Social workers need to be empowered to understand the law and resourced to do their jobs rather than be treated as puppets, writes the University of Auckland’s Dr Ian Hyslop 

Like many of us recently, I have watched the ‘baby uplift’ footage story featured in Newsroom and read some of the avalanche of concerned and outraged commentary that has followed. I found the story disturbing on many levels – extremely disturbing but, sadly, not surprising. I think that the practice on display and the media responses from the Oranga Tamariki hierarchy illustrate deep-seated systemic problems within the state child protection system in Aotearoa New Zealand.

It is easy to blame individual practitioners for poor social work. We need to beware of simplifications and we need to think critically about the wider system which produces this sort of apparently abysmal practice. It is also easy (and completely inaccurate) to suggest that OT workers are incompetent and uncaring child snatchers or to argue that social workers are hopelessly misunderstood as they battle to save the nation’s children from monstrous parents. The current furore pushes people into these polarised positions.

Child protection is always emotive. We have long known that policy can be driven by moral panic – over-determined by either the death and abuse of children at home or in care. In this blog-space we have been suggesting for several years now that the reforms set in train by the Expert Advisory Panel process were likely to result in more children entering the care system – the safe, stable and loving milk and honey homes we continue to hear so much bullshit about. On one level the proposed policy shift was naïve. On another it was eugenic.

Where do these children allegedly in need of saving come from? They come from young, disproportionately Māori mothers with a history of struggle – women who are coping with stressful economic and social circumstances and challenging relationships against a background of poverty. We are talking about clearly racist practice outcomes. The figures collated in this blog by Emily Keddell and others tell a very clear story. But we are not generally talking about the children of middle-class Māori. We are talking about people without power and all people with a sense of justice should be concerned to change this practice reality and change it quickly.

Young parents who are struggling need help, not the hammer of the state. That is what social work is for.

In acute risk situations child removal sometimes needs to happen, although it should seldom have to happen for long. However, it is generally not children on the brink of being battered to death who are removed. Babies are more likely to be removed in chronic situations where concerns are added up and seen (subjectively) to be too high. We are often told that custody orders are issued by the Family Court, but in practice this is a poor accountability check. It is a very brave judge who will refuse to grant a without-notice order when a risk-averse affidavit is filed. Such narratives are not difficult to construct and they are constructed by social workers.

The current organisational context of Oranga Tamariki does not adequately support competent social work on the ground with high-needs whānau. The reform process has seen resources syphoned off to fund endless bureaucratic national office think-tank type exercises, speculative co-design initiatives, a plethora of highly-paid planning and development jobs (many with very silly names) – over-paid managerial positions filled with people who for the most part have little or no knowledge of what quality social work practice requires. At the site level social workers are stretched, often under-supported and sadly, at times, with a poor understanding of their roles and responsibilities.

National and regional structures are risk-averse and social workers who are on the ground with families in need are not empowered to exercise their professional discretion. To return briefly to the chaotic Hawkes Bay debacle; when things change, when you are confronted with new information – with responsive family and supporters, with a shifting context, you need to be empowered to change your position, re-calibrate, be reflective and creative – play what is in front of you!  This does not happen when social workers are slaves to a risk-driven hierarchy and are simply unable to deviate from predetermined decisions made by others.

It is sad to see this. Social workers need to be empowered to understand the law, their roles and resourced to do their jobs rather than be treated as puppets. It is infuriating to hear the OT chief executive telling us that all is well because her agency has good intentions, and the work is difficult, you know, or that it is okay because most tamariki Māori aren’t in care. Give me strength!

As I have argued, young parents who are struggling need help, not the hammer of the state. That is what social work is for. Sometimes drastic action needs to be taken but most of the time there is another way. Many, perhaps most, OT social workers aspire to this but they lack the tools, resources and the consistent support that is required.

The left arm of the state needs to be directed to keeping children out of care – working with the reality of stressed whānau – re-weaving the plaited mat – not fixing kids with de-traumatising love once they are removed. This juggernaut needs to be turned – maybe we now have the catalyst.

This opinion piece was first published by the RSW Collective.

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