Children's Minister Kelvin Davis. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Reorienting Oranga Tamariki towards prevention, rather than reaction to harm, is a step in the right direction. But there is still a long way to go in addressing the organisation’s fragmentation, argues Emily Keddell.

Is a child protection agency more like a police force, or more like a support service? Is it targeted, and if so, at whom? Is it a way for iwi, Māori and communities to care for their own, or is it state surveillance of family life?

Ideas about what a child protection system should do, who should run it and how, are implicit in all reforms of the child protection system. Each new iteration embodies a rebalancing of very old tensions. 

Such questions are at the heart of Hipokingia ki te Kahu Aroha, the latest report on New Zealand’s child protection agency, Oranga Tamariki. These questions are not simply academic, for the answers have real-world consequences. For families, they have been at the heart of much human pain, for Māori, the cause of decades of resistance, and for taxpayers, the spending of billions of the state’s money.

The Ministerial Advisory Board’s report revisits these persistent ideas. In Aotearoa New Zealand, and other jurisdictions, we have seen child protection swing towards, then away from, a centralised ‘intake’ system, searching for a balance between consistent decision-making and the need for local knowledge.

Preference has swung towards, then away from, community-based services (because we need national oversight, but also community definition of needs and solutions); towards and away from social worker-led decision-making (because we can’t trust them, but we have to trust them); towards and away from the statutory agency providing support services (because the state should only respond to the most serious cases, yet the state should prevent people becoming ‘serious cases’).

This report has a strong focus on reorienting the agency towards prevention rather than reaction to harm, achieved via community and iwi/Māori devolution, re-establishing the position of social work within the agency, and strengthening its internal workings.

This is the right direction but needs to go further to really grapple with the causes of contact with the child protection system and reduce Oranga Tamariki’s direct role, while resourcing the community services that are effective in prevention.

Recommendation two of the report addresses the problem of definition directly:

“The purpose of Oranga Tamariki must be clarified. This includes who Oranga Tamariki exists to serve”.

Other recommendations include:

  • community consultation about the role and purpose of Oranga Tamariki, and the development of regional strategies based on this consultation
  • developing a social work sector workforce development plan, including clarifying the roles needed at each site, and whether they are located within Oranga Tamariki or the community
  • restoring the office of the chief social worker to a more powerful position in the ministry
  • reviewing the national contact centre, particularly how families could get referred more effectively to other, non-statutory, support services if they do not meet the threshold for Oranga Tamariki.

The report’s focus on basing more resources in the community and passing some power to communities to define their own problems and solutions is helpful. It pulls more resources into the prevention domain and allows the generation of ideas to be closely related to the problems experienced by people in the real world.

The provision of community services is piecemeal and variably funded, the fruit of a fragmented contracting environment. The result is a postcode lottery of service access. The lottery is high-stakes when access to community services means the difference between parents keeping children in their own care or being removed. Reducing inequities for Māori and other disproportionately represented groups requires equitable access to these preventive services.

There is little to be gained from reinventing the wheel. Community and iwi/Māori organisations have long worked directly with the community, and importantly have relationships built on trust. It is more effective to redistribute existing resources to the groups already doing the work, than sink more resources into co-designing new services. The difficulty is deciding how best to provide services in each location that improve, rather than exacerbate, systematic inequities and decision-making variability. Community-led should not equate to arbitrary use of the state’s significant powers.

The focus on clarifying roles at each site, including the possibility of community-based roles, is smart and recognises that a big-picture focus on community empowerment must be reflected in the distribution of jobs on the ground. How this affects the interface between Oranga Tamariki and the community needs working out, but to truly pursue a prevention approach requires clear integration. Taking a more integrated service approach between Oranga Tamariki and community organisations has its hooks, however, as the mistrust in the community will take time to address and could taint community service engagement.

Another point of tension is where the report talks of devolving services to ‘Maori collectives and communities’. Historically, iwi and Māori services have been misunderstood: they are Treaty partners, not contracted service providers. The Waitangi Tribunal report and s7AA make this clear, promoting tino rangatiratanga over kāinga through high-level partnerships, yet the mealy-mouthed phrase ‘Māori collectives and communities’ appears to reinforce this conflation.

Both Māori and non-Māori organisations have important roles to play, but they are not the same. To be fair, this issue is muddied by the broader question of whether the role of Oranga Tamariki is to respond to all children (the focus of this report) or Māori children (the focus of the Waitangi Tribunal). This is not directly addressed.

There has always been conflict within Oranga Tamariki between the aims of the social work profession and the demands of a public bureaucracy. Demoting the office of the chief social worker set the scene for a much more muscular form of managerialism to dominate the organisation, entrenching its focus on risk to the organisation and public brand management.

Promoting that role is one way to wrest back internal control of the organisation’s direction to the profession’s remit of social justice and prevention. While social work brings a focus on relationships, a set of ethical obligations and practice skills, its history as a mechanism of perpetuating oppressive intervention with Māori communities must be recognised. Continuing to develop social work models that reflect mātauranga Māori specific to child protection is essential to keeping social work relevant, and just.

No model or profession can address the issues of organisational fragmentation highlighted in the report. Implementation of common values, models and processes between national office and the 60-odd sites (supported by efficient technology and education) must be strengthened so whatever is decided makes it to the front-line.

Nevertheless, the broad direction of empowering communities is a good one. Let’s hope that reclaiming the Treaty-based rights of iwi (and Māori) organisations, and re-focusing and adequately funding work by other community organisations, really does pull power and funding into communities and reduces the need for the more interventionist arm of the child protection system.

This is a worthwhile aim. The whole premise of the current system as ‘notify-investigate’ relies on population surveillance, reporting individuals to a central agency, triaging, and only responding to the ‘highest risk’ cases.

The existing structure exacerbates decision variability and institutionalised racism by providing the poorest conditions for quality decision-making (lack of information, time pressures, procedural management). It draws resources away from addressing the causes of disproportionate needs and supporting the family-led decision-making, which are necessary to effectively protect tamariki. Oranga Tamariki has begun heading in this direction, evidenced by the large reduction in children entering care and much more attention to issues of bias, workforce development, preventive and intensive services, iwi partnerships and whānau negotiations. But there is still a long way to go.

The voice and experiences of people who have been ‘clients’ of the service should be central to this new direction. Engaging with communities means not just talking to professionals from community organisations, but with families who have had contact with the service. This is fundamental to developing the kinds of effective supports for families – ones they want to use, and experience as helpful and non-stigmatising.

Tamariki and rangatahi are mentioned, but not whānau. They come as a package. There is a proposal to make advocacy services available, but these should include a clear commitment to peer advocates and parental/whānau governance groups – these roles have been immensely important in helping rebalance power in other jurisdictions. 

Finally, child protection is intimately connected with the issues of poverty, inequality and the consequences of colonisation. No community or iwi/Māori service can single-handedly address the pressures caused to family life by homelessness, precarious labour, lack of income, exorbitant housing costs and poor access to healthcare. A focus on ‘who Oranga Tamariki exists to serve’ should result in the ministry advocating on these issues with the responsible ministries, as these direct stressors on family life contribute to much harm to children and the adults trying to care for them.

The prevention model advocated by the report must include social protections, pull resources and definitional power into communities, continue to develop Treaty-based partnerships with Māori, and involve parents and whānau as partners.  

Emily Keddell is an Associate Professor in the Social and Community Work programme at the University of Otago. She researches inequities and decision-making in child protection systems.

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