Ideasroom

What took so long? Time to right some wrongs

The spotlight is very much on Oranga Tamariki - let’s make this the moment everything changed, writes the University of Auckland's Liz Beddoe

I have spent the past week thinking about the massive outpouring of anger over the ‘baby uplift’ video on Newsroom, New Zealand’s own taken generation.

What is it about this story that has caught public attention now when these issues are not new? Criticism of child removals is certainly not new. 

What I see in so many of the comments from people who aren’t social workers, health professionals or lawyers is that the video has forced them to look deeply into the reality of what ‘taking children into care’ means. Most people, luckily, haven’t a clue. They haven’t seen it. And regardless of how it’s done it is brutal, even when many children are placed with kin, it’s still a traumatic rupture. Because child abuse is brutal. Neglect and deprivation are horrible.

So, when there is a child death, it’s easy for commentators to call ‘take their children, sterilise them, lock them up’. They don’t see a traumatised young mother. They don’t see how imperfect ‘care’ is. And, as in the current situation, it is easy to talk about social workers ‘stealing’ babies if you’ve never seen babies with head injuries. Because child abuse and the ‘uplift’ process may be abstract if you’ve never seen it, never seen the pain.

Child removal is something terrible that you know happens, but off to one side, not in the centre of your gaze. Something raw and searing that you don’t want to think about as you cuddle your own children.

Child removal is something terrible that you know happens, but off to one side, not in the centre of your gaze. Something raw and searing that you don’t want to think about as you cuddle your own children.

Dame Lesley Max’s book Children: An endangered species in 1990 opened the eyes of many in Aotearoa NZ to the horror of child abuse. And in a recent story on Newsroom, Dame Lesley expressed her feelings that little has changed. 

Lesley Max’s book shocked the middle classes in the 1990s. It foregrounded the incredible work being done on implementing 1989 legislation that was meant to guarantee and centre whānau decision-making after challenges of institutional racism in the former Department of Social Welfare. 

And now Dame Lesley is asking what went wrong? Thinking about the way child abuse stories flare up and die down may help us to understand why so many people are so very angry about the Newsroom video that sparked this current outpouring of distress, and why the story is not going away.

It’s awful for social work as an entire profession to face this rage, but we forget sometimes how insulated so many people are from seeing poverty, inadequate housing, terrible health inequalities and the sheer brutalising of P and alcohol addiction. So it’s easy for the sheltered people to be devastated by child removals because their own experience is so different. And they haven’t been hearing the bad news about the disproportionate impact on Māori whānau.

Many social workers also think what took you all so long to notice? Why weren’t all the journalists, with the award-winning horror shows and stories, noticing then that child protection was being redesigned over 2015-16 to fit a right-wing child rescue agenda?

Māori commentators have been trying to get wider awareness for a long time. Why weren’t you listening when Māori have been talking about this for years? (Parahi, 2019); when Māori have been so vocal about the ongoing nature of abuse in state care? (Cleaver, 2019) Why weren’t you listening when so many people with expertise were warning about the direction of Anne Tolley’s (non) expert panel in 2015? 

Many social workers also think what took you all so long to notice? Why weren’t all the journalists, with the award-winning horror shows and stories, noticing then that child protection was being redesigned over 2015-16 to fit a right-wing child rescue agenda?

In this post I’m not saying that we can’t do so much better because we have to!  Social workers must apologise when we do wrong and take responsibility for poor practice in our name and work to fix the systems that hamper good work. We have to stand up for a human rights-based social work against the orders of risk averse managers. 

As a social work educator and researcher I want our students and graduates to go into systems that support the best practice.  We can’t let overwork and scarce resources become an excuse for not treating whānau with respect and kindness. We have to fight for much better support for families. We have to ensure that practice is principled, honest and can stand the spotlight. It is time for child protection in Aotearoa to be more transparent.

In this last week, the scales have been lifted off the eyes of many of those sheltered from the painful reality of child protection. Maybe one good thing that can come of this bonfire of justifiable outrage is a really good case to fund alternatives to children going ‘into care’. 

Let’s look wider and work together to stop the punitive, intrusive and downright aggressive processes in WINZ that trample on people’s dignity.

I’m pleased that a series of reviews including a major investigation just announced by the Ombudsman will continue the painful journey of exposing the reality of the terrible challenge we must face as a nation. 

But first, let’s apologise properly for harm done. Let’s listen to Māori about what resources they need to stop this ongoing tragic loss, and act on what they say. Let’s massively expand support services for families, not just run a few pilots; spend the millions on prevention, not growing foster care services or ‘trauma informed’ care to ‘fix’ people our own systems have screwed up. 

Let’s drop the individualising and toxic obsession with neuroscience and resource social workers to support whānau, work closely with aunties and nanas, ensure families have food and a washing machine in their dry, safe affordable house. Let’s look wider and work together to stop the punitive, intrusive and downright aggressive processes in WINZ that trample on people’s dignity.

It might cost twice as much, but if it keeps babies with their mamas it’s worth it and so much more use than us banging on about trauma and ACEs checklists when we’re part of systems manufacturing trauma. The spotlight is fixed firmly on Oranga Tamariki and I am hopeful change can come from this renewed gaze. I’m sorry we’re in this place. Let’s work now to make this the moment everything changed.

A version of this opinion piece was first published on RSW.

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