Last Wednesday the Minister of Social Development Anne Tolley announced the formation of an ‘independent expert panel’ to lead a ‘complete overhaul ‘ of Child, Youth and Family. This is the first of a series of posts by social workers who wish to challenge aspects of the panel’s role and composition and call for a much more open process of discussion to influence the way forward.
Before other authors address the focus and task of this panel it needs to be pointed out that its composition can hardly be described as independent. Rebstock and Bush are both closely aligned with major state service operations. Rebstock is the chair of the ACC Board, Chair of the Work and Income Board and lead reviewer for the Improvement Framework for the State Services Commission. Rebstock is associated with welfare reforms that have been widely critiqued as draconian and callous. That the minister refers to the Welfare Working Group as an example of what she wants is hardly likely to fill the social services sector with hope.
And where is the person with a strong understanding of the CYF “operating environment….or a comparable operating environment in a similar jurisdiction”. Might we have reasonably expected that such a person might be a child protection expert from another country? Appointee Duncan Dunlop “has been Chief Executive of Who Cares? Scotland, an independent advocacy charity for young people in care, since January 2012. He has led the development of youth-work infrastructure and programmes in a range of environments from Lithuania and Ghana to the Balkans and across the UK”- apparently not a social worker with child protection practice or research expertise? Helen Leahy is a former teacher and political operative. No direct service or particular ‘operating environment’ expertise in child protection there either. If external expertise was required one would have thought that expertise in the operation of child protection was essential. There are many potential candidates but one outstanding choice would have been Professor Eileen Munro of the London School of Economics. The reports she produced for the review of child protection services in England and Wales are so expert that they are included in the curricula of many schools of social work throughout the world.
There are many alarming aspects of this review that will need to be addressed: the timing, given the current rollout of the Vulnerable Children’s Act; the coming of this review so soon after the workload review; the lack of clarity in the terms of reference; the way it was announced and the timing. Overseas attendees at the ACCAN conference were staggered that the minister spoke to the conference on Tuesday but didn’t mention the review which was announced the day after.
Missing are the lucid voices of those closest to the issues- where are the local NGO leaders, those involved in advocacy for carers and children? Why have the articulate spokespeople for Iwi and Pasifika communities who work every day to support the health and wellbeing of their people been silenced? Where are those who devote so much of their time to researching child welfare and family violence in this country? In the cabinet paper on the expert panel two governance diagrams show that the minister has removed an Advisory Group, where other voices were being heard. This decision has removed the voices of Māori, Pasifika, unions, educators, researchers and other major stakeholders.
And, whilst the government could make a case for excluding current CYF staff from the review panel, in the interests of signalling independence, there is no excuse for the deliberate exclusion of a social work voice at the table. Is Minister Tolley unaware that thousands of registered social workers practice beyond CYF? Could she not seek advice from the Chief Social Worker’s office, the ANZASW or the SWRB for their nominations of a suitable ‘independent’ social worker to be on the panel? Had she consulted she would have had no difficulty locating a shortlist of those who could contribute to the panel.
And they would not be uncritical apologists for CYF. We all know that CYF is not perfect. Which agency is?Many social workers welcome the opportunity to examine key questions about our statutory child welfare service. Some of the issues that will be examined are very significant, for example support for care givers and consideration of the needs of young people leaving care. But if these are important questions why exclude social work from the review panel? Can we imagine a review of a health service with no doctors? A review of education with no educationalists?
There are concerns and always will be as it is nearly impossible for a statutory child protection service to be perfect. Any more than a police force or a public health system. Citizens’ expectations always exceed what is possible with the resources available. And with all services there is a need to be accountable and subject to periodic review. But why does this government feel it is acceptable to set up a review panel with no expert opinion from social work in New Zealand?
Forgive us Minister Tolley if we are very cynical about your review and what you expect to achieve. We are not surprised – this follows on from decades of under-resourcing of social work practice and education, years of marginalising the voices of service users and practitioners. The failure of your government to address the recommendations about mandatory registration and improved education and professional development for the CYF and NGO workforce that have been around for more than a decade. We are not surprised but very angry.
The twitter hashtag for this discussion is #CYFReview
Liz Beddoe is a social work educator/researcher at the University of Auckland. The views expressed in this blog post are her own and do not represent views held by her employer or any association to which she belongs.