Be a SPANNER for Whanau Not a COG for the State

This opinion piece speaks to the structures, organisations and people that contribute to maintaining the  child protection social work status quo in New Zealand.

Especially, the abusive transacting and laundering of our mokopuna (Maori grandchildren) through state care which has not significantly changed for them since forced urbanisation (removal from their homelands). Consecutive governments over this time have repeatedly failed in their duty of care to children whilst successfully breaching their obligations to the Treaty of Waitangi (te Tiriti), the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

This piece will firstly make a number of points on the Social Work Registration Body (SWRB), the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers (ANZASW) and the social work ‘elite’ (long serving social work practitioners, educators and academics). Secondly, some concerns around child protection and children in state care, will be covered.

Organisations such as the SWRB and ANZASW seem less concerned with supporting social workers and more interested in maintaining the brown school to prison pipeline that keeps professionals in jobs.  We hear the same old rhetoric that upholds the social work industry and key positional people (the elite, good intentions are enough group, self-appointed white allies and some Malcolm X stylz house servants) who do not want their positioning disrupted. The same positional patch protecting that blocked Puao te ta tu (Daybreak) from ever seeing the light of day. People who will on one hand vehemently denounce neoliberal Child Youth & Family (CYF) reforms and simultaneously participate in ways and means of keeping Maori marginalised (For an example, see this piece for later reading).

Take for example the SWRB, a government entity that in 2017 is set to make registration of social workers mandatory and once you register you cannot unregister! We heard recently from the SWRB CE (well-advertised on mainstream media) that unregistered social workers “Have the potential to do harm and if they’re not being assessed or monitored.” Since when did we have lone rogue cowboy type social workers out there preying upon vulnerable families? Where is the research to support this? It’s the same scaremongering rhetoric that justifies the need for a controlling mechanism to be in place. What do you see when the Emperor is parading around his splendid expensive new gears, with adoring gentry lathering his ego of how wonderful he looks? Do you see his beautifully woven finery or a big white nono? The truth is that many of our most committed frontline practitioners are unregistered and work in the community. Who are happy to take less pay because they choose not to work in monocultural government environments.

The social work elite market mandatory registration because they believe that the professionalisation of social work needs to include improving professional status. That we should be seen as“experts” and thus have equal standing and credibility among the other helping professions (e.g. psychiatry, psychology, nursing, and counselling). Professional registration might provide you with a Gold Star however it conflicts with the true purpose of social workers and our ethical standing. This means we are supposed to reject the expert position and work in alleviating the power differential for vulnerable people in systems (check out the global standards for clarity on this point).

Professional registration is used by organisations as a control mechanism to prevent social workers speaking out about systemic issues of repeated failures in our government’s duty of care to children, institutional racism, underfunding, high caseloads, and organisational bullying. This is a KEY issue that is not being talked about in social work! Social Workers are being used by the SWRB to play a maintenance role and to promote conformity; not to address social justice issues. As concerned social workers who have alternative views about the SWRB and ANZASW, we are NOT saying that there should be no professional standards. Of course there should be but we want Tangata Whenua lead standards, in line with global standards that advocate for Indigenous autonomy. That’s right Tino Rangatiratanga! We want a Tangata Whenua based process that approves social workers as competent to work with Maori. Maori decide this, not Pakeha!

As for the ANZASW who espouse their commitment to te Tiriti and biculturalism at every opportunity. They do so with no explicit reference to the imbalance of power in their organisation or indeed unaware of how overtly they present as white supremacist centred. Most apparent when speaking on behalf of their Tiriti partner and whilst categorically denying the existence of any racism within their organisation (For an example, see this piece for later reading). The key point here is that despite only 10% of their membership feeding back their views on mandatory registration, ANZASW is going to go ahead with supporting it. Pretty indicative of how aligned the SWRB and ANZASW are!

Questions asked about the SWRB often go unanswered so this blog seeks to put a few of them on the table. Firstly, however Mia a former practicing social worker offers her experience of the SWRB.

“My name is Mia (pseudonym). I have a partner and young family and I studied for four years, clocking up sizable student loan…I graduated with a degree.  My whole family were at grad…they were so proud of me. Throughout my study I was pretty much indoctrinated with the need to be registered and so I did. I’ve got a clean record, I’m a good person so everyone says. I was our sole income while my partner was the stay at home parent. We were struggling and I let my APC lapse for a few months…I understood some things about being registered but not everything.  I had to appear before a tribunal and prove our financial position. They went through everything and asked about me at work. They fined me and made me pay costs to the Tribunal.  I was publicly named and shamed. I left my social work practice disorientated and dishonoured. How could that be? I am a respected member of my community. I was brought up in it from from birth. I want the best for my community. I know my community. My community knows me. But that whole process minimised me and made me feel inadequate. How can that be? I have been taking medication to treat depression and I don’t know what the future holds for myself and my family.”

  • Why is the SWRB not required to be transparent about their investigation processes? Why can you ask colleagues of a person you are investigating to provide statements about them but not share this with the person they are investigating?
  • Why are the bulk of the SWRB investigations/sanctions/fines on social workers for allowing their APC to lapse? Rather than on those who practice unethically, particularly those inside statutory social work?
  • Why is it that the SWRB ethical standards are not in line with global social work standards; particularly with Indigenous visibility, participation and partnership? (Is it because the same positional elite that maintain the status quo are the same ones who set the standards and advocate for mandatory registration?)
  • Why is it ok for our exorbitant fees to go into prosecuting individual social workers (APC lapses) but there is not enough funding to employ appropriate assessors to assess social worker competencies against the Kaitiakitanga framework? This is a KEY issue and speaks volumes about the SWRB priorities. Is it more about revenue gathering through sanctioning social workers rather than assessing their competencies to work safely with Maori?
  • Why does the SWRB allow unregistered, non-social work practitioners as investigators and tribunal representatives to sit in judgment of registered social work practitioners?
  • Why does so much time, resource and expense seemingly go into the smaller fry cases (APC lapses) and the public/controversial cases involving registered statutory social workers seem to get buried? Is there a pre-process the tribunal goes through where it considers cases that can and cannot be pursued by the tribunal? (e.g., because of the Privacy Act/Disclosure clauses or that a case is before the Family Court).
  • Why do senior Maori associated with the SWRB often have their names attached to Pakeha research to get around the cultural considerations involved? What if the research team wanted to take an outspoken activist (asking too many questions) before the SWRB and the Maori on the research was also a SWRB member? Is this a not a conflict of interest?
  • Why does the SWRB (who espouse their ethical stance to te Tiriti and biculturalism) employ Pakeha assessors to evaluate social work programmes frameworks on competencies to work with Maori? Is it not white supremacy to assert that Pakeha are qualified to assess training programmes that teach competency to work with Maori?

When it comes to social work training programmes in Aotearoa, too many are not equipping social workers with the competence to work with Maori. (We like what TWoA and TWoR offer). The core focus of social work training is Western derived monocultural (white dominant and one right way) social work knowledge so that practitioners are able to meet international requirements. Minimal attention is paid to the historical or even contemporary state of Maori here at home or indeed Maori principles and practices of healing and collective wellbeing, much less anti-oppressive knowledge that aligns with decolonising social work. Tacking a bit of Maori onto white supremacy does NOT work! It is negligent to churn out social workers who believe that cultural ‘fluency’ is about being knowing your mihimihi, a  waiata and karakia. Yeah that’s really going to get in a door flashing that badge. It is unacceptable for the SWRB and the ANZASW to approve social workers as meeting a standard as competent to work with our whanau and they are NOT. What standard, the Tino Rangatiratanga sticker in the front window kind? Train SPANNERs to work with our whanau, not COGs to work for the state! And please limit the tone policing!

Tone policing is interesting and has been vividly showcased on a couple of social work Facebook pages. Where social workers (Maori and Tauiwi) have been attacked for discussing topics such as white supremacy or black lives matter. Even the term “genocide” seems to trigger extreme white guilt responses from people who then question the posters right to be on the page. Of most concern was to find out that one of the offended people is not in fact a naive student but a lecturer in a social work programme. This screams cultural incompetence across the whole of social work. Not even the page administrator appears to understand the dynamics of white supremacy and is either silent or aids the racist ranter. What is most shameful and the epitome of covert racism is that some of our social work educators/academics stay silent when they could be challenging this behaviour. They are protecting their own positioning on the backs if our people.  Racism is a Pakeha responsibility to address and if you are not challenging racism on social media sites you are unlikely to within your social work schools. On the upside, this behaviour inspired others to form their own FB page Resisting Genocide Perpetrated by Social Work and from it a strong roopu of activist voices who are gaining momentum.

So where do social workers go to have their social justice and practice concerns heard? The ANZASW, SWRB or the PSA? The PSA’s submission on the CYFS Advocacy Workforce and Age Settings reads as weak (big white nono). No mention of the critical issues for Maori, such as the impact of structural racism, that Maori are 73% of the total young people in youth justice facilities, epidemic social worker bias and cultural incompetence or recommending a return to blueprint frameworks such as Mātua Whāngai and Puao-te-ata-tu. No mention of historical trauma, decolonisation and te Tiriti.  If, ANZASW, the SWRB and PSA were truly supportive of social workers speaking out then we would be hearing about the critical issues from them. The PSA would’ve invited a range of Maori voices to speak at  their social work conference in September; not just the handpicked ones. These organisations mainstream mix Maori rendering them silenced, in the same way some well known social work platforms do. We need to be able to have these conversations kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face), not in ANZASW board rooms or SWRB tribunals, not in CYFs or the new Ministry’s offices or in front of disinterested “expert panels” who model all that is wrong with capitalist white supremacist hetero-patriarchy.

The Ministry of Vulnerable Children – Oranga Tamariki (wellbeing of children). More tacking on a bit of Maori to Maorify the service. So ignorant to put ‘vulnerable’ and ‘wellbeing’ into the same title because one negates the other. Like child protection practice so often negates the wellbeing of tamariki. Out of the frying pan into the fire. The vulnerability title suitably fits when we consider the extent of state violence inflicted upon children in care, especially tamariki who are removed from their whanau and placed with non-Maori or non-kin in prolific numbers (genocide). And Tolley’s brilliant idea of how to fix the ‘Maori problem’ of over-representation. NO not reconnecting children with their whanau, rather remove all of them. Where do we put all these children? There are not enough placements for them at the moment which is why they are placed with unapproved caregivers and in Police cells for days on end.

Also the news that we are returning to group homes like Epuni and Kingslea, Kohitere and Allendale. “From the 1950s to the 1980s, the New Zealand government took more than 100,000 children from experiences of strife, neglect, poverty or family violence and placed them under state care in residential facilities. These children faced abysmal conditions, limited education and social isolation. They endured physical, sexual and psychological violence, as well as secure cells, knock-out sedatives and electro-convulsive therapy” (Stanley, 2016). The New Zealand government has never apologised for this monumental breach of human rights to children. Yet laws are being introduced right now that will allow the CE of the new Ministry discretionary powers to delegate the ability for any professional to remove children from their homes. All you would need is a belief that the child will at some point be in danger from their whanau based on predictive risk modelling information. Legalised ‘made to order’ child trafficking.

Other critical issues we don’t talk about in social work is the pipeline relationship between child protection and the judiciary. Huge ‘us and them’ power dynamics ocurring in the Family Court that general Joe Public does not hear about. Where penniless and powerless whanau are forced into ‘straight to top tariff practice’ and have to take on the state through ex-parte hearings to fight for the custody of their tamariki. Where some registered social workers are known to perjure themselves to cover their biased targeting of whanau Maori. Practitioners who might never say it to your face that they believe our babies are better off with non-Maori or non-kin. Where risk assessments, plans, and reports are weighted against whanau in favour of the state. Take for example the Tuituia assessment framework, more often used to justify a social workers decision to remove a child rather than assess the strengths of a whanau. Where the practice of predetermining the FGC in favour of removal has become common place (prolific according to my PhD research). Where kids are placed with abusers, like the case in Heretaunga recently and everyone around that boy argued “it wasn’t me” “it wasn’t our fault.” Some of our own Iwi organisations are now part of the web where our babies and their ngakau are sacrificed to maintain incomes. Or cases like the CYF approved Frank Warmsley who was allowed to abuse and re-abuse children for five years before being prosecuted. Registered social workers, supervisors and the practice manager would have known about this abuser. How do I know all this? Try fourteen years in state care and another twenty five as a social worker, with ten of those in direct statutory child protection and FGC practice. I’ve seen and heard it all and I’ve also been the one who is repeatedly bullied because I whistle-blew both as a child and as a social worker. I’m still whistling Dixie!

The creme de la crème excuse of “unconscious bias” that is so fragrantly used to explain away covert racist targeting of Maori. It’s not unconscious when the Maori boy gets a supervision with residence (incarcerated) for the same thing the Pakeha boy gets diversion for and the social worker doesn’t challenge it. Social workers are not powerless and voiceless, children in state care are. I’m also over hearing the spin by ANZASW and CYF that social workers do their best and are not blame. I’m over hearing the excuses that dodgy child protection practice is ALL about social workers being overworked, under-resourced and time pressured. I’m over hearing media narratives that where a child has been murdered, we are told the public needed to do more. So often the public, neighbours, acquaintances reported incidents prior to a murder and the system failed to follow through on the reports. For example the Livingston and Moko cases.Yes there are some excellent offices around Aotearoa producing  sound examples of working successfully with families and whanau. You can tell because they have great local relationships with Police, Iwi and service providers and their numbers of children in care are low. Other offices are abysmal with high numbers and top tariff and corrupt practice occurring. Where is the consistency and shared best practice across areas? Where is the kaupapa Maori research about how social workers make decisions Mr Chief Social Worker? Maori are the predominant social service user group and Pakeha academics get to lead on potentially beneficial research for improved outcomes for Maori. We All have to be able to own and voice what contributes to the targeting of Maori and abuse of our kids in care.

So what do children in state care say about their abuse? “I can’t tell because they will shift me to an even worse place” or “I did tell my social worker but she didn’t believe me” or “he said he would do it to my sister.” Most often these children are not given safety skills (good touch, bad touch) or encouraged to whistle-blow because the state of dodgy practice is so normalised in some offices that giving children permission to tell is like giving them a loaded gun to use against you. Think about it! Children are often placed without safety plans, risk assessments and supports every day all over this country. They are shifted, shafted and made vulnerable by the state and the state repeatedly denies and down plays the abuse. Children in care are kept from their whanau and their whanau kept from them. Child protection in this country is not child centred, it is state centred and according to the Children’s Commissioner (2015) we don’t even know what ‘child centred’ practice is. Worse, the terms surrounding the creation of Tolley’s new advocacy system for children is weak.

The Children’s Commissioner in 2015 said that there was no evidence that children in state care were any safer than they were in the families they were removed from. This is a significant issue! Where is New Zealand’s accountability for the continued state violence on children? Where is the outrage and the voices in social work who take some, any responsibility? Where do our people go to be heard when the uplift of children has been unwarranted and those children not returned? Most often a family’s or a mother’s cries fall on deaf ears and their complaints buried in a mountain of corrupt white supremacist bureaucracy.  Where is the Independent Complaints Authority that whanau and community groups have been demanding for decades? Where is the Royal Commission? New Zealand is shamefully one of the only commonwealth countries who have never had an independent investigation into historical institutional child abuse. Most of the NZ public remains blissfully unaware of the extent of horrendous child abuse that has occurred since the 1950s. Yes it is still happening in residences, children’s homes and foster care. Successive NZ governments have resisted the call for a Royal Commission of inquiry and continue to deny systemic abuse and failings in institutions. However this is contrary to the findings from all other previous institutional child abuse inquiries held in other countries around the world.

The problem of the abuse of children in Aotearoa is just bigger and deeper than we can really fathom. To begin to address this we need a solution that is bigger than the problem. Whilst it’s wonderful that we have Iwi leaders signing a covenant with  Judge Caroline Henwood to STOP the abuse of children, we need it to be more than paper-based. The HOW is key, the practice model, the waka in order to whakahokia nga tamariki! We have to return to the frameworks of Puao-te ata-tu and Matua Whangai. What Tolley is trying to (“not on my watch”) fast track implement is a farcical mess, set to immeasurably increase the human rights abuses of our children. Mark my words!

If you are a te Tiriti centered social worker, you have a duty of care to the people you work with not to the system that abuses our children. Be the SPANNER in the machine, not a COG!

Written By P. Moyle
Moa In The Room
Originally published at


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