Dr Ian Hyslop: New child protection laws a regressive move

Social Development Minister Anne Tolley. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Social Development Minister Anne Tolley. Photo / Mark Mitchell

• Dr Ian Hyslop is a lecturer in counselling, human services and social work at the University of Auckland

The Government's proposed reforms to our child protection laws are regressive, myopic and likely to have unfortunate outcomes for children who have been ill-treated in stressed families.

They have been narrowly conceived and signal a return to rescue-based fostercare. This, in my opinion, is a huge step backwards for child protection in New Zealand, particularly for Maori.

Cabinet papers released by Social Development Minister Anne Tolley set out these law changes to support a new "operating model" for statutory social work services within the new Ministry of Vulnerable Children.

But these reforms have involved minimal real consultation with the sector. They are the result of an expert panel review which began in April 2015. I was involved in a practice reference group which provided advice to this panel, nominally.

The outcome, I believe, was largely predetermined.

I worked in state social work for 20 years and witnessed the genesis of the ground-breaking Children, Young Persons and their Families' Act, 1989. This legislation addressed institutional racism (identified in the Puao Te Ata Tu Ministerial Advisory Committee Report of 1988) by making an understanding of Maori values and social structures central to working with Maori children.

The 1989 Act responded to the cultural alienation of Maori children in the care of the state by bringing Maori concepts of whakapapa and whanaungatanga into mainstream statutory social work legislation.

It required that placement of children outside of immediate family be with a member of their whanau, hapu, iwi, or at the very least with someone from the same cultural background. This vision has never been adequately supported or resourced and now, under these proposed reforms, it is abandoned.

I believe these misguided changes have been based on a persuasive but inaccurate and overly simplistic assertion that the ills of the current child protection system are due to an insufficiently child-centred approach.

But it must be recognised that these reforms are also linked with the Government's social investment approach to public services. Social problems are seen in terms of the costs " prisons and benefits " that result from the behaviour of failing families. One way of breaking the cycle is permanently removing children from their care.

Key principles of our child protection legislation are being revised with this goal in mind.

This approach is clearly reflected in the proposal that the CYP&F Act should include a commitment to ensure "those children and young people who come to the attention of the new ministry have a safe, stable and loving home from the earliest opportunity".

Of course, the notion of safety, stability and love triggers a powerful emotional response to the needs of children. However, an idealised notion of love provided by the state and middle New Zealand carers is no basis for a progressive child welfare system in my view.

In practice this will translate into the earlier and more frequent removal of children from parental care, into permanent alternative care and a reduced emphasis on securing whanau placement for children who cannot safely remain with immediate family.

With high-risk families, the intention is to plan alternate care concurrently with intensive intervention to encourage speedy long-term attachment and stability with new carers. Further, Family Court judges may have the power to make final guardianship and custody orders without a formal declaration being made.

In other words, parents will have no opportunity to dispute the removal of their children and statutory social workers will not be required to formally prove the accuracy of the evidence they are relying on.

This is a breach of human rights justified by the quick dispensation of safety, stability and love. It is ideologically driven and, in reality, will be punitive and damaging to the socially disadvantaged in our increasingly unequal society.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf02 at 03 Dec 2016 11:31:58 Processing Time: 327ms