Child protection’s culture of silence

Oranga Tamariki's refusal to acknowledge systemic issues within the organisation is intolerable, writes social worker and social work researcher John Darroch

Recently Newsroom published an article based on interviews with practising social workers who described systemic issues within Oranga Tamariki.

As a social worker, and post-graduate student conducting research into statutory social work, what Newsroom has reported resonates with my experience and what I have learnt through my ongoing research.

My first exposure to the culture of silence within child protection came as a social work student on a placement at Child Youth and Family. During my first week at Child Youth and Family I introduced myself at a meeting and mentioned I was involved in political activism. A manager reacted with alarm and told the room full of social workers that one could not protest or engage in political activity while at Child Youth and Family. I was reminded of the need for political neutrality and throughout the rest of my placement I got the firm message that I needed to keep my head down.

The culture of silence I encountered as a student on placement was not isolated to the site where I worked. Soon after this placement I undertook research for my Masters and interviewed a number of social workers from Child Youth and Family. These social workers told me how social workers who spoke up on ethical issues were subject to bullying or otherwise disadvantaged. One told me that a common term used to describe those who spoke up internally was ‘well-poisoner’. Another, who had significant experience in the organisation, told me that in their role as a union delegate they saw how social workers who were deemed troublesome were harassed and subject to unrelated disciplinary action.

While Child Youth and Family has been rebranded, the culture within the organisation has not changed. In my ongoing PhD research I have interviewed numerous practising social workers who describe a culture which prevents social workers from speaking up on ethical or political issues.

This has real consequences for those who come into contact with the ‘child protection’ system. During the student placement where I was told not to engage in political activity, I was asked to carry out a social work assessment involving a teenager who had been arrested and was appearing at the Manukau Youth Court. Appearing behind a grimy window in an interview booth, the visibly upset young woman described how she had spent much of the weekend in the cells. She said she had slept through meals and hadn’t eaten. She also said she had her period and had been too embarrassed to ask the police for sanitary products.

The social worker and I immediately obtained food and sanitary products which we gave to her (for which we were chastised as we took them from another department’s supplies). I told my supervisor (a registered social worker) that I wanted to complain and bring the issue up within Child Youth and Family and the Police. I was told not to as it might jeopardise relationships with the police. Despite my supervisor saying that they would deal with the matter. I later found out that nothing had been done.

This case stands out but is not an isolated incident. As a youth worker within youth justice residences I have seen how young people are harmed by organisational and practice failures. I have personally seen the widespread and inappropriate use of restraints on teenagers, cold facilities which ignore the emotional needs of young people, and how high caseloads lead to corners being cut. I have seen all of this cloaked in a veil of biculturalism in which monocultural institutions are given a Māori name. The result is that we are reproducing the legacy of harm done to Māori by the ‘child protection’ and ‘youth justice’ system.

The systemic nature of these problems means that social workers feel powerless and unable to do more than they already are. Even where issues are immediately in front of them, many social workers know that raising issues would be futile and result in backlash. As a sector subject to constant public criticism, it is easy for a siege mentality to develop and for any criticism of the organisation, no matter how legitimate, to be swatted away.

Social work is an emotionally demanding job and one which is often poorly paid. I have had social workers cry in interviews because of the strain they are under. As a significant employer of social workers, and one which pays more than most others can, Oranga Tamariki wields a disproportionate amount of power over social workers, and the profession as a whole.

The Minister for Children has said that if social workers have concerns, that they should bring issues to her attention. This shows a fundamental lack of understanding of how the public service is structured. Section 3.81 of the Cabinet manual requires public servants to raise matters internally with the chief executive before they are allowed to contact a minister. Other guidance prevents public servants from speaking to reporters or from speaking to the public directly. The cumulative effect of such restrictions, and an organisational culture which silences dissent, is a silencing of social workers.

Those who have undertaken recent reports into the practices of Oranga Tamariki have done invaluable work. The reports are from widely differing viewpoints. One is an internal review into the Hastings ‘uplift’ which Newsroom documented. The second was the Māori inquiry into Oranga Tamariki, and the third was carried out by the Office for the Children’s Commissioner. There is a remarkable consistency between these reports. All document systemic ethical and legal malpractice.

Despite overwhelming evidence, Oranga Tamariki and the Minister for Children refuse to acknowledge that fundamental change is needed. This refusal is compounded by the silence of the social work profession. Were this a political matter, the silence and denials might be excusable. Given the ongoing harm being done, the refusal to acknowledge systemic issues is intolerable.

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