Responding to the direction of reform to child and family welfare set by the outgoing government is one of the many challenges facing the Labour-led coalition. There are some spiky fish in this bucket.

A review of historic abuse in state care may be one of the easier measures to initiate although the constitution and terms of reference for such a body are vital issues, particularly given the grievous and disproportionate harm inflicted upon Māori children.  

In opposition, the Labour and Green parties firmly opposed recent amendments to the legislative framework for state social work, most significantly removal of the presumption that children in need of care should be placed with family/whanau wherever possible. Will the new emphasis on earlier permanent out-of-family care be retained, or will we return to a vision of child- and family-centred practice? More generally, will Bill English’s flag-ship social investment agenda be jettisoned? There will be no shortage of advice offered to incoming Ministers. 

The possible directions of travel are reasonably clear. A return to a more inclusive family-centred practice that prioritises child safety requires a significant increase in state social work staff and a re-thinking of the training, support and time needed to ensure that effective work is done with high needs children and families. Effective support for kin-ship care is a crucial element in this mix. Adequate provision of both universal and community-centred family support services is critical, as is meaningful co-operation with Iwi in the ongoing development of services for and by Māori. 

By contrast, the ideology of social investment is an odd marriage of behavioural science and liberal economics. The assumption is that forward costs and future trauma can be predicted for specific individuals – essentially the children of beneficiary families. Specific remedial interventions can be targeted to such families. The mechanisms for such an approach to child and family welfare practice are currently under development.

This neat formula ignores the fact that childhood deprivation is not simply the result of individual behaviour. It is an outcome of child poverty. Child poverty is a result of adult poverty. Adult poverty results from lack of money. For social workers there are two implications. They must reckon with an economic system that produces inequality – and with the effects of this system in the daily lives of the children and families they engage with. 

Jacinda Ardern has taken on a portfolio focused on the reduction of child poverty and will have to wrangle with the associated questions of systemic inequality. Currently state social work takes little account of the structuring reality of poverty. If we are to have a child welfare policy that deals with this reality, we need a statutory social work framework that recognises the ways in which children and their families are impacted by the struggle which living in poverty generates.

A narrow social investment frame which focuses on the reproduction of individual trauma through poor parenting is simply not fit for purpose. We need new visions and new understandings if we are to enter a more progressive era for child and family wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand. The question is whether this government can summon the political will.  

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