Maternity social work: When one becomes two

By A. Rand

The recently announced reforms issued by the newly formed Ministry of Vulnerable Children Oranga Tamariki (MVCOT) indicates a strong focus of care that will consist of a child-centred approach, in which the needs of children would be considered of paramount priority. The premise of such an approach is without question a worthy consideration, given that the needs of vulnerable children should be of the highest consideration when determining where limited state resources should be allocated and to who.  

However, as Haultain, Fouche, Frost, and  Moodley point out the child-centred approach adopted by such agencies as MVCOT brings forth a raft of issues, concerning the maternity care of expectant mothers living in highly disadvantaged social situations (2016, p.65).   Issues occur because often expectant mums from disadvantage situations have prior history with such agencies as MVCOT, and are therefore known to case workers from the organisation.  Armed with this knowledge about expectant mothers, agencies endeavour to monitor the progress of pregnancies to minimise any possible of risk that might impact on the wellbeing of a new born child.   Multi-disciplinary healthcare teams are charged with putting in place risk adverse intervention measures to safeguard children’s futures, implementing maternity care plans requiring mandatory engagement with professionals, such as a lead maternity carer (LMC), or compulsory enrolment of parenting and budgeting programmes. These requirements also serve as criteria by which expectant mothers are targeted as to whether they qualify to receive benefit entitlements by Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ) , a rationale consistent with enforcing social policy and public demands for ‘welfare austerity’ .  This approach suggests that the focus is solely on the child and its future welfare, and if the mother is perceived to be uncooperative, then she is likely to be labelled ‘hard to reach’, language that suggests such groups are ‘hard to work with, motivate or change’ (Duvnjak & Fraser, 2013).  Additionally, ethical concerns for the mother’s rights are often overlooked in this child-centred environment, as the emphasis is on the welfare of the child, with little consideration given to the physical and psychological wellbeing of a vulnerable mother following the birth of her child.  These actions through up all sorts of debates and potential conflict, given the central ethos for social work practice is based on upholding human rights and the ethical treatment of individuals. This ‘walking the tightrope’ as identified by Haultain, Fouche, Frost and Moodley of social work practice can mean that the rights of the mother become secondary, with the potential for the child’s own emotional development to suffer, in being denied the chance to learn how to bond with others through attachment developmental processes learned through interactions with the birth mother (2016). Increasingly this has become the case, as over time agencies such as the Bethany Centre have closed due to lack of funding, thus denying the possibility for alternative methods of support for vulnerable mums and their babies to be considered (Orejana, 2011). As de Haan contends, the birth of a child has major implications on the family, as often when vulnerable mothers are deemed unsuitable to parent, other members of the extended family are expected to step in and take on the role (2016).  However often there is inadequate support for the extended family with the sudden changes that have occurred, leading to an environment filled with stress and resentment, potentially worse for the child than if the mother had been provided with improved support to evolve and develop her role as an engaged and empowered mother.

References and websites

De Haan, I. (2016). Supporting transition to parenthood in Aotearoa New Zealand. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 28 (3), 4-14. Read here

Duvnjak, A., & Fraser, H. (2013). Targeting the ‘hard to reach’: re/producing stigma?. Critical and Radical Social Work, 1 (2), 167-182. doi: .org/10.1332/204986013X673245 Read here

Haultain, L., Fouche, C., Frost, H., & Moodley, S. (2016). Walking the tight rope: Women’s health social workers’ role with vulnerable families in the maternity context. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 28 (2), 64-74. Read here

Orejana, R. Mother and Child Disunion. (2011, September 15th). The Aucklander. Retrieved from    d=11040927

Ministry of Social Development. (2017). Young Parent Payments. Retrieved from

Ministry of Vulnerable Children Oranga Tamariki. Working with Children.  Retrieved from


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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