Child protection decimation a ‘callous razor gang response’

Opinion: The message from the coalition Government is that the regressive state will set the social agenda, not progressive public servants, argues Ian Hyslop

Children walking along foreshore in New Zealand

It has been announced that nine percent of roles at Oranga Tamariki will be disestablished, presumably to help fund the tax cuts promised by the coalition Government.

I'm reminded of the graphics used to illustrate pandemic events, where five thousand people are standing in a field and then one in every 10 slowly fades from view. This profoundly disturbing image of the decimation of our state child protection and youth justice agency will, according to the Minister for Children, Karen Chhour, make our ‘at risk’ kids safer. This is truly bizarre.

Will we see a shift in Oranga Tamariki spending so more social workers are appointed to front-end practice or to agencies engaged in preventative and community-building mahi? Is this the plan? I’m not hopeful.

I fear we’ll simply see more reactive practice; more of the risk of over or under-intervention which always plagues these anxiety-ridden systems that are so poorly understood by politicians. And more than this I am concerned about the social damage. These drastic staff cuts make no sense, except in the alternate universe of hard-right ideology.

Ironically, the structure of Oranga Tamariki is a product of previous National-led government policy. The 2015 Expert Panel on Modernising Child Youth and Family focused on the future social cost of harm to children with an emphasis on the failings of the care system. This review was less about social suffering per se and more about reducing the future fiscal burden on the state, in terms of health, prisons and benefit payments.

An emphasis on trauma and treatment translated into expanded managerial, planning, service design and specialist advisory roles within national and regional offices. We did see a greater focus on the voice and needs of children in care, but it was the potential panacea of permanent, stable and loving homes at the earliest opportunity that generated the greatest traction.

This policy shift led directly to a significant escalation in the uplifting of babies from young Māori mothers, which came crashing down with the Hawkes Bay uplift scandal, backlash, enquiries, and an associated crisis of legitimacy.

Since then, Oranga Tamariki has concentrated on keeping children out of care – safety planning, a refocus on social work practice skills, intensive family support programmes and efforts to build relationships with Iwi Māori and community. This has involved expanded regional services – putting resource into developing new ways of partnering with organisations more likely to foster trust and work effectively with whānau in need.

Under a centre-left government we saw a beginning movement toward devolution of the current ‘notify – investigate’ child protection system: co-design initiatives and the promotion of ‘for Māori by Māori’ services.

The planning and development of decolonisation initiatives is not cheap. It involves the state not only giving away power but also providing an equitable share of resources inherent in Te Tiriti. It appears much of the infrastructure supporting this policy direction has just been demolished, and I fear this is an opportunity lost.

You can’t ‘disincentivise’ poverty when it is structurally generated. It is not a lifestyle choice, and it has always been the children of the poor who come to the attention of the child welfare system.

Māori have at times won concessions from National governments less committed to state-centric development, such as the limited adoption of the Whānau Ora vision. However, I can’t see this government adopting a decolonisation agenda, given it has promoted the removal of all references to the recognition of the rangatiratanga guaranteed by Te Tiriti from the law of the land.

I can only foresee limited delegated responsibility and less spending: this is clearly the kaupapa of the coalition Government. The gutting of Oranga Tamariki needs to be understood within this political context. It is driven by a small state/privatisation ideology.

Across the globe there is a worrying rise in hard-right politics. We are seeing a return to the acceptance of social inequality as normal, natural and desirable and legislation that removes social protections and obstacles to private profit, rewards the excessive accumulation of private property, sanctions beneficiaries, makes education less equitable, and generally punishes the poor.

In other words, a further dismantling of the residual welfare state. We haven’t witnessed this level of regressive policy acceleration since the 1990s. You can’t ‘disincentivise’ poverty when it is structurally generated. It is not a lifestyle choice, and it has always been the children of the poor who come to the attention of the child welfare system.

Reform of child protection is needed but this is a callous razor gang response: a decimation of a public service apparatus seen as threatening to the executive state. The message is clear – the neoliberal state will set the social agenda, not progressive public servants.

The origin of the word ‘decimation’ lies in ancient times when every 10th soldier was put to death to punish and deter insurrection in rebellious Roman legions. Four months in and the sound of jackboots is growing louder.

A version of this article was also published as a blog-post by Ian Hyslop on Reimagining Social Work in Aotearoa

Dr Ian Hyslop is a senior lecturer in the School of Counselling, Human Services and Social Work in the Faculty of Education and Social Work.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland.

This article was first published on Newsroom, Child protection decimation a ‘callous razor gang response’, 24 April, 2024 

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