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Lessons for Reform from Aotearoa New Zealand

Exploring the current and historical tensions between liberal capitalism and indigenous models of family life, Ian Kelvin Hyslop argues for a new model of child protection in Aotearoa New Zealand and other parts of the Anglophone world.

He puts forward the case that child safety can only be sustainably advanced by policy initiatives which promote social and economic equality and from practice which takes meaningful account of the complex relationship between economic circumstances and the lived realities of service users.

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This article discusses the findings of a qualitative research project in Auckland, New Zealand, which examined the proposition that a particular form of knowledge is produced in the practice of social work. Evidence consistent with Philp’s conceptualisation of a specific knowledge form for social work emerges from analysis of the data. It is apparent that the everyday practice of social work continues to engage with the lived experience of marginalised citizens in New Zealand and similar societies. It is argued that this process of relational engagement continues to produce a discourse of equality that is consistent with the politics of social democracy. The implications of the findings of this study are discussed in relation to the future development of social work practice and education given the current dominance of a neoliberal governance paradigm that is largely hostile to the inclusive discourse that social work practice inevitably produces.

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This book examines the politics of child protection in Aotearoa New Zealand (hereafter, Aotearoa).1 The intent is to contribute to growing debate about the trajectory of the modern child protection project – to trouble the deceptive common sense of these neoliberal times and to envisage another future. The text aims to weave a nuanced historical account of child protection policy and practice within the unique context of Aotearoa. As such, the argument is not purely linear or descriptive. It is, however, informed by exploration of the conditions of possibility inherent to a particular liberal capitalist society. This introductory chapter outlines the conceptual building blocks that underpin the analysis developed and presented here. The intent is to provide a framework that will assist the reader to engage creatively with the unfolding narrative.

The concept of a specific ‘child protection project’ refers to the development, over time, of the role of the state in identifying risk of harm and responding to the care needs of children when caregivers are deemed to be a threat to their safety or well-being. It will be argued that this project has consistently turned a blind eye to the way in which such caregivers are drawn from a section of the population that poses a threat to the perceived safety and security of the liberal capitalist state. As a result of this conflation, the historical and contemporary practice of child protection social work has persistently generated raced and classed outcomes in Aotearoa and in comparable societies.

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The positioning of social work as a profession that targets the working-class poor in the provision of services and interventions inevitably gives rise to productive tensions in a class society such as Aotearoa. Critical writers have long pointed to the associated ‘sanitation’ of state-sponsored social work:

The de-politicisation of clients’ problems, by which is meant the manner in which they are presented and understood in ways which deny or obscure their connections with the capitalist process, for example emphasising personal inadequacy, has been a central feature in the development and practice of social work. While this process is also evident within every state agency that has dealings with the working-class poor, it is particularly significant within the personal social services given that this part of the state apparatus deals almost exclusively with the residual and problem poor. Within the history of social work there exists a tradition which not only attempts to redefine the nature and causes of poverty and human brutalisation, but also to promote a view of clients not as casualties of a barbarous social system but more as a special and unique sub-species of the human race. (Jones, 1983: 59–60)

Arguably, the concept of depoliticisation is a misnomer. Social work that concentrates on addressing deficits in individual and family conduct, rather than targeting structural inequalities, can be said to perform an explicitly political function in terms of reinforcing mainstream liberal orthodoxy.

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I have argued that child protection is politically constructed in a broad sense – that deep, often opposing currents reflect tensions within the liberal capitalist project. These economic and political parameters have set the boundaries of child protection reform, even when apparently radical departures from past models have taken place. In an important sense, this space became no less contested after the neoliberal turn that has informed state policy in Aotearoa from the mid-1980s.

However, room for manoeuvre has narrowed as successive centre-left/centre-right administrations have attempted to grapple:

with the legacy of state sector reform ushered in by the State Sector Act 1988 and the Public Finance Act 1989. Beyond formal structures, these reforms have had a pervasive impact on the public service, changing its culture and performance and redefining the relationship between politicians, officials and the public. (Garlick, 2012: 10)

The final chapters of this book focus on this volatile period of change and the current trajectory of child protection reform. To background this discussion, it is necessary to devote some attention to the development of child and family practice during the welfare state era. Many of the issues that currently assail child protection are rooted in this history.

Despite significant local variations, the development of post-war state services followed a comparable path across anglophone jurisdictions, being a period of relative political consensus that Garrett (2018), following David Harvey, refers to as ‘embedded liberalism’ – as distinct from the neoliberalism of recent decades (Spolander et al, 2015).

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Awareness of child abuse grew internationally from the mid-1960s. Aotearoa was no exception. Initially focused on the deliberate physical injury of children, child protection has developed to include ever-widening categories of concern (Gilbert, 2012). The visibility of intrafamilial abuse reflects a change of consciousness towards children’s rights that can be aligned with the wider post-war human rights discourse, particularly the political ascendancy of women’s rights, the so-called ‘second wave of feminism’:

The broad influence of feminist politics has been important in focusing attention on the rights of children to be free of violence and abuse. Layers of taboo have been peeled back. Societal acknowledgement of physical abuse in the 1960s has grown to embrace awareness of sexual victimization of children, more latterly the abuse of boys as well as girls. (Hyslop, 1997: 61)

The child protection project is also generally traced to the pioneering research work of the American paediatrician Henry Kempe and associates, specifically, their ‘discovery’ of the battered child syndrome (Scott, 2006). The focus on diagnosis and treatment associated with Kempe’s work has arguably set the enduring template for a forensic approach to the investigation and assessment of suspected child abuse: The modern child protection system emerged from a concern to stop babies dying or being ‘battered’ by parents who were considered to be suffering from a lack of empathic mothering in their own lives. Poverty, bad housing and so on were screened out as holding helpful explanatory value (Parton, 1985).

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Garlick’s (2012) history of organisational changes within the state welfare system documents a roller coaster of structural reform from the mid-1980s. This process was generated by theoretical and practical tensions that have influenced (and been influenced by) continuous swings between centralised administration and more localised frameworks, including various hybrid arrangements. Garlick locates child welfare and protection services within shifting perceptions of the appropriate role for the state in managing social problems and promoting well-being. Although his account is avowedly apolitical, it illustrates the way in which ideological currents have impacted on the preferred mandate, structure and operation of state services. Child protection policy and practice is clearly connected with the managerial and accountability mechanisms deemed appropriate to the political visions of the day.

Implementation of these visions has seldom taken account of the consuming and resource-intensive realities of child protection social work practice (Hyslop, 2009). It is trite, but essentially accurate, to say that the intent of the CYP&tF Act – and, by extension, the mandate of PtAT – was increasingly distorted and frustrated by a lack of resourcing in an overstretched practice climate. In turn, this climate was shaped by competing priorities and conflicting ideological currents.

The reformist drive of the CYP&tF Act can be broadly aligned to socially liberal elements within the 1980s’ Labour Party in Aotearoa, as opposed to the interventionist social conservatism of previous National Party governments. However, notions of community devolution and family responsibility also found political traction beneath the umbrella of neoliberalism, which came to prominence from the mid-1980s. In fact, the former provided a convenient ideological Trojan Horse for the latter.

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Weaknesses in the Aotearoa model of state sector reform became widely apparent from the mid-1990s. A narrow focus on the core business of separate government departments undermined intersectoral cooperation. It also tended to obscure the public ownership interest in state services. These issues were highlighted in an influential report prepared for the State Services Commission and Treasury by American public economist Allen Schick (1996). While politically sympathetic to the aims and intentions of market-driven reform, this report highlighted the way in which a preoccupation with short-term efficiency had undermined strategic capacity (Schick, 1996: 53). Efficient ‘output’ delivery needed to be tempered with a focus on desired ‘outcomes’.

The Strengthening Families (SF) programme from 1997 was a response to the silo effect of the efficiency paradigm. It aimed to promote client-centred dialogue and service integration for families with needs spread across a range of services. Independent coordinators were charged with convening SF meetings to facilitate inter-agency dialogue and cooperation. There are echoes here with the more recent children’s teams approach envisaged by the ‘White Paper’ on vulnerable children’s reforms discussed later in this chapter.

Organisational capacity was a barrier to implementing the SF project at the practice level. The scheme relied on the assumption of intersectoral cooperation without any allocation of personnel resource (beyond the coordinator positions) or any increase in local agency funding. State agencies were all stretched to capacity and, as with the child protection team initiatives of the 1980s, any serious exercise of coercive authority in situations of risk fell, by default, to statutory social workers.

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We are at a critical juncture in relation to the trajectory of the child protection project. The outlook is contested, in the same way that the function of state-sponsored child and family welfare practice has always been disputed. In my view, the future design and development of policy and practice requires a critical analysis of the relationship between child protection and the wider system of liberal capitalism in the settler state of Aotearoa. To some degree, this process is unfolding as this concluding chapter is being penned. There is, as there seemed to be in 1989, an opportunity to construct a world-leading and socially just child protection system. There is a great deal of work to be done but recent developments signpost a possible pathway to this objective.

The foregoing chapters have demonstrated the way in which responses to child and family welfare have been politically configured over time. The ideological rubric of liberal capitalism has tended to set the discursive parameters within which the problem of child maltreatment is defined (Duncan, 2004). Child protection is enmeshed with the relations of power inherent to this economic and political system. It is also connected with related socio-economic disparities that intersect with class, gender and ethnicity. Common-sense understandings about the genesis of social inequality and the relationship between poverty and child protection have shifted as liberal political orthodoxy has moved across the liberal spectrum, from laissez fare capitalism, to the welfare state, and back again.

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