Hunting for monsters who abuse children might make us feel better but it will never be a whole answer, writes University of Auckland senior lecturer Dr Ian Hyslop.

As we look ahead to 2018, there appears to be, for the first time in many years, hopeful signs for the future of social service provision in Aotearoa New Zealand.  

Of course, there are significant challenges too.  Opportunities and troubles are particularly evident in the emotive field of child abuse and protection. The wide enquiry into abuse in state care that is currently being planned has the potential to enlighten and inform the direction of future practice.  The centre-left Government’s stated commitment to tackling child poverty is equally encouraging.

It is not rocket science to recognise that poor children come from disadvantaged families. Understanding how disadvantage is generated and what we should do about it is a different matter. Our common sense view of how social problems are caused influences where we look for solutions. And common sense is, of course, nothing of the sort – it is merely a set of shared beliefs.

In the nineteenth century Victorian world of privilege and charity, poverty was thought to result from individual moral failure. We have drifted back to this simplification in more recent times. I hope that the change of government signals a lasting shift in our collective common sense: a general acceptance that the bone to be picked is the unfair way that our economic system distributes wealth and opportunity.

The issue of what to do about child abuse is a different matter again. Child abuse is emotive and distressing. We are attracted to simple solutions like the use of science and technology in the form of predictive data analysis so as to identify and rescue children at risk. This kind of persuasive common sense is also a little too simplistic.

International studies in countries that are similar to ours are increasingly identifying a complex relationship between child abuse and poverty. This is not an excuse, it is simply a reality. Social conditions which create isolation and insecurity – in relation to money, transport, recreation, health, housing, nutrition and education – are all part of fostering unsafe lives for children in unequal societies.  Should we rescue such children in order to give them a decent shot at a middle-class life?

There are some real problems with designing child welfare systems that are driven only by the need to detect future risk and save children from the harm caused by abusive carers. I think we need to embrace another kind of common sense. Hunting for monsters might make us feel better but it will never be a whole answer.

Dangerous situations must be recognised and responded to safely. But we also need to respond to the fact that the needs of children are tangled with poverty and inequality in societies like ours. They always have been. Like it or not poverty is also enmeshed with class, race and gender in this country.

In 2018, we need to understand that this is a systemic social and economic issue rather than an outcome of poor choices – and we need to develop policy responses accordingly. Social workers also need to hear, understand and respond to the struggles of parents living with the burden of poverty. We need to listen and learn as much as screen and detect. And we will not build a more just society unless we recognise that “there but for the grace of God, go I”.

Dr Ian Hyslop is a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work. He worked for 20 years as a social worker, supervisor, and practice manager in statutory child protection practice in Auckland.

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