Child protection social work involves risk. It always will. The right decisions cannot always be made and sometimes it can be a question of choosing between the least damaging alternatives.

We have had a long list of child abuse tragedies for over 30 years now – in Aotearoa New Zealand and in comparable jurisdictions – and we have had an almost continuous process of crisis-driven review and reform. Child abuse – under- or over-intervention – is emotive at a very primal level and it is an enticing political football.

To varying degrees, reforms are always politically motivated and they are then operationalised by management systems obsessed with targets and performance. As far as quality practice is concerned, it is a bit like putting the fox in charge of the hen house.

Such reforms seldom make the job of child protection easier for social workers engaged with high-needs children and whanāu, and there is little evidence that this has been the case with the OT rollout over the last several years. As suggested, child protection practice is bloody difficult.

Social workers need to have time to make careful assessments, build relationships, talk to the right people, establish trust and share the load of responsibility appropriately. Tools, frameworks and checklists have their place, but good practice is driven by careful and informed judgments made in a complex social context. This involves two-way communication and the development of insight into the dynamics of whānau. Often it involves three-way communication because child protection practitioners are wedged between the families they engage with and the organisation that employs them.

Demanding bureaucratic recording regimes, accountability mechanisms, compliance measures and complex hierarchical oversight (the kind of safeguards that crisis practice review responses generate) tend to make the job of child protection social workers harder. Paradoxically, these top-down environments also tend to deskill practitioners.

More audit and more protection of the institution from criticism is the default response of machine bureaucracies under threat: so that in response to the current practice controversies we now have another layer of internal audit mechanism when complaints are made about uplifts and placements. Perhaps the next thing will be an advisory manager for whānau liaison when young people commit suicide in care?

More support for practitioners is required rather than more surveillance, more audit, more managerial damage control. A pay rise, welcome as it has been for over-burdened staff, was never going to be the whole answer. Neither is a sharper crack of the whip.

I have argued for some years that the managerial tail has been wagging the dog in child protection practice for too long. In the case of the current OT leviathan we seem to have reached new heights as Vivienne Martini has very clearly pointed out. A self-serving centralised bureaucracy has spiralled out of control with a plethora of principal and senior advisers/analysts concerned with operations, projects, programmes, development and administration, information/intelligence coordinators, directors of various special managerial sub-units; not to mention the media spin-merchants.

Social workers need to be clear-sighted in situations that are often conflicted. They need to be supported, well supervised and provided with the time and space to get it right – the complex task of balancing safety and empowerment with real humans in real time. This is the key to better-applied practice. Child protection bureaucracies, by their nature, struggle to do this and OT is no exception.

More support for practitioners is required rather than more surveillance, more audit, more managerial damage control. A pay rise, welcome as it has been for over-burdened staff, was never going to be the whole answer. Neither is a sharper crack of the whip.

We need to look at the design of child protection systems in terms of how social workers can best be assisted to do a very demanding and often conflicted job: how child protection social workers can be enabled to practise their craft.

And even then, of course, social workers have neither the mandate nor the resources to resolve the real economic pressures that impact the people who have always been the clients of child welfare systems in capitalist societies. It is convenient for politicians to either pretend social workers are capable of this task, or to redefine the problem as a dangerous group of families that need to be rooted out – as per the 19th century blame of a dysfunctional self-reproducing underclass.

Inequality has escalated under the neoliberal political order over several decades, and whānau Māori are disproportionately affected by this social deficit. In this sense, a different system is required if we really want to make a difference to the wellbeing of children. This is the message I read in the recent Whānau-Ora report.

Whatever the provider – Māori or the state – the job of child protection social work practice needs to be understood and supported. It happens mostly in living rooms and kitchens, not behind a desk and certainly not around the increasingly overcrowded and reactive corporate table in Wellington.

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

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