Child protection social work: Abolish or reform?

This week I have had the good fortune to participate in the US-based (Denver-Colorado) Kempe Centre International Virtual Conference: A CALL TO CHANGE CHILD WELFARE. The theme of the conference was generated by the challenges facing child protection systems globally, and specifically across the English-speaking / Anglophone ‘world’.

In the US context demands to dismantle Child Protection Services (CPS) can be linked to a groundswell of concern about systemic racism as reflected in the Black Lives Matter movement. The outrage and protest sparked by the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 is, of course, related to endemic racist oppression with its roots in the history of slavery.

From this perspective the CPS is donkey-deep in a punitive carceral state where child welfare and adult imprisonment have been developed as tools to punish and manage Black (and other ‘problem’ populations) who are constructed as a threat to the largely White institutions of privilege and power within the US economic and political system. This critique is powerfully articulated is the writings of Dorothy Roberts: that CPS processes and outcomes damage, undermine and dis-empower Black communities because that is precisely what they have been designed to do. Hence the argument for abolition of this form of ‘family policing’.

In her key-note presentation to this conference Roberts talked about the importance of non-reformist reforms: systemic changes that shrink rather than extend the reach of the state apparatus. She advocated for child welfare to be radically re-imagined with an emphasis on what can be learned from parent / survivor and community-led initiatives. It was suggested that it is time for the white, professional, expert voice to be silenced.

One of the most powerful critiques of the current system of child protection is the damage that has been done historically in the name of child welfare. The mainstream history of state social work since the nineteenth century is bound up with interventions targeted at problem populations – people pushed to the margins of liberal capitalist societies. As the stream of inquiries in Australia, Canada, and here in Aotearoa clearly tell us, destructive consequences have been disproportionately visited upon Indigenous people. Although the differences in scale in the US are vast,  the work done by Len Cook (2020) clearly connects the institutionalisation of tamariki Māori in the 60s, 70s and 80s with entry into the adult prison system.

We also know that the forensic ‘notify, investigate and intervene’ child protection systems,  prompted by the work of the American paediatrician Henry Kempe in the 1970s,  have morphed into large risk-saturated machine bureaucracies. Criticism of these systems is not new. In the Australian context Dorothy Scott wrote the following lines in 2006:

Most child protection services in countries such as Australia and New Zealand have become demoralised, investigation-driven bureaucracies which trawl through escalating numbers of low-income families to find a small minority of cases in which statutory intervention is necessary and justifiable, leaving enormous damage in their wake. The point has been reached in many places where we are exceeding the use of the State’s coercive powers to protect children without causing further harm.         (Scott, 2006, p.1)

In questioning why such a damaging system is tolerated, Scott raises the issue of power and authority: who is affected, who is heard, and whose interests are served (?):

Is this because, like our predecessors in the history of child protection, we cannot allow ourselves to acknowledge that we cause such suffering when our intent is so well-meaning? Is it because we prefer to engage in self-protective “defensive practice” regardless of the cost to children and their families? Is it because we do not readily identify with the anguish of parents because they are mostly “other”? If this happened to middle-class families on the scale it is happening to indigenous and non-indigenous working-class families, the pain would not be inaudible.                                 (Scott, 2006, p.9)

This brings me to the reform of child protection practice in Aotearoa in the here and now. After the tipping point of the Hastings uplift , Māori interests have demanded radical change to our racist child protection system (much as they did in the 1980s).

In the rash of inquiries that followed the Newsroom exposure of the Hastings fiasco, the voices of those most affected by destructive / muscular rescue-centered practice were directly heard. However, as suggested in my previous post, the recent report of Kelvin Davis’ Māori Advisory Group has not (at least not yet) gone as far as mandating a ‘for and by’ Maori child welfare system in line with the authority promised by te Tiriti. Aaron Smale has argued that once again the voices of the most disenfranchised and oppressed have not been attended to – that the interests of those (often Māori) at the bottom of the hierarchy of power have been disregarded.

The Jury is out in relation to the question of real and lasting systemic reform. So often in the past human rights centered inquiries have led to angst and blood-letting but not radical change (Žižek, 2014). The notify, investigate /assess, and intervene (in the lives of whānau judged to be dangerous to their children) system of statutory child protection practice is not likely to be dismantled any time soon. We know that this process has not worked well in the distant or recent past. These systems are discriminatory and often fail to protect children from harm – not least because interventions in the name of care have been so destructive of security, identity and belonging.

There are several challenging bones to be picked by the social work profession in all of this. Child protection practice – and social work more broadly – must name and confront the elephants in their room. For child protection the sticking point is the specter of serious harm and sometimes the death of children at the hands of their ‘natural’ family caregivers. Radical reform is hamstrung by this emotive reality. It is the fear that sits behind the felt need to maintain a forensic (legal / medical) investigation-driven child protection system. This is the argument raised against those who would abolish CPS in the US, and although not often articulated, it also influences the intent to retain and strengthen state social work in Aotearoa. The fact that the current system does more harm than good is perpetually obscured by this emotive screen.

How successful have our actions to protect high-risk children been? How good can we ever be at this? As a social worker I encountered child deaths and youth suicides that we only saw coming in hindsight. I don’t think that this has changed. We are overdue for this hard conversation. Does this moral burden justify the collateral damage? What are the alternatives?

There is a second elephant named systemic inequality and it is a function of capitalist social relations. We have fallen in love with the notion of protecting ‘our most vulnerable’. This social group is talked about in other ways – the  hard to reach, the underclass poor. There is a long history of social work as a device for managing those on the fringes: for fixing and supporting identified problem families.

The truth is that “our most vulnerable” are not a separate population group who warrant scientific study and corrective intervention (Flanagan, 2018). They are simply people who have been kicked around at the bottom of the social and economic heap. By far the best way of addressing this is to provide people with access to adequate housing, education, health care services, meaningful secure work that pays a living wage and a benefit system which does not demonise and entrench poverty.

People are vulnerable to our economic and political settings. The problem doesn’t lie in their behaviour, attitude, or breeding. As Innes Asher has recently reiterated, there is more vulnerability now than there was thirty years ago because of the economic and political policies that successive governments have chosen. Social work as a practice of care is implicated in all of this. And, of course,  all of this has a particular twist in this unique settler colonial state. Bring out the elephants – let’s have a good look at them. Maybe, it is time for truth, some fresh narratives, and, perhaps, for future reconciliation. How about a conference on child protection futures in Aotearoa in 2022?

Image credit: Suzanne Hanlon


Cook , L.( 2020 ) ‘A statistical window for the justice system: Putting a spotlight on the scale of state custody of generations of Māori’, Brief of Evidence Wai 2915. Available at: https:// Documents/ WT/ wt_ DOC_ 161895442/ Wai%202915%2C%20

Flanagan, K. (2018) ‘ “Problem families” in public housing: discourse, commentary and (dis) order, Housing Studies, 33(5), 684 ­707.

Scott, D. (2006) ‘Sowing the seeds of innovation in child protection’. Keynote paper  presented to 10th Australasian Child Abuse and Neglect conference, Wellington, New  Zealand.  Available from:

Žižek, S. (2014) From the end of history to the end of capitalism: Trouble in paradise, London: Penguin.

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