Evolving impressions of decision making at the new ministry

by Meralda Grey

As you all know and some are also experiencing, I’m currently on practicum at Oranga Tamariki. It certainly is an interesting experience. Especially after 18 months of lectures critiquing policy and practice in child protection. After three short weeks I find myself feeling somewhat ‘troubled’ and ‘vulnerable’ flexing my emerging social work skills in this environment. Thus far I’m finding that my  goal of engaging in a strengths based practice environment that offers family support is being put through it’s paces. Opportunities to do so seem less obviously available than I’d anticipated. So, here are my evolving thoughts and impressions. These may change. It is early days yet.

I am working alongside a team of very skilled and knowledgable social workers. Some have worked in child protection for many years. They are a busy managing high caseloads of complex clients. They all talk about ‘high risk’ and clients’ ‘capacity to make changes’ and clients’ ‘motivation to make changes’. All of these practitioners would acknowledge the impact of poverty and related issues on clients’ lives. However, they are also working in an environment that is, in the words of one social worker, “unapologetically child-centred”. The new Oranga Tamariki principles and values statements highlight a child-centred focus and talk about timeframes for children to have the earliest possible opportunity to be cared for in a loving and supportive home. It seems to me that the implication of this is placing children in care as soon as high risk is established as well as a narrowing of focus of the Oranga Tamariki role resulting in less available resource for family support and prevention. Ok, so the possibility of high risk scenarios is an assessment that needs to be made and there will always be children that do need to be placed in care.  I wonder though. if notions of who is deserving or worthy of going the extra mile for, of continuing to manage uncertainty without unleashing the legislative arm of Oranga Tamariki, operates at the level of practitioner decision making.

The RSW collective submission on the draft definition of social work states that, “evaluating risk is considered as one aspect of a wider ecological, social justice and strengths informed assessment process.” (RSW, 2017). However, Emily Keddell (2016) suggests that in child protection individual responsibility and accountability allows poverty and other issues such as mental health to be framed as ‘excuses’ for child protection rather than contributing factors. Surveillance and monitoring of some parents can then be legitimized by their so-called ‘risky’ status. In case consults and reviews that I’ve been privy to, the individualisation of clients’ troubles has confronted and discomforted me. Mothers who have experienced poverty, mental ill health and drug and alcohol use are framed as lacking capacity and as hard to reach. When attempting to make changes, it has been suggested that they aren’t necessarily genuine but are being compliant enough to delay the inevitable (RSW 2017). On the face of it, I observe discourses about capacity, being hard to reach and individual responsibility involved to some extent with decisions about the allocation of resources to support change in families.

There is possibly a lot more at play here than I’m aware of. It’s just that I wonder if high levels of complexity are just too hard to address and lack of capacity is code for unworthy of support? I wonder if all of this would be different if resources were not as stretched and practitioners had  time and lower caseloads. Then perhaps, developing relationships with clients based on trust and hearing their perspectives would be possible. This of course, is of huge benefit to clients. It also allows for practice in statutory child protection that may be preventative by supporting family well-being and lasting change. As Harry Ferguson (2008) suggests, best practice in child protection integrates family support with child safety, healing and promoting democratic family relations.


Ferguson, H. (2008). Best practice in family support and child protection: Promoting child safety and democratic families. In K. Jones, B. Cooper & H. Ferguson (eds.). Best Practic in Social Work: Critical Perspectives. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Keddell, E. (2016). Child protection reform and welfare reform in Aotearoa New Zealand: Two sides of the same coin? In J. Maidment & L. Beddoe (eds.), Social Policy for Social Work and Human Services in Aotearoa New Zealand (pp. 237-251). Christchurch, New Zealand: Canterbury University Press.

Re-imagining Social Work Collective (2017). Who defines social work? In defence of the global definition. [Blog post 17 May 2017 ]Retrieved at http://www.reimaginingsocialwork.nz/2017/05/rsw-collectives-submission-on-the-draft-swrb-defintion-of-social-work/

Re-imagining Social Work Collective (2017). Disguised compliance’ – innocent shorthand term or jargon hiding a powerful discourse? [Blog post 30 April 2017] Retrieved at http://www.reimaginingsocialwork.nz/2017/04/disguised-compliance-innocent-shorthand-term-or-jargon-hiding-a-powerful-discourse/

About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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