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 credit: thinkpublic
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), 3–10.
Kemp, A.P. (2020) ‘Child protection practice: an unintended consequence of reform’, PhD thesis, University of Tasmania. (Available from: https://eprints.utas.edu.au/34789/)
Parton, N. (2014) The politics of child protection: Contemporary developments and future directions, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.