in the silo-ed world of corporate bureaucracy, is not new. State social work in the 1970s and 80s was much more responsive to local need than the present administration. In my own experience, the work of social workers is much more effective and meaningful when connected with local services and engaged with community need:

I have found that initiatives which are developed and applied locally, and are informed by practice learning, are often the most effective. I am encouraged whenever practitioners take individual and collective ownership of practice. Structural/ political arrangements in the form of legal and managerial systems are, by their nature, unlikely to consistently support this process.                                                                                     (Hyslop, 2007, p.9)

Although the Kahu Aroha report does mention authority, strengthening and resourcing with an emphasis on ‘prevention’, I am also reminded of the ‘New Directions’ policy initiative driven by Minister Steve Maharey in the early 2000s. The idea then was that targeted social spending could ‘strengthen communities’ by releasing entrepreneurial energy and developing social capital (Garlick, 2012, p. 220). This sounds more than a little like the idea of ‘activating thriving communities’ (Kahu Aroha, p. 19) – communities pulling themselves up by their own boot-straps.  This emphasis on an idealised role for civil society is echoed in the liberal heritage of charity and neighbourly help as a proxy for state funded services and programme – as in the deceptive ‘big society’ thinking later associated with the Conservative politics of David Cameron in the U.K (Parton, 2014).

I am aware of the very positive power of community development initiatives, but I am also wary of an emphasis on ‘community’ being delegated the responsibility to resolve structural and economic problems which are the rightful responsibility of the state: systemic inequalities which are, in fact, an outcome of government policy settings. Responsive community support services are critically important,  and I am sure that this three-month road show will hear how social agencies of all persuasions have been centrally controlled and underfunded for decades now. However, it is children from the frayed edges of the working class who are brought into the care of the state and it is the government that controls the policy framework which generates this level of social and economic alienation.

Kelvin Davis has assured us he is a steamroller focused on driving the reforms envisaged in Kahu Aroha, with Dame Naida Glavish as a warship by his side. I would have thought that much of the steam-roller’s time would be better spent persuading his Cabinet colleagues to modify the soft neoliberalism of the current Labour Party and to adopt an economic and social policy agenda which genuinely redistributes wealth and opportunity. This structural problem was also explicitly recognised in the Wai 2915 Report:

Active protection means recognising that Māori parents struggling in poverty have an equal right as citizens to meet their children’s needs as do the better off in society. Active protection means recognising that the vast majority of whānau in contact with Oranga Tamariki are not out to harm their tamariki, but they may have ongoing needs that place stress on the whānau. These include factors such as poverty, poor housing, poor mental health, substance abuse, intimate partner violence, or children with high needs. Growing inequality and the disparities in child protection, education, justice, and health that result are not the inevitable outcomes of individual choice. They are substantially the outcomes of legislation, policy, and economic settings about which society has choices. Active protection requires substantive changes designed to address these structural conditions.                                       (Wai 2915 Report, p.20)

Finally, some brief thoughts on funding the proposed initiatives and on the role of the Governance Board. In his 1992 review of the then CYP&tF Act (now the OT Act), Judge Ken Mason made the following prophetic statement:

If the Act is not generously supported in terms of personnel and funding, it will fail. Resourcing the Act is an expensive business but the consequences of not doing so are will be even more expensive. In human, social and economic terms our New Zealand community, long-term will reap the rewards of a generosity of spirit and pocket.                                                                    (Garlick, 2012, p. 154)

I need say no more on this. The Report also calls for the development of plans for partnering with Māori and for social work workforce development, both in OT and more generally. These are good things, but I am cautious about the need for the reporting of information and data (so that progress with these plans can be evidentially monitored) getting in the way of putting such plans into practice. It is the quality of practice on the ground that is important, rather than chopping it up and measuring progress. Kemp’s (2020) recent research in South Australia warns against perverse incentives: the way in which efforts to measure compliance with plans to improve child protection can add yet another layer of work and further compromise professional decision making.

If nothing else this report challenges social and community workers to actively engage with this process of change: let us make our individual and collective voices heard at this critical time.

Image creditthinkpublic


Garlick, T. (2012) Social Developments ­– an organisational history of the Ministry of Social Development and its predecessors, 1860–2011. Wellington: Steele Roberts Aotearoa.

Hyslop, I. (2007) ‘Twenty years in an open-necked shirt: A retrospective personal narrative’, Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work Social Work, 19(1), 310.

Kemp, A.P. (2020) ‘Child protection practice: an unintended consequence of reform’, PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.  (Available from:

Parton, N. (2014) The politics of child protection: Contemporary developments and  future directions, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

12 replies on “Kahu Aroha – Opportunities and challenges”

Well, it is a little long-winded … but yeah this stuff does roll around in the old head – what’s the cliche? – If you don’t know your history, you are doomed to repeat it, right?? Best wishes Meryl!

Kia ora Marj – thanks for sharing your thoughts. It is what it is. There may be significant change in the longer run but you are right that we don’t really have a solid template here. It is difficult not to conclude – despite the smoke and mirrors – that the state is very reluctant to accept the level of devolution that a real recognition and resourcing of tino Rangatiratanga would entail. The ‘Crown’ never has been – so why would this change now? However we could get a better state social work system out of this process – maybe! Whatever is done the system cant be stopped over night and serious abuse and injury to children needs to be carefully managed – it is emotive and volatile territory for politicians and bureaucrats alike. For what it is worth I think that the opportunity to move to ‘for Māori by and with Māori child welfare’ remains as does the chance of working respectfully with all the high needs families who are drawn into this system – it is just that the struggle does not end with this sort of politically orchestrated process – social justice is a journey / a long and winding road.

My comment if offered in the spirt of engaging with the process of change. Ian has made reference to ‘instiutional barriers’ that have ‘frustrated efforts to elevate the professional social work voice in relation to the development of practice and policy’, and ‘frustrated the intentions of social workers, supervisors and practice leaders to ‘step up’ in terms of progressing the values, ethics and practice of social work within Oranga Tamariki (and its predecesors). Ian’s comment that our ‘state social work service has long been an organisation that employs social workers rather than a social work organisation’ is accurate.

Child protection has always been a political endeavour. From the first decade of the twentieth century the State became increasing critical of philanthropic efforts to deal with social problems, asserting an argument that the State must act as the central and coordinating agency on behalf of children. Motivation for State intervention in the lives of children has predominantly been centred on a perceived need to preserve the Nation State – it by legislating to increase infant survival to ensure a steady supply of soldiers, improving child nutrition and education to ensure a healthier, educated thus more productive workforce, or removing children from families perceived to be ‘dysfunctional’.

Statutory care and protection social service provision has become a political undertaking, underpinned by legislatively mandated accountability to governmental ministries which legitimises the intrusion of statutory activity into the lives of the populous. The politicisation of child protection locates those responsible for monitoring child safety and wellbeing as pawns subject to political agenda and ideologies which are set and driven by multiple factors. Whether driven by a need to cement popular appeal within Aotearoa New Zealand in order to retain political power, to achieve internationally established objectives for the Rights of Children, (UNCROC) and/or to achieve recognition within the global community (OECD) thus securing global approval and status, legislation and policy intended to promote the protection and wellbeing of the nation’s children is, to a greater or lessor degree, premised on and influenced by political ideologies. In all iterations, what has evolved as ‘statutory social work’ is a product of the above factors.

The current statutory environment has seen an exponential increase in ‘institutional barriers’ acting to disable professsional social work practice. Since its creation in 2017 Oranga Tamariki appears to have created an ‘off site’ layer of accountability whose primary purpose appeared to be ‘monitoring’, directing and covering/accounting for actions/events/ provision of services or not. Management and accountability of the delivery statutory social work practice appears to be diffused through multiple levels of organisation responsibilities, resulting in multiple levels of oversight, monitoring, measuring and reporting. Additionally, there appears to have been a marked shift in the Practice Leader role from leading practice to an increasing primary focus on monitoring and reporting to senior management of targeted information.

At each level there are multiple motivational factors driving individuals to exercise their respective roles and responsibilities efficiently, and without fault. This increased ‘oversight’ in the management of service delivery results in a multiplicity of voices being heard on the front line where the delivery of service occurs. This can result in the delivery to Social Workers and Supervisors of unexpected advice, recommendations or requirements necessitating a change in case direction and planned case management activity from those above and farthest away from the relationship between the client and the social worker. Advice given, although incongruent with social work values, ethics, code of conduct and core social work competencies and best practice can be accompanied by powerful messages of compliance.

The resulting environment is frequently experienced by social workers and supervisors as one in which they have little or no sense of control in their practice – decisions they make can be overturned and they may be directed to take actions required by ‘institutional barriers’ that are incongruent with their professional judgement. Ultimately, what is at stake here is social workers sense of integrity in repsect of their accountability as Registered Social Workers, in particular being accountable within their relationships with clients to do what they say they will do. This loss of a sense of integrity can be experienced as distressing feelings of incompetency and a loss of professional capacity. In such an environment newly graduated social workers soon loose their connection with their professional practice, experianced social workers become unable to exercise their professional practice.

It is arguable therefore whether provision of support and training to social workers supervisors and practice leaders will shift practice within Oranga Tamariki – what is needed is identifcation, analysis and removal of the ‘institutional barriers’ that are preventing frontline staff from engaging in professional social work practice within a stautory environment.

Hi Jennie – Thanks for your contribution. I wonder, do you think the system is salvageable or should it indeed be dismantled and a different system constructed? Ian

Oranga Tamariki is an artifact of the State. ‘Salvaging’ Oranga Tamariki is therefore possible – arguabley the State can support structual change from within to reduce the reliance on risk aversive management, and increase confidence in safe, professional social work practice. Which it appears to be doing with the agreement of funding for the implementation across Oranga Tamariki of the current Maori Practice programme. My concern is that social work practice does not ‘fit’ the current Oranga Tamariki operational framework. The current notify/intake/assessment model exemplifies this disconnect – practice standards cannot be adequately maintained when three or more different social workers are involved in assessment, decison making and intervention in any one case.

I think the State (via Oranga Tamariki) has hijacked the term ‘social work’ to describe the exercise of statutory power. There needs to be a refocusing of Oranga Tamariki on core stautory functions, with a separation of this from the provision of intervention/prevention social work.

Once Oranga Tamariki’s core purpose and function is established consultation with Maori and communities needs to occur to enable a managed transfer of autonomy and resources to Maori /Iwi and Community led organisations to employ Registered Social Workers to provide social work prevention and intervention services.

Whatever is left of Oranga Tamariki can then be dismantled.

Hi Jennie

Great considerations.

I am hopeful of broader conversation to be be had around what we want the future of social to look like in our Aotearoa NZ context? The last several decades of government led social work have been more of the same with some ‘editing at the edges’.

Also, is our social work future one of ‘policing people’? Should the ‘policing of people’ even be a function of social work? How can I be both the liberator and the oppressor? I would love to see this debated!

My suspicion is that people in social work didn’t start with this intent – but it is where we have landed. I would also argue that over the last several decades the ‘profession’ and its ‘associates’ seem to have developed a new tolerance and comfortability of the current social work landscape – as our social work future.

An opportunity for some new reimagining, and a new paradigm to emerge! Maybe a dismantling of what we think social work is and has become – and hopeful consideration of what it needs to be.

Nga mihi

Tena Korua Jimi / Jennie

” a dismantling of what we think social work is and has become – and hopeful consideration of what it needs to be” – now there is a coherent umbrella right there!

This is a very powerful and strongly focused commentary. Looking well back, it has been far too easy to ignore the social and economic settings which are so fundamental in effective child protection and leave the response/solution with individuals, whanau, hapu and iwi and communities which have been the carriers for those policies in the first place. Alongside resourcing families effectively to enable them to support and care for their tamariki, it is those social and economic policies which need to be addressed. If we are serious about an effective child protection service, then we need to be serious about attacking poverty.

Tena Koe Mike – thanks for that – I couldn’t agree more. You can’t develop social work solutions that ignore the social/political context and the economic settings. This country is full of billionaires and kids are going hungry. We need more than strategic plans, community hui and kindness to sort that out.

Do pakeha social workers need to step aside?

The recent report unfortunately has become a familiar one highlighting again what the system isn’t doing. Māori authors and commentators during the week talked about the challenge of the continued ‘master-servant’ relationship. One in which tino rangatiratanga, mana motuhake are not able to be realised due to successive governments continually not ceding absolute authority to tangata whenua. The net result being more systemic failings of our most marginalised and vulnerable groups. These systemic failings for māori are not limited to the domain of child welfare but are reflected in all of governments socially ordered domains where social work is also located.

Our dominating presence as pakeha in these domains (however meaningful and considered we hoped it to be), continues to feed, perpetuate, and maintain a system that does not work for māori. Our presence and our desire to tutū as pakeha continues to rob tangata whenua of their mana and their authority. The key problem here being our ‘presence’. A by māori for māori reality cannot be fully realised with pakeha standing ‘guard’ either in the room, or at the door.

In handing back authority and devolving back our socially ordered social work practices to tangata whenua, we pakeha social workers will need to consider the process of stepping aside so that tino rangatiratanga for māori can flourish. To pakeha who practice in these areas – this may seem somewhat confronting. It is, but you’re not alone. It is still less confronting than the daily challenges and barriers that our māori brethren face every day in their daily lives.

We don’t need more pakeha social workers in those areas where māori are most disadvantaged. We will need to consider how we might firstly dis-engage with these colonising and traumatising socially ordered social control welfare practices and instead engage with practices that will assist māori (and others) in creating their political and economic change. At some point māori may then invite us back into their whare, but till then – we pakeha social workers will need to attend with our own maemae in our own whare.

Though we will invariably need to step aside, as pakeha finding our ‘new fit’ amidst ‘new change’ might feel scary – but our diverse pakeha stories, our pakeha genealogies, and our many varied pakeha origin stories are filled with rich histories, traditions, and landscapes beyond Aotearoa that we can draw on for a myriad of new and emergent social work practices. An opportunity for pakeha social workers to engage with revolutionary reform that enables our practices to engage with structural and social change, and centres’ emancipatory and social justice social work practices.

Nga mihi
Jimi McKay

Kia Ora Jimi – good to have your words here. Yes agreed it is long overdue for Pākehā to step back from arrogantly deciding about things Māori – unless invited to support. However the operation of the political and economic system and how it impacts on `M`āori and tau iwi is another matter I think. After all colonisation, land theft and cultural take over were all about imposing the liberal capitalism system in the settler state of Aotearoa – individual ownership and private profit – and this is not the only possible system of organising social life. It is a ‘Pākehā system’ but it is not the only possible model and I think that all of us – not just social workers – can and should participate in advocating for better – more socially just – ways of organising our worlds. After all, in the bigger scheme of things, the current exploitative relationship with the planet can’t be sustained. Dissent is important and so is solidarity and so is dialogue. We do what we can – and for state social workers there may be a window here at this time to do more good and less harm.

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