Empower social workers to stop uplift trauma

We need to adequately support and resource social workers involved in uplifting children, not merely force compliance with court orders, writes the University of Auckland's Dr Ian Hyslop

In my experience, uplifting children from parental care is one of the most difficult jobs that statutory social workers engage in, second only to telling parents that their children have died. This happens in situations of perceived immediate danger, generally sanctioned by the Family Court, and in situations of separation where parental rights are enforced by court orders. In these circumstances, best practice involves minimising any collateral trauma to the children concerned. 

Clearly this outcome has not been achieved in the events recorded in these videos. Watching these videos made me think about the nature of social work in this sort of scenario and how little good practice in such demanding situations is understood and appreciated. 

As many readers will realise, the process of separation and related disputes over parental rights can be emotionally charged; influenced by fear, anger, recrimination and mistrust. When people are upset, angry, scared, confused and protective of their children, they are not at their most rational. It is not uncommon for aggrieved parents to be resistant to the execution of court orders and for children to be confused, ambivalent and frightened. This is one area where skilled social workers have the capacity to make some difference. Over time most aggrieved parents can be persuaded, despite their misgivings, that dragging a screaming child from their home is not in their interests and that there must be a better way.

Parents can be oppositional and manipulative, but more often they feel cornered and powerless.

The key is that such understanding and acceptance may take some time, communication and some trust – it may involve some listening and negotiation rather than buying in to the climate of conflict. The immediate and unquestioning literal execution of a court order may not be the best way forward. Other hand-over arrangements are often possible if confrontation can be successfully de-escalated. This is a role better undertaken by trained and experienced Social Workers than uniformed police, although police support may be necessary in some situations. It involves social workers exercising some professional judgment and being granted some power to exercise this discretion at the coalface.

Such fraught situations do not need to be ramped up. Authoritarian confrontation only buys into the perception of crisis and invites oppositional responses from distraught and angry parents. Ideally of course, resolution should be reached before orders to uplift are needed and this is not always easy in the adversarial heat of post-separation disputes. It is difficult territory and challenging work – mediation between the parties is not likely to be realistic when there are power differentials and disputed histories of violence or abuse. Parents can be oppositional and manipulative, but more often they feel cornered and powerless.

We need to adequately support and resource social workers in this role. The first step is for the lawyers, judges and psychologists who shape these decisions to appreciate that there is more to practice in such situations than merely forcing compliance with the letter of court orders – these videos graphically illustrate the consequences of that approach.

If the interests of children are truly paramount, every available resource should be directed to avoiding the sort of ham-fisted, traumatic treatment recorded here. Professionals such as social workers and police need to be empowered to stop and think as well as do as they are directed.

Dr Ian Hyslop has worked for 20 years as a social worker, supervisor, and practice manager in statutory child protection in Auckland. 


Find Newsroom's Taken By The State series here
* See the original investigation
* Read responses by politicians Jacinda Ardern, Anne Tolley and Paula Bennett, and the Children's Commissioner
* Opinion: Retired Family Court judge John Adams
* Opinion: Child psychology expert Nicola Atwool

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