Building whānau advocacy

There is currently a movement within Oranga Tamariki to devolve power and resources to hapū and iwi, alongside and together with devolvement to local communities. The focus is on a new system that is ‘locally led, centrally enabled’ 

This direction is shaped by the multiple reviews, inquiries and reforms over the last 3 years, particularly the Waitangi Tribunal findings, which recommended the child welfare system apparatus move away from a ‘notify-investigate’ system to one that is radically different in terms of structure, aims, powerholders and resource distribution. Calls to create meaningful partnerships with iwi and hapū were reiterated as a method to achieve this (they were already required under the 2019 amendments to the Oranga Tamariki Act 1989). Returning to regional and community-based commissioning of services, focussed on earlier prevention and local decision-making, are at the forefront of the change. These directions are similar to those happening elsewhere in the globe, where the weight of the deep inequities reflected in child welfare systems are calling attention to the inherent problems of focussing only on children in societies highly structured by class, ethnicity and gender; where to do so creates artificial and often harmful distinctions between what children need and what the adults who care for them need; and where the power connected to statute distorts relationships and challenges participatory practice. (for example, see the US debate here, the Australian debate outlined here Tied up with this is recognition of the long reach of colonisation and its repercussions today.

However, imagining what, exactly, a new system should look like is hard. We have a system that seems so commonsense that even those most outspoken about its deficiencies find it difficult to articulate alternatives to a central agency with others who are obligated to report to it. Alternatives must grapple with the interrelated issues of Māori disparities, Treaty obligations and tino rangatiratanga, poverty and intersecting inequities, the role and purpose of organisations outside of Oranga Tamariki, and the multiplicities and tensions created by differences in location, identities, situations and preferences of people in contact with child welfare services. Who should be part of this conversation is one place to start, as any system restructure needs to have input from those most affected by the system: who are they?

While we often slide over the word ‘whānau’, or add it to either children (‘children and their whānau’) or to discussions about hapu and iwi (‘whānau, hapū and iwi’), the need for whānau involvement – and in this instance I mean parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles of children involved with Oranga Tamariki – is less emphasised. So while conversations about new structures include leaders and representatives of the crown, of iwi, of community-based organisations; and of young people with experience of the care system (however problematic), we still have a system within which the needs and views of the group of adults who are co-subjects (together with children) of the child protection system are largely silent. This silence is often underpinned by subtle and not so subtle stigma – and with it the unspoken accusations of being a perpetrator of child abuse. The absence of the voices of this large group of people exists in both day to day feedback loops to Oranga Tamariki, and in the substantial role this group could have in the development of services, practice guidance, social work professional development and peer advocacy for other parents.  

The problems with this absence are numerous. For a start, the majority of people reported to Oranga Tamariki are not for reasons of direct abuse – the majority are for issues categorised as emotional abuse or neglect which tend to reflect a combination of social/ family issues and personal stressors rather than direct abuse. There are often a range of complex family issues that is making parenting a struggle, or are perceived to be. Intimate partner violence, substance abuse and mental health needs on top of often marked poverty are key issues that need addressing in many families, and to understand how specifically to address these issues – adult issues – we need to hear from those actually facing these problems – adults. While understanding children’s experiences of these situations is of course important, changing that situation requires engaging and working with parents and other adult whānau members effectively. Parents and grandparents are those most engaged with the system and are usually the targets of change – so asking them what their experience has been is crucial to understanding both their problems and what were helpful solutions. As one of our participants so eloquently put it: “They only help the children apparently… That doesn’t make sense because the children need to go back to their parents, you know?”

Now, I’m not a person who thinks children should never be removed and every parent is an angel – not at all – there are situations from which children should be protected. But when we think about how a child protection sysem should operate, by far the greatest engagement with that system is with adults of a whānau that contains children – it is adults who are contacted and interviewed, adults who are expected to account for themselves, adults who must attend family group conferences and adults who are charged with undertaking plans and engaging with change. Without this being sucessful, then the only alternative becomes alternative care of some kind, which brings its own risks for children and terrible pain for parents and other whānau members. This pain contributes to ongoing distress and trauma for both them and their children. Yet we know very little about the experiences of adults who have gone through this process in this country, either to inform day to day practice or structural change of the whole system. Similarly, conversations about devolution to either Māori or community organisations can miss this – neither type of organisation necessarily includes the perspectives of those who have had direct experience with the child protection system, risking the re-creation of systems that tend to marginalise and exclude the very people they aim to help. While both may be sensitised to the issue because of their role as witnesses, this doesn’t necessarily equate to practices that regularly include affected whānau adults in service design or practice approaches. 

When thinking about devolution and system design, there is a clear need to obtain rigorous, systematic feedback and partnership mechanisms with the adults involved in the child protection system. Their ‘lived experience’ is exremely pertinent to how to design an effective system, but all the talk of lived experience again, usually focusses on children. I don’t want to diminish the importance of children and young people participating both in their individual decisions and policy development. Their views are so important, as are the views and experiences of social workers. But without including adult family members of system-involved whānau,  the resulting changes are incomplete, missing an important piece of the overall puzzle.

Children exist within whānau, and in all but the most extreme cases, avoiding and minimising removals requires providing effective services – understanding how and why services are helpful relies on direct intentional engagement with parents and other adults who have experienced them. Children are not always aware of how to address the struggles and issues their parents and wider whānau are facing. Whatsmore, there is often a false distinction between children in the care system and their parents in another way – yesterday’s children in care make up a large proportion of today’s parents whose children enter care, but suddenly their lived experience is invisible because they have become an adult. In a curious reversal of the traditional exclusion of children from having a voice, these children are suddenly excluded because they are no longer a child. This is an artificial distinction on both counts: children exist within a social institution we call whānau or family and recognising their rights and needs is best achieved when the rights and needs of adult family members are met; and humans are the same person that has the same rights across their lifecourse at whatever age. 

Without grappling with the range of factors whānau face by asking people what those are, system changes are unlikely to come up with ways to address them. Parental advocacy movements elsewhere have been successful in reducing the numbers of children entering care and reducing recurring abuse for children who remain at home (see Tobis (2013). Movements around the world bring parents together to provide advocates for other parents going through the child protection process, and policy advice to child protection systems.

How might this work? An obvious barrier to developing movements of this kind is the low trust in Oranga tamariki experienced by many individuals and communities. Fears of misappropriation, tokenism and subversion will abound. Trust takes time and evidence, and adequately recognising harm. Yet many within the organisation are ready to work differently. Here is a role for iwi/ Māori, Pacific and other community organisations (and academics) to come to the fore, by creating intentional communities for adults with experience with Oranga Tamariki, providing support and education for them, brokering relationships and communications with local site offices, encouraging and hosting genuine interactions between the two in neutral spaces, creating structured opportunities for parents to contribute to local guidance, peer advocacy and social work professional development. While some of this happens in pockets, embedding these processes in everyday policy and practice, including accountability and oversight measures, remains scant (some of these ideas were solidified through my twitter thread on this topic, and connections with other projects – see list at the end for some fabulous ideas). 

How to build genuine partnership with parents and other adults who care for children needs meaningful inclusion in the debates here in Aotearoa. There is certainly an appetite for both Māori and non-Māori communities to pursue their own services and solutions. But what is not spelled out in these efforts is the need to actively partner with parents and whānau who have been through the system to learn from that experience. Without that inclusion the claim to be devolving to communities rings hollow. Real devolution must engage the very people the child protection system aims to help. Whānau. 

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