The Modernising Child, Youth and Family ‘Expert’ Panel’s Interim Report is rhetorically powerful at times. The form of the report expands and contracts like a concertina and is replete with what Noam Chomsky (1989) refers to as necessary illusions and emotionally potent over-simplifications. In order to consider the ideological underpinnings of this document it is necessary to dig beneath the surface façade.
The measured business model language of the recently released Productivity Commission Report on “More Effective Social Services” conceals a deeply disturbing set of ideological blinkers. The underlying dogma is that marketization will produce better public services. The narrow lens of supply and demand produces a predictable focus: greater consumer choice, better products, efficiency incentives and measures. However there is also a more deeply disguised, insidious and sinister narrative bias – particularly in relation to the development of social services.
I would like to invite some elephants to reveal themselves and vacate the child protection room. This might give us some more space to breathe and think. In other words let’s name some of the uncomfortable realities. Let’s be frank: child protection social work in Aotearoa New Zealand is enmeshed with social inequality. Pelton’s (2015) summary of recent research studies presents compelling evidence of the link between poverty, child maltreatment and entry into state care. It does not take a rocket scientist (luckily) to work out that a range of negative outcomes for children – including a greater risk of maltreatment – result from inadequate incomes, second rate education, deprived neighbourhoods, inadequate housing and poor health. Social workers are aware of this.
Nigel Parton’s (2014) recent study of the political context surrounding the ‘reform’ of child protection practice and policy in England contends that the state is pursuing an increasingly authoritarian agenda in relation to a particular section of the population, England’s poorest and most vulnerable families. The neoliberal project involves a shift in responsibility for social outcomes from the state to families.
The Ministerial appointment of an ‘expert panel’ to oversee the development of a ‘future CYF operating model’ supported by a ‘Detailed Business Case’ is a deeply disturbing turn for those concerned with the future of social work practice in Aotearoa / New Zealand. Statutory child protection is carried out by social workers. I am concerned by the panel composition which features no child protection social work practice expertise or experience. Most of all I am uneasy about the intent which lies behind the rhetoric of modernisation, efficiency, and the emotive panacea of a child-centred approach to practice. This intent remains obscure but as Bob Dylan once suggested, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”.