Opinion: Tragic events such as the death of five-year-old Malachi Subecz inevitably promote calls for stronger systems of child protection such as the recommendations set out in the recently published Independent Review of the Children’s System Response to Abuse, by Dame Karen Poutasi: greater interagency information sharing, a multi-disciplinary approach, mandatory reporting, increased surveillance and monitoring of situations deemed to be risky.
These measures are superficially persuasive until we consider how complex child protection systems work in practice.
Child protection is an intensely emotive topic, on a personal and a political level. It is also complex and challenging – in theory and in practice. I worked in frontline child protection for 20 years and I have recently written a book concerned with identifying the lessons that can be distilled from the history of child protection policy in Aotearoa and comparable societies: A Political History of Child Protection – Lessons for Reform from Aotearoa New Zealand (Bristol University Press, 2022).
For the most part children’s services sector agencies already have protocols in place for reporting child abuse. Lack of clarity about threshholds and lack of trust in current processes and outcomes can discourage reporting. However, the increased reporting a mandatory crackdown would generate is likely to have a rash of negative consequences in an already overloaded practice environment. It generates more work and, historically, moves scarce resources to the front end of formal investigation at the expense of supportive and preventative services for high-needs families. Overloaded child protection systems don’t work well, and tend to result in a lack of intervention or over-intervention in the lives of multi-stressed whānau. Getting the balance right is difficult, and the judgments child protection social workers make are crucial – good work takes time, and supervision that provides the right mix of support and challenge. Honesty and trust are critical.
Over the past 30 years we have swung between these poles of intervention in child protection practice. We cannot afford a knee-jerk reaction to Malachi’s death – redesigning the system with only the tragedy of this case in mind – because there are too many negative consequences.
We have short memories when it comes to child protection scandals. Concerns about the deaths of children known to state services and about the ineffectiveness of foster care generated the 2015 Expert Advisory Panel report with its simplistic mantras of child-centred practice, and the placement of children in permanent, safe and loving homes at the earliest opportunity. Coupled with racist overtones about the reproduction of an expensive class of feral beneficiaries, this policy shift led to an irrational spike in the removal of pēpi Māori (Māori babies) from young mothers. This practice came to light in the Hawke’s Bay Hospital uplift debacle in 2019 and the spate of inquiries that followed after public uproar.
The state care of children has a truly horrific record in Aotearoa. We will see the final report of the state and faith-based abuse inquiry next year. The damage caused by the child welfare system has fallen disproportionately on Māori whānau, as it has done on Indigenous peoples across the colonised world. Child protection is entangled with poverty and the relationship between the state and those who are pushed to the margins of our unequal society. Most cases of child maltreatment can be resolved with support and resources – building trust and getting the right people and services involved. This takes time and costs money. Fear of the heavy hand of the state – induced by the threat of mandatory reporting – is likely to discourage parents struggling to meet their children’s needs from seeking help.
However, there are a minority of situations of high risk and resistance where authoritative intervention is needed. The Malachi Subecz case was clearly one of these. It is obvious from the earlier report of Ombudsman Peter Boshier that Oranga Tamariki failed in its duty to take protective action. The matter was closed without the proper investigation that was warranted. Sadly, I think I know why this happened, because I have seen this before. It was rampant in the context of under-resourcing and high notifications in the 1990s.
Oranga Tamariki always tends to be over-organised by the dogma of the day as opposed to empowering (and resourcing) its professional social workers to think and act on the ground. Empowering whānau and ignoring risk are not the same thing. You can work with whānau to resolve risk and protect children, but this is demanding and intensive work. It is better delivered by hāpu, iwi or ground-up, community-centred services. But the development of these services involves power sharing, training and the commitment of resources. It can’t be done with the stroke of an ideological pen, and above all, it requires a level of investment in child protection services we have never seen in this country.
We can’t continue to wrap people experiencing poverty in state surveillance. We need to revisit the economic roots of social harm and we can’t continue to swing from child rescue to turning a blind eye. We can’t treat all single parents facing a prison sentence as if they have a lesser set of human rights by vetting, approving and continuously monitoring the caregiver they have chosen for their children.
This sort of focus is simply a return to the punitive, racist approaches of the past. It is a question of holding our nerve. Oranga Tamariki social workers need to be supported to do their often very difficult job. Iwi, Kaupapa Māori and community services need to be further expanded, empowered and funded. Rome was not built in a day and all of us who aim for progressive child protection reform need to hold the line rather than run to the other side of the boat. Those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.