New Oranga Tamariki report a mixed bag

Opinion: The children's ministry must change from an organisation that employs social workers to become a social work organisation, writes Ian Hyslop.

The latest review of Oranga Tamariki is a mixed bag. Photo: Newsroom

The Ministerial Advisory Board on Oranga Tamariki has delivered a mixed bag with its report, Kahu Aroha.

In terms of devolution to Māori, it does not go as far as it might have done.

Instead, it walks a line between two commitments likely to generate ongoing tension: strengthening the authority and capacity of “Māori collectives and communities” on the one hand, and strengthening social work within the OT bureaucracy on the other.

In relation to re-invigorating social work, the central influence of Shannon Pakura, former president of Aotearoa (NZ) Association of Social Workers, is clear. This is not surprising given that she is the only member of this group with a detailed knowledge of statutory social work. There are clear echoes of the agenda she pursued as chief social worker two decades ago. (There is little that is new when it comes to the convoluted history of state social work in Aotearoa.)

Back in the early 2000s, Pakura sought to elevate the professional social work voice in the development of practice and policy. Arguably, social workers, supervisors and practice leaders of that time did not step up as they might have, most likely frustrated by institutional barriers.

There now appears to be a new window of opportunity. Our state social work service has long been an organisation that employs social workers rather than a social work organisation: The voices of child protection social workers have been muted outside of Fortress OT (and often been little more than a background hum within the ministry itself).

As one of 12 place-fillers in the corporate board room, the Office of the Chief Social Worker was not a central player in the Expert Panel that OT set up. And as an aside, I thank the good lord we have moved on from “rescuing” Māori babies at the earliest opportunity; eugenic ideology presented as a means to break the cycle of inter-generational transmission. In both policy and practice terms this narrow political dogma was deeply unhelpful.

So, regarding the mixed messages in the report, there is a welcome on the need for training and support for social workers and invitation for OT practitioners to take some of the lead in practice development. There is also an emphasis on better defining the child protection social work role in OT.

Unfortunately, if the proposed ‘two-track’ transition process will take “at least a generation” as the report suggests, this should have started yesterday. We can’t turn the clock back, but it is essential whanau-led practice is developed in the context of high-risk work within OT. And as a priority.

But does Kahu Aroha allow for this? It is questionable. The outline provided does not equate to the radical devolutionary transformation advocated in the Office of the Children’s Commissioner report, Te Kuko O Te Manawa and the Waitangi Tribunal’s Wai 2915 decision.

Predictably, we have a more politically cautious approach. A lot of stock is placed in a proposed three months of engagement with “Māori collectives and communities” in order “to understand what their ideas for the change they want to lead are and what resourcing and support they need to achieve it”.

The notion of developing plans locally rather than in the silo-ed world of corporate bureaucracy is not new. State social work in the 1970s and 80s was much more responsive to local need than now. And in my own experience, the work of social workers is much more effective and meaningful when connected with local services and engaged with community need.

The report speaks of strengthening and resourcing collectives and communities with an emphasis on “prevention”. But this emphasis risks a degree of buck passing in the name of empowerment.

I am reminded of the New Directions initiative driven by then minister Steve Maharey in the early 2000s. An idealised role for civil society resonates with the liberal heritage of charity and neighbourly help as a proxy for state-funded services and programmes – as in the deceptive Big Society thinking later associated with the Conservative politics of former UK Prime Minister David Cameron.

Responsive community support services are critically important, and I am sure the three-month road show which this report proposes will hear a great deal about how social agencies of all persuasions have been centrally controlled and underfunded for decades. However, it is children from the frayed edges of the working class who are brought into the care of the state and it is the Government that controls the policy settings which generate this level of social and economic alienation.

The Minister for Māori Crown Relations – Te Arawhiti, Kelvin Davis, has assured us he is a steamroller focused on driving these reforms. In my view, more of his time could be usefully spent persuading his Cabinet colleagues to modify the soft neoliberalism of the current Labour Party and adopt an economic and social policy agenda which genuinely redistributes wealth and opportunity.

This structural problem was explicitly recognised in the Wai 2915 Report: “Growing inequality and the disparities in child protection, education, justice, and health that result are not the inevitable outcomes of individual choice. They are substantially the outcomes of legislation, policy, and economic settings about which society has choices. Active protection requires substantive changes designed to address these structural conditions.”

A whanau-focused, social work informed, child protection system that is not solely focused on rapid production and minimising corporate risk will cost money. In his 1992 review of the then CYP&tF Act (now the OT Act), Judge Ken Mason made the following remark:

“If the Act is not generously supported in terms of personnel and funding, it will fail. Resourcing the Act is an expensive business but the consequences of not doing so are will be even more expensive. In human, social, and economic terms our New Zealand community, long-term will reap the rewards of a generosity of spirit and pocket.”

This has proved to be a prophetic statement. I need say no more.

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.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom New Oranga Tamariki report a mixed bag 5 October 2021.

Media queries

Alison Sims | Media adviser
09 923 4953
Mob 021 249 0089