Powerful wāhine voice in child protection review

Pleas made by wāhine in the new report on Oranga Tamariki's treatment of Māori mothers and babies reflect the need for respectful engagement, honesty, and for whānau to be worked with - not on

The Office of the Commissioner for Children has released the first report from its review into the alarming escalation in the removal of Māori infants from parental care by the state.

The review, Te Kuku O Te Manawa, looks at what needs to change to keep pēpi Māori (infants, aged 0 to 3 months) in the care of their whānau when Oranga Tamariki-Ministry for Children is notified of care and protection concerns. The report is the first of two; the second, which will offer practical recommendations for change, is forthcoming.

The spark for this review, and other related inquiries, was provided by the now notorious Hawkes Bay uplift debacle, revealed by Newsroom. We await the findings of an investigation from Ombudsman Peter Bouchier and the outcome of a Waitangi Tribunal inquiry. The burning issue of state social work responses to Māori is also central to the ongoing Royal Commission of Inquiry into historical abuse in state and faith-based care.

To its credit, following the lead of the recent Māori Inquiry into Oranga Tamariki (Ko Te Wā Whakawhiti), this report gives voice to the pain experienced by those at the blunt end of coercive statutory child protection; mainly mothers who have recent lived experience of child removal. To a degree, the report brings this suffering into the public domain. This is well and truly overdue and does not come as a revelation to those of us who have been engaged with child protection practice over time.

Denial or tolerance of the extensive collateral damage caused by overloaded and risk-saturated child protection systems has been summed up by renowned leader in the field of child and family welfare, Emeritus Professor Dorothy Scott. She made the following astute observation of the comparable Australian context in 2006:

Is this because, like our predecessors in the history of child protection, we cannot allow ourselves to acknowledge that we cause such suffering when our intent is so well meaning? Is it because we prefer to engage in self-protective "defensive practice” regardless of the cost to children and their families? Is it because we do not readily identify with the anguish of parents because they are mostly “other”? If this happened to middle-class families on the scale it is happening to indigenous and non-indigenous working-class families, the pain would not be inaudible.

The content of the report, which comes from interviews with mothers and whānau, raises a raft of concerns about specific instances of disrespectful and destructive action. It also shows patterns of oppressive, risk-averse and defensive practice. Glaring discrepancies are highlighted between the high-level legal obligations and espoused practice standards that Oranga Tamariki has theoretically signed up to and the experience shared by those interviewed. But there is little or no analysis of the systemic reasons for this disjuncture.

Feelings of being punished for being a victim of violence or past life challenges are also not uncommon if the mother is viewed merely as a vehicle for immediate child safety.

Informed commentators have been questioning the shortcomings of the statutory child protection system for many years now, echoing the testimony within this report: the ongoing relevance of Puao te Ata Tu (the report written in 1988 by the Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Māori Perspective for the Department of Social Welfare in New Zealand), inequalities of treatment and outcome for whānau Māori, perceptions of threat and fear generated by historical wisdom and a culture of child-centric, surveillance-orientated and risk-averse practice.

I am not saying every social worker, every practice team or every site office is steeped in this reactive practice – but it is the tide that every whānau-centric practitioner, practice team and site office has to swim against.

Good quality social work in child protection needs the values and skills required for good social work generally. The litany of pleas made by wāhine Māori in this report reflects this: the need for respectful engagement, honesty, inclusion in decision-making and belief in the possibility of change – not simply judging the future by tabulating past deficits; the need to avoid victim-blaming, for empathy, for real meaningful support, clarity of messages, consistency of goal posts. This means taking the necessary time, telling the truth and exercising care.

There is no need for state social workers to flaunt their power, and solutions imposed from a clinical distance are seldom effective. Whānau need to be worked with, not at or on.

Detail of poor practice emerging from this review is very concerning. The court system being held over as a threat and the execution of inhumane uplift practice is not surprising. Feelings of being punished for being a victim of violence or past life challenges are also not uncommon if the mother is viewed merely as a vehicle for immediate child safety.

Other specific practice criticism is more deeply disturbing but I doubt many state social workers would deny such incidents happen: being threatened not to voice criticisms via social media, being goaded to return to substance use, coercion or threats to induce a pregnancy termination. Such abusive practice is not common in my experience, but it is too common.

There is a lot left unsaid in this report. The uncomfortable reality is the spike in removal of pēpi Māori was influenced by the quasi-eugenic child rescue mentality that fuelled the Ministry of Social Development Expert Advisory Panel reform process. I have no wish to defend the legacy of colonisation or minimise the corrosive reach of personal and institutional racism. However, it should be remembered that those at the hammer end of state social work are not simply victims of the inability of the Pākehā system to respect the traditional mana of women in Māori cosmology.

The uncomfortable reality is the spike in removal of pēpi Māori was influenced by the quasi-eugenic child rescue mentality that fuelled the Ministry of Social Development Expert Advisory Panel reform process.

Since its genesis in the 19th century, the context in which state social workers operate has been structured by a wider canvas of oppression – inequalities of class, gender and ethnicity. The mainstream values of individuated liberal capitalism do clash fundamentally with Te Ao Māori, but additionally, liberal capitalism is a political and economic system that favours certain interests and exploits or punishes others. Social work can either be a brake on oppression or part of the problem.

Research analysis undertaken by Dr Emily Keddell at the University of Otago reveals that, in 2014, children living in the most deprived 10 percent of neighbourhoods in Aotearoa New Zealand had 21 times the chance of having a substantiated finding of child abuse than children living in the least deprived 10 percent; they were 35 times more likely to have a family group conference held about them, and more than nine times more likely to enter foster care.

Each step-increase in deprivation resulted in a sequentially higher chance of child protection system contact, clearly illustrating the systematic relationship between living in high deprivation areas and contact with the child protection system.

It does not take a miracle of analysis to identify the faults of the current child protection system. Lasting solutions are another matter. The key questions are why it is that the system produces the poor practice this report screams at us and what should a different, properly resourced system look like?

The state child protection system has been reformed multiple times and the changes adopted are normally measured, monitored and reported on with resource-intensive managerial zeal and anxiety. Pressure to comply, or more accurately to produce and record measurable evidence of compliance ironically results in less of the ‘real’ gritty, engaged, careful, respectful, sometimes ‘risky’ whānau-centric practice needed if this work is to be done well.

So, what might this all mean for a future pathway of reform? There seems to be an implicit assumption that some degree of meaningful devolution to Iwi or Māori providers is the way forward. I don’t disagree. However, Pākehā don’t have a mortgage on poor practice – social work with high-needs whānau, whoever provides it, takes time, energy and money. It must be very well-resourced and supported.

Risk is always a critical part of the practice equation and must not be glossed over, but trusting engagement and real help is the solution that voices from this report are naming: support for Māori from Māori. We need to digest the messages coming to us from these reviews and embark on the reform of child protection as part of the wider reform of systemic inequality in Aotearoa New Zealand society. Time is moving.

A version of this opinion piece was first published by the RSW Collective on Re-Imagining Social Work in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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