We have protesters camped around Parliament. They say they want freedom. They are not the only ones. But freedom to please yourself regardless of the interests of others in a society structured by privilege and money isn’t any kind of freedom at all: it is merely a recipe for intolerance and injustice. Freedom for Māori to exercise their collective sovereignty and freedom for workers to organise and protect themselves from exploitation are the freedoms we should be focused on as a society. Sadly, I don’t expect to win any arguments with the freedom mob here. However, this post invites readers to think about progressive social change in Aotearoa through a wider lens.
One of the central themes that runs through the history of child protection is that concerns about child well-being and wider ‘welfare’ (along with the chances of being harmed by carers, investigated by the authorities or placed in care) are more likely to arise for children who are living in situations of social stress and economic deprivation. For empirical evidence of this glaring disparity we need only to look to the data from the comprehensive UK study of child welfare inequalities produced by Bywaters et.al (2020). In our setting similar data has been compiled and presented by Keddell (2020).
In 2014, children living in the most deprived 10% of neighbourhoods in Aotearoa New Zealand had 21 times the chance of having a substantiated finding of child abuse than children living in the least deprived 10%, were 35 times more likely to have a family group conference held about them, and over nine times more likely to enter foster care (Keddell, Davie and Barson, 2019). Each step-increase in deprivation resulted in a sequentially higher chance of child protection system contact, clearly illustrating the systematic relationship between living in high deprivation areas and contact with the child protection system.
We are compelled, if we are prepared to confront the issue of root causes seriously, to recognise and address the vexed question of economic inequality and child protection system involvement. However, in the Aotearoa context, there are also complex drivers relating to our own unique history.
Unequal contact with the child protection system arises from a confluence of three streams. Children caught up in the child protection net are predominantly the children of the poor – drawn from what could be described as the frayed edges of the working class. Due to the colonial imposition of the capitalist mode of development, these children are disproportionately Māori. Institutional racism is the third ingredient in this toxic mix.
Significantly the Wai 2915 Report – He Pāharakeke He Rito Whakakīkanga Whāruarua – explicitly links poverty, inequality and social injustice with the obligations which flow from te Tiriti o Waitangi:
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 choices. Active protection requires substantive changes designed to address these structural conditions.
It seems to me, then, in the Aotearoa context, that effective reform must address all three of these related elements – Institutional racism, Māori autonomy and systemic poverty.
If this prescription is accepted as accurate, some further matters arise. Some of these questions are challenging but we should not shrink from them if we are looking to foster real and lasting change:
- What does Māori self-determination mean in relation to child protection?
- What of Iwi / hapū / whānau self-determination – what are the borders and boundaries?
- Should we be thinking in terms of the devolution of authority vested in the Crown or rather the recognition of authority which has never been ceded by Māori?
The system as it stands seems to be prepared to accept some degree of service provision by and for Māori. However there are more contentious and fundamental issues in play – the issue of ‘authority’ to determine what these services should be comprised of? / questions about how services are funded, designed, delivered, measured, reviewed and further developed? This, in turn, raises the issue of whether Māori have a legal and moral right to a much deeper and broader degree of independence.
If we were to apply this breadth of vision to the reshaping of current child protection services for Māori, what might the implications be?
The degree to which this level of autonomy can be achieved / exercised sits as a separate question from whether it is justified in terms of human rights and social justice. However, assuming that such a political shift is justified (which is difficult to argue against from my reading of the history), the question becomes the extent to which Māori self-governance can be extended under current political (and socio-economic) arrangements – and whether or not changes are needed to constitutional settings, resource distribution and political structures.
All of this begs the question of how such fundamental change might be planned and actioned – what is the process to be followed? … and to come around in a circle – who should have authority to determine / design and implement such a process?
To return to the child protection issue, it is very difficult to see how this level of independence could be exercised in one ‘social service’ area without some changes to the governance of Aotearoa and to the social and economic rubric of our society. This was a wicked problem that Puao te Ata Tu touched on but did not address directly. The reclamation or establishment of autonomous Māori authority in this wider sense involves confronting the institutional location and exercise of power – in terms of controlling social and economic resources; questions of ownership, investment, production and education. This foundational post-colonial dilemma remains unaddressed and it is not going away any time soon. It will remain with us long after the tents and placards of the self proclaimed freedom-fighters are gone.
Image credit: Lucas Pettinati
Bywaters, P. (2020) ‘Child Welfare Inequalities: Final Report’, Paul Bywaters and the Child Welfare Inequalities Project Team. Huddersfield: University of Huddersfield. Available from: https://pure.hud.ac.uk/ws/files/21398145/CWIP_Final_Report.pdf
Keddell, E. (2020) ‘The case for an inequalities perspective in child protection’, Policy Quarterly, 16(1), 36-38.