Radical Reform of Child Protection?

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 (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:

Keddell, E. (2020) ‘The case for an inequalities perspective in child protection’, Policy Quarterly, 16(1), 36-38.

8 replies on “Radical Reform of Child Protection?”

I would be interested Ian if you have gone to talk to the protesters or the view of them wanting Freedom is a view from a far?. As I train in my last year of Social Work it would have been great to have more hearty debates on the questions you post. Unfortunately we are been taught a Social Work system that is very western in New Zealand. As you raise the “issue whether Māori have a legal and moral right to a much deeper and broader degree of independence”. As a student I would like to understand why this is even an issue? To my own understanding of te Tiriti o Waitangi, Māori should have independence it should not be an issue? Why I ask have you been to the protest unfortunately I see a majority of Social Works viewing from a far. The history of child protection has now rolled in to the present with no strong change but plenty or views. When will Social Workers take up a real protest to support change or to stand by the te Tiriti o Waitangi that they committed to when they became social workers? Going back to what your article was wanting to do inviting reader to think about what “ progressive social change in Aotearoa through a wider lens”. I would look forward hearing other views on this especially those work as Social Workers.

Hi Rebecca – thanks for your comment – yes I am interested in the thoughts of others too. I hope you are energised by glimpsing the end of your studies – it has been a tough couple of years for many. No I have not been down to Wellington but I have read and heard a lot about it from many people. The question about the end of vaccine mandates in the future is valid but I see too much of the narrow minded right wing populism we have seen across the world – it is a shallow politics that is not really in the interests of working people and on the extreme edges it is very dangerous indeed – so I find it disturbing and saddening. As far as social work and Te Tiriti is concerned, we do indeed talk a lot about principles and commitments – however the reality is more often than not something quite different I am afraid – which is why I persist ( for my sins) in asking the questions that I do. I also believe – not to put too fine a point on this – that Pākehā need to try to take some responsibility for unpacking the illusions which give us comfort. But it is also important not to over-simplify things – read, think, discuss and question! Enjoy your last year of study! Ian

Kia ora, I appreciate your writings that I have read over the years. I am struggling to understand why the social work profession has whole heartedly embraced the vax mandates and shuts down and conversation that questions it. Why is it being equated with privileged, white-extremist, right-wing, neo-liberalism? That makes me think that you haven’t actually spoken with the ordinary, caring and hard working people who do not agree with the mandates. And there are many, social workers and theie6vlients who have been impacted by the mandates.
Perhaps you should climb down from your ivory tower and come and talk to the people. Arohanui.

Kia Ora Ella – Thanks for your comment – as said it hard to ‘win’ arguments when people start from much different positions. Also – as said – there is important room for dialogue over vaccine mandates – although even with Omicron there is a good argument to keep them because of the extra risk of hospitalisation attached to unvaccinated people. I do understand that many ‘good’ and genuine people will be caught up in this protest. The problem for me is the links between it and right wing populist movements we have seen the world over – Trump flags / confederate flags / fundamentalist religious extremism / racist and/or homophobic views / conspiracies that all government is against ‘the people’ / paranoid ideas involving denial of a global public health emergency – I am not saying all the protest people hold such views at all – but it is a breeding ground for the spread of such ideas. The whole idea that individual freedom is a supreme value – even when it damages the public good – is not an idea that helps us as a community – and it certainly doesn’t help people at the bottom of the heap in the long run. Now there are good reasons why people feel pissed off and left out but this is not where the answers lie in my opinion. I agree that communication is important but I do believe there is a real risk of ‘good’ people being convinced of the truth of a very twisted story. This populist right freedom front stuff has been slower to develop here – a bit like the spread of Covid itself – thanks to the careful management of the public health response – but it is here now. So … that is where I am coming from Ella and – of course – it is just my opinion and you don’t have to agree – you are ‘free’ to develop your own views. All I would say, is that to understand things well we need to look beneath the surface. I hope that clarifies where I am coming from. Take care in these challenging times. Ian

Kia ora, thank you for your reply. My comment wasn’t so much in relation to the protest/occupation as to the ability to be able to have these important discussions in an open forum. I belong to several on-line social work groups and whenever the issue of the mandates are raised it gets shut down and labelled as an “anti-vaccine rant”. As we all know, the mandates are a completely separate issue to being “anti-vax”. Many vaccinated people, myself included, can see the harm and division that the mandates have caused. I currently feel very let down by the social work profession as the SWRB and the ANZASW seem to have taken a hard-line approach to this issue. It is complex, and there is not a “one size fits all solution” because humans are complex. It is easy to accept the mandates if you are 100% comfortable with getting the vaccine and the booster but many, many people have good reason to be vaccine hesitant. Vaccine injury/harm is a documented fact and people who have had a bad reaction to the first or second dose, justifiably do not want another one. They are then put in a position of either risking their health and well-being or losing their job and the freedom to participate in society. As a social worker, I believe that this is an unjust situation that we should be speaking out about. The bottom line for most people is that where there is risk, there must be choice.
It has been very interesting to speak to people at the protest these last three days and hear the many different reasons why they are there and to meet people with such varied backgrounds and professions who all agree that the mandates are unjust. And yes, there were plenty of crackpots too! I did not witness any evidence of a right wing presence, which is not to say that it isn’t there behind the scenes but in general it was a very diverse and inclusive atmosphere.
I strongly object to the notion that people who do not agree with the mandates are selfish, neo-liberal right-wingers. It is so much more nuanced than that. The more that the social work profession pushes this standpoint, the more that you will push some of us away. At this point in time, I am reconsidering my career in social work because it seems to have lost touch with the values of empowerment, acceptance and empathy.
Aroha mai, aroha atu, nga mihi nui, Ella Evans

Kia ora Ella – I have my view on this as you will know. There is clear far right funding and support for the protest camp scenario and it also seems that there is a variety of misinformed anti-vax / anti ‘socialist’ positioning within the groups we see represented – and I do fear a radicalisation of those whose interests are much better served by the political left. I think this is disturbing politically and it does reflect the influence of more sinister interests behind the scenes – as we have seen in other countries. Also it would be silly to label everybody involved in the same way and there are plenty of genuine grievances. I also agree that the issue of the function and current worth of vaccine mandates is something that should be debated openly – this blog not the best forum of course but – as said however, be careful with those notions of freedom for all – it was (after all) written above the gates of Aushwitz. Ian

Tena koe Ian,

I think O’Sullivan (2007) sums it up well in describing the challenge of self-determination in relation to our current structures;

“Self-determination challenges the systemic and ideological foundation of post-colonial notions of sovereignty and government. It aims to decolonise the indigenous relational status to the nation state. It seeks an equality that can only be achieved by the recognition of group rights that requires the withdrawal of the state from domains in which it would prefer to intrude” (O’Sullivan, 2007).

However we move forward – my hope is that we continue to diminish the role of the state as colonisers in the lives of the colonised/tangata whenua; and instead in our social work practice and education focus on enhancing the paramount Rangatiratanga/sovereignty of Tangata Whenua. Here He Puapua offers some ideas as to how we might do this.

Nga mihi e hoa

Kia Ora

Thanks for this comment. Yep the issue of self determination is complex, not least in relation to the role of Pākehā in this process. I like to think social work can be a decolonising influence and I was trying to signal here that this issue is a historical constant in Aotearoa. We are at a worrying place for the wider politics of the left with a resurgence of radical individualism. This approach does not benefit the interests of collective cultures or of groups outside of the boundaries of established capitalist power hierarchies. I think it can be a struggle to understand our times Jimi but there are positive future pointers in the long history of Māori resistance and in the collective struggles of working people.

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