We are often told that the confluence of poverty, inequality and entry into the child protection system is not something that child welfare services can address. Child protection focuses on the risk of harm to children and the circumstances of their families. Structural inequality, if it is acknowledged at all, is regarded as a problem of a different order. As social workers it is out of our hands and therefore it is invisible; class exploitation and racially configured oppression are one thing, and child protection is another: oh dear, how sad, never mind. I have trouble accepting this proposition.
History has legs. Tennant (1989, p. 123) describes a ‘… growing range of state and voluntary agencies anxious to guide “problem” families after the First World War. Always subject to censure from the relieving officer, poor women were obvious targets for the new social workers, although many remained staunchly resistant to interventions.’ Gendered ideals and class-based judgments coloured practice.
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 responsibility 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: 124)
It is instructive to reflect, a hundred years later, on what has changed, and what remains essentially the same.
My book about the political history of child protection in Aotearoa is due for publication in late January 2022. This text explores the relationship between child welfare policy, liberal capitalism, and the politics of settler colonialism over time. It begs the question of what a socially just child protection system could look like? It also traces the way that approaches to the issue of child welfare have always had explicitly economic and political dimensions. Child protection is only separate from political economy if you buy into the notion that liberal capitalism is a part of the natural world, as opposed to a specific set of ideological perceptions and economic settings that favour a particular set of interests.
The fact that the families subject to statutory child welfare intervention are generally drawn from the ragged edges of the working class is not a mysterious coincidence. It has a direct whakapapa back to the Victorian origins of the child protection project (Jones, 1981; Ferguson, 2004). Eugenic undertones have persistently dogged child protection policy and practice: the identification and surveillance of problem families classed as deviant and threatening. The history of social science is mired with the intent to identify and classify the dangerous poor. The shadow side of a liberal politics based on the sanctity of private property and individualised moral responsibility has always involved the othering of those who are pushed to the social margins.
The logistical problem for liberal governance is that capitalist economics excludes and divides by its very nature, hence the imperative to problematise and demonise the disadvantaged. This orientation is evidenced in our recent history within the work of the New Zealand Productivity Commission and, of course, the ‘Expert Panel’ on Modernising Child, Youth and Family.
To revisit the dogma of our most august charitable aid inspector, Dr Duncan McGregor, the identiﬁcation of problem outsiders who pose a risk to ‘our’ vulnerable children and to the moral boundaries of the liberal creed is consistent with 19th century notions about the genetic reproduction of ‘social parasites’. Perhaps this is the real ‘cycle’ that needs to be broken in our approach to the reform of child protection.
(*Hyslop – forthcoming, 2022)
In Aotearoa, child protection is framed by the living legacy of colonisation. The system has produced blatantly racist and culturally destructive outcomes, particularly since the mid-twentieth century (Hyslop, 2020; Stanley and de Froideville, 2020).
As noted with the earlier forced removal of babies from unmarried teenage mothers, both Canada and Australia had parallel experiences, in their case with an intense focus on placing indigenous children with European parents. In Canada this is referred to as the ‘Sixties Scoop’, and in Australia ‘the Stolen Generation’.
(Cook, 2020 : 29)
There was a fundamental clash between the pre-colonial social, economic, and legal structures of indigenous Māori and the values and practices which sustain liberal capitalism. The drive to undermine these structures and assimilate Māori was necessary for the effective imposition of liberal political economy. This entailed the systematic separation of Māori from communal land ownership and collective production, to release wage labour for settler capitalism (Poata-Smith, 2002, p.11). There is, of course, a complex and continuous lineage of resistance here, which my book engages with.
Settler colonialism also involved ideological assimilation which was intrinsically tied to the British colonial doctrine of racial supremacy (Cox, 2021). Māori were allotted a place on the unskilled periphery of the working class and ‘educated’ accordingly. When Māori migrated to the cities in the post war decades, they filled the social position allotted to them.
The assimilative ideology of ‘one people’ functioned to conceal the reality for the majority of Maori. Although drawn into the working class, Maori workers found themselves in the worst jobs, crammed into inadequate housing, and with inferior technical education that limited their opportunities for economic advancement. Moreover, ﬁnding employment was not a forgone conclusion.
(Poata- Smith, 2002 : 149)
Cook’s (2020) careful examination of the radically disproportionate entry rates of Māori children into state care, and often subsequent imprisonment (from the 1960s on-wards), highlights grossly damaging consequences for the well-being of whānau: a harvest which we continue to reap in the here and now. In many ways, the institutional abuse of Māori children, and the ﬂow-on effect of whānau suffering, is a damning indictment of state social work.
I would like to be able say that the spate of inquiries and political machinations that followed the Hastings uplift scandal, and the partial melt-down of OT as we know it, has resolved these challenges. However, I fear that we are still a long way from the edge of the woods:
What would a legal system that approached child protection through a structurally informed lens look like? What might a Māori legal system for child protection look like (as opposed to a Pākehā system with some Māori principles tacked on)?
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but here are some further hypothetical questions. They only don’t make sense if you say that these things are unimaginable under the current dominant social relations of capitalism:
# What if the state was required to extend a universal standard of respect to all people, including groups who do not subscribe to the political and cultural tenets of liberal individualism?
# What if social workers engaged with concerns about the care and well-being of children – be they state social workers or Iwi-based navigators – were legally required to investigate the way in which structural problems of relative poverty and inter-generational alienation were contributing to these concerns: housing, income, health, education, social support?
# What if they were further required, and resourced, to actively engage with whānau to address these barriers to belonging and participation in society?
# # What if they were further mandated to engage with the political state to advocate and lobby for an equitable redistribution of wealth, resources and opportunities for those pushed to the outskirts of our systematically unequal society?
# # # What if the progress of te Tiriti o Waitangi – compliant devolved child welfare services were systematically reported – through Māori designed and led mechanisms – to an authorised and empowered Iwi-led Ministry for Decolonisation?
Are the above questions evidence of fanciful and misguided idealism? Is the current economic, social, and constitutional template a fixed immovable reality? Is jarring socio-economic inequality natural, desirable, and God-given? Are we better to persevere with a diet of rescue and punishment? *Just wondering / just asking. Historically-speaking the ‘impossible’ happens regularly.
Image credit: Stewartbaird
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:// forms.justice.govt.nz/search/Documents/WT/wt_DOC_161895442/Wai%202915%2C%20A040(a).pdf.
Cox, K. (2021) “Wretchedness in every form”: The role of early child protection in settler-colonial capitalism in Aotearoa. (MSW Thesis).
Ferguson , H. ( 2004 ) Protecting Children in Time: Child Abuse, Child Protection and the Consequences of Modernity, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Hyslop, I. (2020 ) ‘Child protection, capitalism and the settler state: Rethinking the social contract’, Policy Quarterly, 16(1): 34– 6.
Jones , C. ( 1983 ) State Social Work and the Working Class ( Critical Texts in Social Work and the Welfare State, series ed P. Leonard), Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Stanley, L. and de Froideville, M.S. (2020) ‘From vulnerability to risk: Consolidating state interventions towards M ā ori children and young people in New Zealand’, Critical Social Policy, 40(4): 526– 45.
Tennant, M. (1989) Paupers and Providers: Charitable Aid in New Zealand, Wellington: Allen and Unwin and Historical Branch, Dept of Internal Affairs.