One of the first academic and independent reviews of the Government’s direction on child protection services has raised fundamental concerns.
The report by Dr Emily Keddell, a senior social work lecturer at Otago, focuses specifically on recent and proposed further Government changes aimed at preventing child abuse and neglect.
The aims of the reforms need to be broadened from the “economically oriented” to the “socially oriented” and to a more holistic goal of child and family wellbeing, her commentary, commissioned by AUT’s Policy Observatory, recommends.
Examining the Vulnerable Child Reforms of 2011-2014, and more recently, the creation of the new Ministry for Vulnerable Children Oranga Tamariki, she finds that while some of the reforms are still in the design phase, “hints” provided so far indicate the Government may not be on the right track.
“There are multiple points of tension between the details of the proposed reforms, the nature of the problem, and child protection systems design,” she says.
Dr Keddell writes that causes of abuse have been “individualistically” framed, downplaying key evidence about the relationship between child abuse and the broader social and economic context.
“Child abuse and neglect has a range of well-established relationships with social inequalities, poverty and community factors not addressed in the policy proposals,” Dr Keddell writes.
She also questions whether the Government’s faith in market mechanisms to deliver required prevention services through third party contractors (reducing the role of the state) is overstated.
“Market drivers of supply, demand and profit are unlikely to be responsive to the range and complexity of human problems encountered…..it also leaves key responsibilities of the state up to third party contractors to deliver.”
Dr Keddell adds that the new “social investment approach” – to reduce re-notifications of child abuse, future welfare payments and criminal justice liability – could create “perverse incentives” for not-for-profit organisations involved in child abuse prevention. This could lead to children not being notified to Oranga Tamariki for suspected abuse or neglect if a reduction in notifications is linked to a non-Government organisation’s contract.
“In the child protection context, a market approach to service provision could have the same result: providers might target only those most amenable to cost-effective improvements, whereas those deemed the most high and low-risk miss out.
“Families who find themselves without service provision may proceed rapidly to child removal, reducing opportunities for support and change.”
This approach would “overstate the benefits of foster care despite mixed evidence about its outcomes.” This also downplays the harm caused by child removal itself, and diminishes the importance of family, whanau, iwi and community relationships.
Dr Keddell’s report says: “…nowhere is the reality of parenting within resource-poor contexts taken into account, nor the damage of removal to children acknowledged. Foster care, while at times necessary, is not a panacea.”
As Maori are over-represented in child-welfare systems-contact, “all of these points will have disproportionate effects on whanau and hapu Māori.
She recommends that the Government takes a more holistic view of prevention, such as addressing the known causes of child abuse and neglect across the whole social spectrum.
“This report argues for shifting the emphasis away from treating problem individuals or families, and narrow focus on the prevention of child abuse, to the provision of a broad policy landscape that promotes wellbeing.”