A socially just child protection system?

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://

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.

8 replies on “A socially just child protection system?”

And now Chris Luxon is talking of reviving the terrible social investment policy which will secure families of beneficiaries in a racist ‘scientific’ regime based on saving the state money.

Good thoughts Ian…

The question on; “if social workers….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?”

I wonder if it can be legally argued that social workers adherence to te Tiriti o waitangi, the Pou/values and principles of the social work code of ethics, and required social work practices (including social justice ones); are already captured in the current social work legislation and practice requirements? If so, then are we already legally mandated (and morally/ethically obliged) as social workers to engage in social justice social work practices?

I think a challenge is that social work profession hasn’t articulated and translated what social justice social work practices are in practice? Given neoliberalism, the resultant false dichotomy between micro/marco practices vs. personal-political social work practices; our viewing of social justice in social work has denigrated to the lowest common social work denominator – that of social welfare responses to aid social improvement, as a mechanism of social control; vs. social justice social work responses to aid structural change, as a mechanism of social change.

If we are legally mandated to engage in social justice social work practices – then it could be argued that the broader practices within dissenting and subversive social work practices, non-violent direct social work action practices, and non-violent civil disobedience social work practices – are all social justice social work practices the profession can engage in as a legitimate part of addressing our structural challenges.

Nga mihi e hoa


Kia Ora Jimi – thanks for sharing your thoughts here.

You are right that social justice practice does potentially follow from the professional code / definitions and in particular from the stated commitment to te Tiriti. The rub, of course, is that the job descriptions and the narrow output measures required by employers (the state or state funded/ contracted NGOs etc) and the tightly regulated behavioural limits and expectations that go with this … pull us towards social control and narrow evidence-based practice.

This is a continuous tension that researchers/ practitioners like Luis Arevalo and John Darroch have explored in the last couple of years. In this sense what we (or many of us) would like to do or be as a profession runs (often) against the expectations of our ‘masters’. We need – I think – to grasp this contradiction and work out where we stand within it individually and collectively. I guess there is seldom change without struggle. Perhaps the Association has the potential to become a more coherent and challenging voice. Perhaps history is shifting … we must do what we can to push it along /make our alliances … sing our redemption songs!

Have a good break when it comes if you can. What a long years voyage it has been and hopefully you are nearly back to the relative safety of harbour and home to recharge for another run against the wind!

Best wishes – Ian

Hi Ian . I read your post with interest and have used the link to preorder a copy of your book for myself. I paid using the link and using my credit card. I just got my bank statement, and the cost of GBP 19.99 has ballooned from this cost to $63.96. I’ve received no itemized invoice. The bank has been less than helpful in that they do not seem to be able to make any inquiries other than to instigate a dispute and also deprive me of access to my card so I declined their help for now. I’m not angry or anything like it; but in the absence of any other line of inquiry I just thought you might be able to help if you could email me with a bit of clarification. It could be that the GBP 19.99 converts to NZD $63.96. Sorry to be a pain but I’d like to know if this is correct and there doesn’t seem to be any way to query this matter with Policy Press online. I’m sure that your book is worth every penny and I am looking forward to reading it.

Hi Jane – sorry to hear that you have had this outcome – I don’t know how this stuff works to be honest – maybe shipping costs or something but I think British pounds are worth a little under two NZ dollars so it should translate to about twice the figure – not three times! I hope you get some better explanation about this – let me know how you get on but probably better to send me an e mail than use this comments space – Best wishes – Ian

Kia ora Ian,

Great article yet again.

If all of your questions in your article, a collection is copied below, were actually the reality then Aotearoa, in fact the entire world, would look a totally different place because the way in which social workers would be compelled to work could be used across a number of different issues and / or sectors. While this article spoke about tamariki, we could easily transpose these questions across to the youth sector or the elderly or even more global issues like climate change.

# 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?

I am not sure whether being ‘legally required’ is the answer and not sure how we could get that secured even if we went down that route however, somewhere between ‘ethically required’ and ‘legally required’ might be the answer. I have no idea what that looks like. What I do know is that we’re not looking at the structural issues at the moment and we seem to be on a revolving cycle of individualistic practice.

I speak to different members of my team on a nearly weekly basis about lifting their heads above the parapet and look at the structural issues affecting clients A, B or C and tackle that. The results has been a number of great papers that have gone up the food chain to get some traction.

Unfortunately the majority goes nowhere, and it can be demoralising for the staff member, but I continually remind than that we must continue to tackle the issues at its core not at the bottom of the cliff.

# What if they were further required, and resourced, to actively engage with whānau to address these barriers to belonging and participation in society?

That would be revolutionary and would require a complete overhaul of the sectors funding regime. The outcomes would need to change from quantitative to qualitative and we would need to ditch these ridiculous, short-sighted and insulting timeframes when working with our whānau. The outcomes would be coming from the clients themselves and there will be NO timeframes as to when we close. We close when the outcomes, required by the whānau, are achieved, only then.

More to the point, whānau would lead the change with us facilitating, at best, with them.

This question requires time, time and more time on the ground because addressing ‘these barriers to belonging and participation in society’ is NOT an 8 or 12 week job.

# # 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?

And this is where the rubber meets the road because it is at the political level where the big changes can be made but only if, and it is a big IF, enough of us engage at this level.

For this to be mandated would require the previous question about resourcing, to be fulfilled because we quite frankly do not have the time during our working day, at present, to meet this requirement. Some of us do this but not enough and when we do it is normally after hours, at night and on weekends when we should be spending it with our own whānau.

It also requires a long-term analytical mindset and also one that likes to go through pages and pages of cabinet papers and contemporary policy, one which I am not sure the contemporary social worker is inclined to do. As an example, my last dealings with Minister Sepuloni’s office around the inequities of the Accommodation Supplement took 6 months to reach a resolution. The ‘resolution’ ended up being a 1 page letter acknowledging the suggestions and nothing much else however, imagine the response if 10, 20, 50, 100 social workers wrote to her about the same thing. The resolution may have been different.

But again, the about question will only become a reality if we’re resourced to take this work on as part of our job description and not as part of our ‘free time’.

I’ll stop banging on.

Take care and stay safe


Thanks for your reflections Luis. Your energy is amazing – you must have fallen into a big pool of anti-injustice brew at some stage in your life. What can be said – kia kaha – and look after yourself when you can.


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