Grave concerns over new ministry

The new Ministry for Vulnerable Children is now up and running, but University of Auckland expert in social work Dr Ian Hyslop has serious reservations about its path, writing that it is under-resourced and a step backwards

On the day Bill English launched Te Oranga Tamariki, the new Ministry for Vulnerable Children, it was still unclear what significant change would be delivered to statutory social work in Aotearoa New Zealand. What is clear though is that the ideologically-driven planning process which has generated this new approach to policy and practice is a cause for grave concern.

Back in 2014, CYFS, in partnership with the Public Service Association, completed an extensive Caseload and Workload Review. The report that resulted documented what practitioners in the field had been aware of for well over a decade – that the organisation was not adequately resourced to implement the policy and practice vision of the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act 1989.

In fact, the organisation was hundreds of social workers short of adequately managing the task.

Enter the new Minister, Anne Tolley and her ‘Expert Panel’. This hastily convened secretariat of seconded public servants was charged with assembling frameworks for a new ‘modernised’ operating model for Child, Youth and Family. 

The panel was headed by the fix-all economist Paula Rebstock and did not include anybody with significant recent knowledge of statutory social work. 

The over-arching presumption that children should be secured in the care of safe, stable, and loving homes at the earliest opportunity seems to have been the main contribution from the Minister herself.

Several related threads run through the convoluted reports which this panel has produced. Key links are made between child abuse, trauma and the fiscal costs associated with the reproduction of disadvantage in failing families – i.e. benefits and prison. Economic failure is linked with psychological deficits. This analysis is informed by the government’s social investment policy umbrella – we can address the social deficit, and reduce the drain on the state, by fixing one family at a time.

The next part of the equation concerns the use of surveillance – that the downstream ‘cost risk’ associated with individuals and families can be predicted through data analytics. Evidence-based and child-centred interventions with such families will solve our problems, is the persuasive and simplistic mantra.

The reality that inequality and poverty are reproduced by macro-economic policy is conveniently ignored.

Reform is further justified by the apparent faults of the current child protection system: the central concerns are referral churn, drift and re-abuse in care. This is identified with a failure in the whānau-centred vision of the CYP&tF Act 1989. As all researchers are aware, correlation is not equivalent to causation. Repeated re-notification and poor outcomes in extended family care are, more often than not, associated with the minimalist approach taken by a grossly over-stretched child protection service. Social workers all know this to be the case.

Given the politically driven analytical flaws in the planning process, it is likely that there will be serious difficulties with the implementation process. The Expert Panel identified CYFS as a failing ‘care system’. This is useful in terms of welcome and long overdue recommendations to extend support for young people in care and to adequately resource transitions to adult independence. However, this lens does not work well when applied to the child protection social work process more generally.

Children do not enter care as an ‘end of the road’ process after their parents fail to adequately complete evidence-based parenting programmes aimed at eradicating pre-identified risk. This seems, at least in part, to be the future vision. In reality, children generally enter the care process after the disclosure or discovery of serious abuse and efforts are then made to heal and re-integrate children into the care of immediate or extended family.

This is the key area of statutory child protection practice and it has been neglected and under-resourced for far too long. It does not seem that this will change under the new regime. In fact, it seems that recourse to safe, secure and loving homes at the earliest opportunity will mean is that failing parents will be written off earlier as the price for healing child trauma in the bosom of middle New Zealand.

The present debate over the watering down of whanau-centred practice principles in the proposed legislative amendments ties in with the above discussion. These principles were derived from the paradigm-shifting Puao-te-Ata-tu report of 1988 and enshrined in the CYP&tF Act 1989 because of the racist (and classist) ramifications of rescue mentality foster care.

In my opinion the real difficulties of administering and supporting this progressive legislative vision have been a direct result of inadequately resourced social work and allied community services. The challenge has been exacerbated by escalating demand, risk averse management and an emphasis on production efficiency at the expense of practice quality. Scarce human and financial resources have been directed to initial investigation and assessment at the expenses of family support. This reality has been systematically obscured in a politically orchestrated process of reform.

My fear is that this new focus on identifying and fixing or rescuing children from ‘bad whānau’ will simply take us back in time.

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