A ‘cast’ for families – Rethinking child protection

by Cara Stanford

‘You don’t fix a broken leg with amputation, a cast holds the pieces together to allow them to heal and bond again’ (Rowden, 2016, np).  In the same vein, why are we fixing struggling families involved with the Ministry for Vulnerable Children Oranga Tamariki with separation?

Instead of separation, we should provide wrap-around care – an interim cast – that allows the opportunity to learn, heal, and bond (Rowden, 2016). Separation may sometimes be necessary, but often it is the immediately cheaper and quicker option (Rowden, 2016) which is not what New Zealand needs to break negative family cycles   

Sadly, the mothers I work with often say they were part of these cycles; not knowing how to properly parent because they themselves weren’t parented well. What many of these families’ need is a holistic residential programme that looks at the many influential factors that affects their parenting. The holistic residential parenting programme I work at aims to target key factors including parenting, substance abuse, trauma, budgeting, housing, and more. In fact, it targets almost all the key influential factors as noted in the White Papers for Vulnerable Children (Ministry for Vulnerable Children Oranga Tamariki, 2012).

Research from international residential substance abuse programmes that have evolved to include parenting programmes and more note their significant benefits (Einbinder, 2010). Many mothers who enter this programme are involved with child protection services. It was found the mothers who can keep their child in their care are more likely to succeed in the programme; it reduces utilization of government foster care, and provides significant long term cost benefits with most mothers regaining custody (Einbinder, 2010).

A cost analysis from a programme like that above found that, although it was more expensive than standard residential programmes that focused only on addiction, the long-term cost benefits were almost doubled (French, McCollister, Cacciola, Durell, & Stephens, 2009 ).

Families in these settings are not passed from organisation to organisation to have single needs met, with the possibility of things going unseen. In such a residential setting, everything is available in a cohesive and intense package, allowing for consistent and timely support from social workers where nothing goes unseen or unaddressed. Social workers in these settings do amazing work to keep families together and potentially impact future generations.

However, these programmes are costly up front which does not appeal to the government (Rowen, 2016). So, the challenges for social workers here is to have the government recognise the long-term investment that they are making (French et al, 2009). Without investment, this form of social work is limited. We see this in New Zealand where very few holistic residential programmes exist for families involved in the Ministry of Vulnerable Children. This is a significant concern considering the enormous long term benefit these programmes can have (Einbinder, 2010).

There needs to be a shift in thinking, a shift to recognising that an intensive all-in-one programme is better than having families passed between multiple services where things can easily go unnoticed. There needs to be a shift to seeing a cast as a better solution than amputation and from experience and the literature holistic residential programmes can offer one of the strongest casts there is.


Einbinder, S. D. (2010). A qualitative study of exodus graduates: Family-focused residential substance abuse treatment as an option for mothers to retain or regain custody and sobriety in Los Angeles, California. Child Welfare, 89(4), 29-45. Retrieved from https://www.shieldsforfamilies.org/download/Einbinder%202010%20Child%20Welfare.pdf?0ca21

French, M. T., McCollister, K. E., Cacciola, J., Durell, J., & Stephens, R. L. (2009). Benefit-cost analysis of addiction treatment in Arkansas: Specialty and standard residential programs for pregnant and parenting women. Substance Abuse, 23(1), 31-51. doi: 10.1080/08897070209511473

Ministry for Vulnerable Children Oranga Tamariki. (2012). The white paper for vulnerable children: volume two [White paper]. Retrieved from https://www.mvcot.govt.nz/assets/Uploads/Documents/whitepaper-volume-ii-web.pdf

Rowden, T. K. (2016). Think big for kids: 5 big ideas (and a few dozen more) to protect children and support families. Retrieved from: https://thespinoff.co.nz/parenting/25-10-2016/think-big-for-kids-5-big-ideas-and-a-few-dozen-more-to-protect-children-and-support-families/


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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