I have read the Ombudsman’s opinion in relation to Malachi Subecz. Like Emily Keddell I think there are some critical implications about the need to better manage and better fund the transition of our state child protection service. Change in child protection needs to be made with care simply because people get hurt in this work; more specifically children sometimes lose their lives. This does not mean reform is not needed. It is.
People wonder all the time why it is that child protection workers fail to identify and act on risk. How do mistakes that are so obvious in retrospect occur? The answer is that the reasons for this are mostly systemic. Child protection systems are complex and do not always behave rationally, at least not in the sense of clearly and consistently adhering to legally mandated procedures. Such systems are always applied within a political context and the perverse imperatives within the system are not always fully apparent to those who act within it. The disturbing thing for me is that this scenario is so familiar. I have seen this avoidant, minimalist, defensive practice before – in the 1990s. And many of the contextual drivers are the same.
Currently we have a climate of concern about the dangers of over-intervention. This policy and practice turn has been informed by recognition of the kind of clumsy, racist practice on display in the Hawkes Bay debacle – and by the truly appalling history of abuse in state care. It is, of course, reminiscent of the post-Puao te Ata Tu desire to move away from authoritarian state intervention and empower whānau. However, to cut a long sorry story short, the intent of PtAT was not resourced and the associated practice, at times, became a travesty.
In the 1990s a narrow and over-simplified emphasis on whānau responsibility led to the closure of notifications with little or no assessment. Social workers didn’t want more work. They didn’t have the capacity to do it; they didn’t have the time and money to do it well – so the system simply avoided finding out if intervention was warranted:
It was, as suggested, a wicked cocktail of production pressure and expedient practice; in this context, whānau empowerment was often equated with practice decisions that Horatio Nelson would have been proud of (!!). (Hyslop, 2022, p. 103)
Sadly, as the ever-astute Judge Boshier has clearly identified, this is precisely what happened with Malachi. In order to justify taking no further action (entering the NFA acronym in the bureaucratic recording system), it is first necessary to find that no care or protection concerns exist. The best way to insure against the risk of finding such concerns is not to look for them – don’t assess, don’t investigate, don’t try to find out what is going on. This is what occurred here.
Looking the other way and not assessing the safety and care of children – trying not to find care concerns – is not whānau-centred practice. These two things became conflated in the financially tight 1990s, and it worries me that this may be happening again. I am also conscious of a gulf between the organisational rhetoric of community and whānau-hapū-iwi empowerment and the reality of practice on the ground in the hyper-stressed bureaucracy of statutory social work at Oranga Tamariki.
Now, all this does not mean that we need to return to an exclusively child-centred rescue focus in child protection. Whānau-centred practice can and does recognise that children need to be protected and cared for. In fact that is what whānau-centred practice is all about. However it involves work – investigating, assessing, empowering, supporting and resourcing with whānau. It is highly skilled, sometimes tricky/challenging and time-consuming labour and it requires significant human and material investment – time, money and know-how. It involves more up-front work and resourcing than child rescue. Why wouldn’t it?
In the longer run I firmly believe in the notion of community /Iwi devolution and that a prevention-focused system is the way to go. We are heading the right way but we are not there yet and there is no point in pretending that we are.
More than this, child and family welfare is not all about the quality of child protection assessments and community support systems. This is another conflation we need to avoid. The bigger picture of socially just outcomes in child and family welfare practice will not be achieved without economic justice. Good, accessible, relational community/Iwi mandated service systems can and do help whānau in need, but they do not deal to the root cause of unequal social suffering in an unequal society. In the meantime, it is very important that we get the transition right and prevent history from repeating.
Image credit: Gerlos
Hyslop, I. (2022). A Political History of Child Protection – Lessons for Reform from Aotearoa New Zealand. Bristol: Policy Press.