Week in Review

New uplift figures paint disturbing ‘racialised’ picture

New figures show an alarming rise in the rate of Māori babies being removed from their families - an increase entirely accounted for by four regions. The University of Otago's Emily Keddell argues the risk of critique at Oranga Tamariki is being conflated with actual risk to the child.

COMMENT: In recent times, the increase in babies being removed from their parent’s care has gained immense public attention.

This scrutiny prompted Oranga Tamariki to release data relating to the removal of babies since 2008/9.

It was already known that there was a 33 percent increase in babies removed within three months of birth between 2015 and 2018, and that the rise was entirely due to an increase in Māori babies entering state care.

The rate of removal showed this wasn’t related to an increase in births, as the removal rate also increased from 35 to 46 per 10,000 births.

Māori bore the brunt of this: the Māori rate increased from 67 to 103, but the non-Māori rate was stable at 23-24 for the same period.

But this formulation of ethnic disparity is really only part of the picture. An examination of the recent data released by Oranga Tamariki shows several further interesting patterns.

Dissecting by region shows that the entire increase from 2009 to 2018 is accounted for by four regions: Tai Tokerau (Northland) , Wellington, East Coast and Waikato.

Comparing these four regions to the remaining eight from 2008/9 to 2017/18 shows these 'top four' have increased from 111 to 175 babies removed, while the other eight have actually reduced from 315 to 265.

Another nuance is that there has been a large increase in orders made for unborn children, compared to babies aged 30 days to one year old.

Orders on unborn children increased from 34 in 2008/9 to 112 in 2017/18 – a 320 percent increase. Babies aged 0 – 7 days reduced slightly, 8-30 days increased slightly, and age 30 days to one year old decreased.

The level of mandated removals also increased. Removals by order rather than agreement have essentially reversed, making removal under urgency and order now the norm

These types of removals have more than doubled, from 158 in 2008/9, to 380 in 2017/18, while babies entering care by arrangement or agreement declined from 168 to just 60.

This means that in 2008/9, removal by agreement made up 52 percent of babies removed – now it’s just 14 percent.

Overall, these patterns show that the increase in babies entering care is entirely accounted for by an increase in removals of Māori babies in four regions. A much greater proportion are removed by legal order as opposed to by agreement, and they are unborn rather than older babies.

In short, the increase in baby removals is racialised, regionalised, antenatal and coercive.

What has caused these changes, and the perceptions of risk underpinning them? The drivers are multiple.

The focus on early intervention in the 2015 reforms appears to be playing out in practice in a manner that emphasises early removal, and with greater compulsion, rather than the imagined provision of supportive services outside of the statutory system.

Without the channelling of resources into supports and social protections needed for families, the “early intervention” idea was bound to result in more, not fewer, baby removals.

The deep inequalities – both socioeconomic and ethnic – in child protection system contact mean that any increase is likely to affect Māori more than any other group.

But why the regional effect? Are there more external stress factors such as poverty, poor housing and lack of access to services in those regions?

The removal of a baby must meet a very high bar indeed to justify an order while unborn, pre-empting the opportunity to prove competence available to most parents.

Research shows, for example, that children in the most deprived decile of neighbourhoods have 9.4 times the chance of removal than those in the least deprived.

Or has practice in those regions developed some regional institutional culture bubbles, where the slow creep of cultural norms has changed to assume that when a particular subset of Māori women are notified, early removal without agreement is “what we do”?

Routinised decision-making can slowly begin to incorporate biases and unexamined assumptions about risk and rights that take on a life of their own in institutional settings, reducing the focus on supports and capacity-building.

The ever-expanding definitions of child abuse (such as emotional abuse, harm to well-being and exposure to intimate partner violence – all included in the new Oranga Tamariki Act amendments) can shape those underpinning logics.

While useful to understand harm to children more generally, these definitions can lead to a wider set of family circumstances caught in the headlights of the statutory child protection remit.

Without also changing the nature of the response to those definitions – by funding services able to address the causes of those issues, for example – the effect can be removal simply because there is no other intervention option available.

If you are a hammer, every problem is a nail.

Ironically, the media and public spotlight - while great at stimulating public debate - mean that increasingly risk-averse practice is encouraged rather than reduced.

Risk of organisational critique gets conflated with actual risk to the child. This can lead to the increased use of removal and compulsion with families. Practice sways towards avoiding organisational blame and ensuring control, rather than working with families in the collaborative and participatory ways that ethical practice, and the legislation, requires.

The removal of a baby must meet a very high bar indeed to justify an order while unborn, pre-empting the opportunity to prove competence available to most parents.

It’s not always possible. There really are situations where babies need to be removed. Social workers must weigh up the benefits and harms of equally unappealing options with competing ethical and legal imperatives.

But when the practice of removal has seen such a significant increase in rates, when that increase reinforces rather than reduces inequalities, when they are only in some regions and not others, when the removals are with more compulsion and have such immense ramifications for the usual rights of families, then questions must be asked as to why.

If I were a manager in Oranga Tamariki, I would be visiting those four regions quick smart, and examining both practice risk logics and the provision of preventive services outside of the statutory system.

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