The resignation of Oranga Tamariki boss Gráinne Moss signals the end of a protracted ideological dispute over child protection policy. But as is often the case with social work in liberal capitalist states, this represents the end of a specific battle rather than the resolution of a long-running war.
Moss was appointed to deliver the vision of an advisory panel on the modernisation of state social work which reported to the National-led government in December 2015.
This panel was headed by Paula Rebstock, a right-wing economist and “go to” political fixer, fresh from designing state benefit sanctions. Benefit dependency is, of course, the neoliberal equivalent of original sin. If we can fix faulty individuals – neutralise their current and future costs to the state in terms of prisons, health and other benefit payments, or “forward welfare liability” – we will all sleep easier. It is a bit like mowing the lawn and expecting the grass not to grow.
Naively or ingenuously the expert panel focused on the negative moral and fiscal outcomes for children and young people involved with child welfare. The proposed antidote to the scourge of excessive welfare costs was the provision of safe and loving homes at the earliest opportunity to prevent the expensive trauma generated by drift and churn in the system: multiple foster placements or re-abuse in family care. However, what appears to be common sense to a conservative economist may have perverse outcomes in a settler state riddled with social inequalities for its Indigenous people.
Across the Anglophone world it is children from the disenfranchised margins of the working class who are drawn into contact with child protection systems. Most children and young people in state care in New Zealand are Māori. This is the result of a corrosive cocktail of colonisation, racism, and the associated imposition of liberal capitalism upon a communal people. Despite a smokescreen of management speak it was clear that a policy of “take them early and stop the rot” would lead to an escalation of Māori babies entering care. This is exactly what came to pass in the early years of the new ministry under Moss’s watch.
Māori are resilient people with a long history of resistance to cultural imperialism. The desire for autonomy promised by the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi has been staunchly maintained. Revolutionary child protection legislation introduced in New Zealand in 1989 was a response to institutional racism and the alienation of Māori children from their physical and spiritual connections to family, tribe, history, and culture. The associated vision of family empowerment was frustrated by successive governments: Māori were given responsibility without resources.
The fate of Moss was sealed in June of 2019 when all of this came to a head in the North Island city of Hastings. Clearly incompetent and draconian efforts to uplift a new-born Māori baby from her mother in Hawkes Bay hospital were filmed by an investigative journalist and published on a popular news website. This brought the trauma of the “without-notice” uplift practice into the living rooms of middle New Zealand. It is a testament to the durability of long-distance ocean swimmer Moss that she has hung on as long as she has. A raft of inquiries followed the Hastings debacle. An internal review focused on the poor practice in this specific situation and Oranga Tamariki undertook to stop applying for without-notice custody orders unless imminent harm was apparent. This was tantamount to promising to desist from acting illegally.
An ombudsman’s office report concluded that this practice was, in fact, widespread and unconscionable. A Māori-initiated inquiry, driven by a who’s who of Māori in relation to social development, accessed the voices of those subject to oppressive practices and concluded that the creation of a separate Māori service is the only viable way forward. This conclusion was endorsed by a two-stage inquiry undertaken by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner. We also await the findings from an urgent hearing of the Waitangi Tribunal into the question of whether policy settings are consistent with the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi. Meanwhile, an interim report by a current royal commission into historical abuse has suggested that 250,000 children may have been abused in care between 1950 and 2019.
Moss has gone – wrong person, wrong place, wrong time – but the question of social justice in child welfare for Māori remains unresolved, and it is unlikely to go away any time soon.
Dr Ian Hyslop is an expert in social work and child protection practice at the University of Auckland