The CYF Review, the Commissioner for Children and the skills and expertise of social workers

Simon Lowe

Following Anne Tolley’s (Minister of Social Development) announcement last week of the formation of an ‘independent expert panel’ to review Child, Youth and Family (CYF), there has been an avalanche of responses on social media. Having read and reflected on this material I found myself wondering, as a social work educator, what it is that front line social workers in CYF actually need to complete their job in a competent, timely and safe manner?

These thoughts were reinforced when I heard the Commissioner for Children, Russell Wills, assert in a radio interview with Kathryn Ryan that it was possible to graduate with a Bachelor of Social Work in New Zealand and know very little about child protection, or domestic violence, or the impact of abuse and neglect on children’s development. Seriously? Not on our social work programme. This was a remarkably sweeping claim made without reference to an iota of empirical evidence and suggests to me that Mr. Wills had not been well briefed on the educational programmes offered by New Zealand’s schools of social work.

It is well documented that there are a number of complexities for a new graduate social workers as they move from a relatively well-protected position of student to that of a professionally qualified social worker, especially for those graduates employed in the front-line of statutory social work. Would this not be true though for any newly qualified professional? I cannot imagine for one minute that a newly qualified architect would be asked to work immediately on a developing the new design for a replacement sky tower or harbour bridge. Nor could I imagine a newly employed police officer being asked to head a murder inquiry. Frankly these suggestions are ridiculous; so why would anyone expect a newly qualified social worker to be able to cope with, to understand the complexities of and to manage the finer details of one of the many highly complex scenarios that a social worker will come across every day of their lives in CYF?

If the Commissioner meant that, at present, we do not have an educational standard specifying the level of understanding required of new social work graduates in relation to child protection (or indeed any of the other specialised fields of practice), then I agree, that is the case. However, in order to assert that the skill level of current graduates is less than adequate would require investment in a careful study of social worker’s readiness to practice. Investment in similar studies overseas has been made and the studies undertaken have generated some useful results. It is possible to make all sorts of claims about the preparedness of social work graduates to practice, but without evidence this simply feeds popular prejudices.

This issue also raises a plethora of questions about the continued education of social workers and their capability at different levels of practice. What should we expect of social workers at the point of graduation? What should we expect of them two years into practice? What should they be able to know and do to claim advanced practice skills and undertake the expert clinical work described by the Commissioner? How these different levels of expertise should be mapped and monitored across a social worker’s professional career is a subject that is being keenly discussed currently by Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Worker (ANZASW), the professional association of social workers in Aotearoa New Zealand. The resources that need to be in place to enable social workers to access advanced programmes of education and training is another matter that needs continued debate.

One of the items included in the terms of reference of the “expert panel” is to consider:

The professional knowledge, skills and expertise required by Child, Youth and Family to deliver improved results for children and young people they work with, and implications of this for providers of training, development and contracted services.

Yet how will (what the Commissioner refers to as) the “big brains” on the panel tackle this complex issue when none of them is an expert in social work education, and all of the work is assumed to take an “investment approach” that, paradoxically, requires no additional resources. The production of a paper that specifies a wish list of competencies that new graduates require (the most likely scenario) will not solve the problem, if indeed there is a problem.

Social work educators in Aotearoa New Zealand care about how education prepares our graduates for practice. Indeed, along with several colleagues, I am in the process of writing an article, as part of a longitudinal study that focuses on the needs of BSW graduates as they enter their first post-qualified position in social work. However, I am acutely aware that we need to know much more about the impact of educational practices on our students, the match between the needs of social work employers (including CYF) and capabilities of our graduates, and the continuing educational needs of child protection (and other) practitioners at advanced levels of practice. All of this requires research, and research requires resources.

Of course, to an extent, CYF and MSD already recognise what is needed for new graduates in their service. They recently undertook a pilot study for newly graduated social workers employed in CYF. The pilot study supported new graduates to have reduced caseloads both in terms of volume and complexity. The pilot also enabled new graduates to have more regular supervision from managers and regular mentoring from experienced CYF staff. It supported new graduates to have more regular and in depth post-graduate training. When this pilot scheme was presented to me, eighteen months ago, I was delighted, and thought that MSD had taken a significant step forward in trying to understand and support the difficult roles that CYF social workers manage on a daily basis. Sadly, the teams with which I worked (albeit in an external role) could not implement the pilot due to lack of staffing and pressure of work. So, an evidenced based programme with potential to support CYF newly graduated staff, at one of the most vulnerable times in their career, was discontinued. Along with the review of the project because, it would seem, there was a lack of resources to enable its implementation.

So, the results of their own pilot study suggest that new graduate social workers in CYF need a variety of support mechanisms to be in place. Time is probably the most valuable asset that a CYF social worker lacks. Time to organise their caseload, time to spend discussing situations with other relevant professionals, time to meet with the children and families with whom they are working, time to stop and reflect, time to take in regular supervision with supervisors who are not so stressed with their wait list that they have to take on individual cases themselves. Time to participate in learning both informally within the workplace, and formally in specialist advanced level programmes. Programmes that do not yet exist in New Zealand for instance, the Applied Studies (Child Welfare and Protection), time that social workers just do not have because of their massive workload.

CYF social workers also need to feel valued. All of the training and education in the world cannot provide pressured child protection workers with the sense of worth and value their work brings to the world. My greatest fear about this latest review, however necessary it may be, is that its conduct may generate a climate of fear and distrust. A review that is completed with integrity, in an ethical manner and with clear and transparent processes has the potential to generate renewed commitment to the task in hand. However, the terms of reference of this review, the membership of the panel, and the insistence in the terms of reference that the Ministry of Social Development “consult with the Expert Panel on engagement with the media” instills no confidence in this commentator.

Sharpen your metaphorical pencils colleagues, and remind yourself how to make a request for official information

Simon Lowe is a Senior Tutor and Fieldwork Placement Coordinator on the Social Work Programme at the University of Waikato.

The views expressed in this blog post are my own and do not represent views held by my employer or any association to which I belong.


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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20 Responses to The CYF Review, the Commissioner for Children and the skills and expertise of social workers

  1. Linda Haultain PhD says:

    I attended the Child Abuse conference in Auckland last week and was thoroughly impressed by the enormous contribution CYF social workers and leaders made to the conference. Their presentations were outstanding, the content well considered, professional, culturally relevant, innovative and inspirational. I think it would be fair to say that the conference participants were collectively deeply disappointed by the announcement of the review – and in particular the make up of the ‘expert panel.’ There are many of us, highly educated, committed and expert social workers who would, and could make a signficant contribution to the review. I believe CYF are showing real courage, and a willingness to tackle some long standing issues – I for one, would like to see them, as an agency, benefitting from the ‘investment approach’ the government is so fond of.

  2. Kinaboy says:

    You must be from the planet Logic Mr Lowe. I appreciate your wise words and one can only hope that your views are supported by the decision makers, your peers & colleagues and much needed change ensues. These are difficult times for clients and social workers. Thank you.

    • caveman1801 says:

      Thank you for your response Kinaboy, I don’t think that there is much doubt about support from my peers and colleagues, the decision makers are of course a completely different kettle of fish. Though I have to say I was very disappointed with the people who should have been the decision makers at the General Election. Not turning out to vote and have their say was perplexing. As for coming from planet logic, I hear you with that point, what seems logical, right and proper for most of us ‘usual’ people seems to be different for the current policy makers. Its not rocket science eh?

  3. socialworknz says:

    Thanks for your comment Linda. We share your frustration about the invisibility of social work expertise in this review panel. I am currently teaching a wonderful group of committed, smart, reflective and very knowledgeable CYF social worker. I don’t think they are ten year’s behind! We need to tell Minister Tolley that she needs to reconsider her silencing of social work expertise

  4. caveman1801 says:

    Linda, this is a great example of the type of information that needs to be shared publicly, to raise awareness of the marvelous work that social workers in CYF are doing. Great evidence of how social workers are taking child protection seriously and are keen to develop services in line with the needs of the children and families with who they are working. The majority of the the work that CYF do is impressive, it would be even more so if staff had more time and resources. Investment is required, I suspect though that this is not Anne Tolley’s intention.

  5. Colleen Palmer says:

    The problem at CYFS is not always the social workers as such, but more the Ministry and the workers trying to use a strengths approach in a deficit model. The end result is overworked stressed workers who leave after a short time. Lack of staff retention leads to workers being given senior positions of responsibility before they have sufficient practice skills and knowledge to supervise new staff. Therefore there is often a continuing cycle of poor practice. It is the Ministry that needs overhauled – not the social workers. I might add, this is not always the case. There are some very skilled and knowledgeable social workers out there and also some excellent managers who ensure staff have the skills and resources to do an exemplary job to achieve the best outcomes for children at risk. I have had the experience of working in both scenarios.

  6. NZ is one of the few (perhaps only?) countries where child protection services are operated by central government rather than local government or state services (happy to be corrected on that). Perhaps that’s why “It is the Ministry that needs overhauled – not the social workers.”

  7. Mary Gray says:

    Restructuring is a useful device for Ministers to use when they don’t want to or are unable to address the real problem before them, which is the refusal of this government to devote needed resources to this area.
    A review of any sort is a great tactic for delay and diverting the responsibility for current problems onto an outside temporary body that has no power and no resources. They will make recommendations that wont be implemented but by then the next election will be in sight and no action will be possible = Minister off the hook!

    • socialworknz says:

      Thanks for your comment Mary. This panel being led by Paula Rebstock is likely to have negative impacts on services as she is all about the cuts

  8. maobrien2015 says:

    There is much thoughtful comment through here but for me the issues are more significant than the exclusion of social workers from the panel, important though this is. There is nobody on this panel who has any working knowledge of the New Zealand social services in relation to children and families (or anything else for that matter!!) and its Chair is now well known for her selective attention to evidence, selecting that which suits her already well established position. The terms of reference are frighteningly wide and it is clear from these that part of the agenda is to further narrow CYF’s work and mandate and look to the ngo sector to pick up some of the work, the social services version of the privatisation agenda; at the same time, this year’s budget is almost certain to include a plan for radical restructuring of the funding of the social services with less funds for a smaller group of government selected agencies undertaking the work which government identifies as being important. Add to all of this the emphasis on investment, what ever that means in this context. Investing in developing services, strengthening the families, reducing their poverty etc would be helpful but that is certainly not what is meant by investment in this context. All in all it is a rather bleak and revealing document.

  9. Pingback: The CYF Review, the Commissioner for Children and the skills and expertise of social workers | Re-Imagining Social Work in Aotearoa New Zealand

  10. Pingback: A week is a long time in Aotearoa NZ social work…. | Social Work Research in New Zealand

  11. Miriama Scott says:

    Tena koutou e nga rangatira katoa,
    Kei te mihi matou ki a koutou i roto tenei kaupapa tino nui, te kaupapa o nga rangatira apopo, nga uri o tatou whanau ahakoa te oranga o nga whanau.
    1) Economic considerations:
    As previous writers have alluded to in restructuring sits the intention to cut costs and therefore ‘efficiency’ is often used to offset a shrinking lid on expenditure while the demand increases. Staffing capability and delivery of service is jeopardised by expenditure. Worthy of further challenge on the grounds of the value accorded the kaupapa: is it really the children or saving money?
    2) The Wellbeing of Whanau:
    Children are a part of whanau and as the kaupapa of Whanau Ora has endeavoured to do is to work with whanau in ensuring the whanau is indeed the taproot of all things. Ko te whanau te putake.
    Is the imperative of whanau being missed here?
    3) Policy and Practice:
    Puao-te-Ata-tu, te Punga, te Pounamu and Synergia are some of the policy documents that have tracked the history of Child, Youth and Family and the relationship with tangata whenua of Aotearoa.
    As we are told statistically at least half of the children in care are tangata whenua and as previous Child Commissioners have reported some of the most disturbing cases relate to tangata whenua children.
    The challenge therefore is are we simply ‘boiling our cabbages twice’ or is there going to be some real consideration of how identity is a major consideration when talking about the ahurutanga of whanau and tamariki.
    It is now evident from overseas literature that any therapeutic intervention with people who have experienced trauma such as abuse, ultimately have to address identity.
    Cultural competency and capability are only as effective as the systems that people work in and systems are made by people.
    So is identity and practice closely aligned but not recognised because of the expense?
    4) Professional expertise:
    Social workers are ‘agents of social change’ and maybe this is the time to advocate accordingly and to utilise the spheres of influence to effect and shift the existing korero.
    Kia ora koutou katoa

    • caveman1801 says:

      Kia ora Miriama,

      Thank you for your insightful response. The agenda of the review, I think, is very thinly veiled. I am particularly interested on your comments around cultural competence and wish that I had been able to korero with you about this on Friday. I do hope that we can meet again soon in less formal circumstances. Thinking of you on this miserable day and hoping that your hui is productive.

  12. Pingback: The CYF Review, the Commissioner for Children and the skills and expertise of social workers | caveman1801

  13. Luana Te Hira says:

    Tēnā kōutōu e ngā rangatira katoa

    Kei te mihi mātou ki a kōutou i roto tēnei kaupapa tino nui, te kaupapa o ngā rangatira apopo, ngā uri o tātou whānau ahakoa te oranga o ngā whānau, te oranga o ngā tamariki, te oranga o ngā mokopuna!!

    As I review the literature and various radio interviews I am concerned that the CYFS Act and Department is being highlighted as the definitive’s of social work in Aotearoa New Zealand. Yet what the Minister and others are failing to see is the solutions that are right in front of them – in way of principled authentic indigenous social and community work practitioners. These practitioners are not always found in such statutory organisations but often part of NGO’s and/or Iwi Social Services who are having to pick up individuals and or their whānau care where CYFs may not have been appropriately resourced. Forcing community to gather together to resource support for such individuals and or their whānau. Placing high responsibility on communities and requiring such social work practitioners to validate and qualify critical relationships/networks of specialist support services all in order to ensure that safety and well being of the child. Collaborative and effective relationships between NGO’s, Iwi Social Services and CYFs is a must for the practitioners to design, develop, deliver and evaluate care plans for not just the children but also their primary care givers.

    Whilst an expert panel has been put together I would hope that this panel will take note of the the solutions that already exist within CYFS particularly the ‘Tiaki Ngā Mokopuna Strategy’.

    The panel needs to ensure that they have a critical lens and commitment to ensure the continual well being of tamariki mokopuna. To note that whānau is not a concept of individual it is the notion of collective care and responsibility of ‘Family’.

    I agree with what Whaea Miriama Scott has identified as key areas of focus:

    1. Economic Considerations: Direct and indirect impacts of the illusion of restructuring and/or right sizing, current case loads and systemic processes that challenge quality social work practice, the diversity of social work practitioners;

    2. Well-Being of Whānau – as I have alluded above whilst we continue to focus on individual care we will miss out on the collective responsibilities and solution that is often found within whānau care. It has always been my understanding that CYFs is part of an interim plan and not a destination service for our children sad to say over the years history has shown the direct impact of welfare deficit frameworks which has predetermined CYFs to be a destination service for tamariki and mokopuna. Time for change to unlock this thinking and shift legislation to support family togetherness and not promote separation. Yes this loaded and of course needs to be looked at case by case. There is some type of balance required.

    3. Policies and Procedures – Again totally support the points that Whaea Miriama has raised in her comments. Like the challenges that continue to face tertiary education in way of engaging Māori and Pasifika learners research continues to perpetuate that need for ‘Identity’ and ‘belonging’ remains at the center so it is with whānau who present at CYFs. Particularly Māori remain to be highly represented in the statistics, so it would be interesting to see what the demographics are of the social work practitioners who have been employed by CYFs as an overview of the trends of recruitment, selection, retention and succession within the organisations itself for the past three to five years. The policies and procedures is not just about the key legislation that has been used to inform all policies but is also the opportunity to review existing policies have a direct and indirect impact of child welfare and protection across the organisation.

    4. Professional Expertise – Aotearoa New Zealand has a richness of expertise, the saddest part is that these experts are more renown outside of Aotearoa New Zealand. Until Tertiary Institutions and such Ministries like social development recognise and value such expertise will change occur.

    5. Social Work Education in Aotearoa New Zealand – Some undergraduate programs are very rich with understandings and challenges around the depth of child welfare and protection for it is found within the context of principled practice, the application of ‘takepu’, through the invitation extended to students to articulate their practice and name the skills sets required to breathe essence into their own theories of social work practice. Undergraduate degree programs prepare students for entry into the profession, if this is not enough for the profession then it is time to have critical discussions around what the profession is expecting of graduates. Again the solution is and can be dealt with the implementation of purposeful graduate and/or post graduates specialisation programs.

    Overall there is much to be done and I believe to have Ministers make such bold statements just demonstrates the continual improvement opportunities. It also highlights that ‘Tangata Whenua Voices in Social Work’ needs to be part of this panel and not the appendum to a document and/or action.

    If the Minister truly wants to ‘Modernise Social Work in Aotearoa New Zealand’ then ensure Tangata Whenua is involved beyond saying the Karakia or singing waiata, they are brought forward as the integral part of this change and through authentic indigenous principled practice and commitment to the return of tamariki mokopuna only then will you see Aotearoa New Zealand lead community and social work professional practice.

    Let us not forget the history of community and social work practice in Aotearoa New Zealand for this will enrich child welfare and protection, authentic community and social work practice of today and tomorrow.

    Mauri ora!!!

  14. socialworknz says:

    Tena Koe Luana- thank you for your thoughtful comment on this article. You have raised some excellent points and it is a good reminder that we have expertise right here in Aotearoa , that is hardly drawn on and clearly not valued by the Minister. I hope others will add their thoughts to this post.

  15. Simon Lowe says:

    Kia ora Luana,

    Thank you so much for taking time to make such a full response. I too share your thoughts that we have our experts and that they are already working in the sector. I am so concerned that the results of the review have already been decided, that it is a forgone conclusion and that the review is just a ‘tick-box’ exercise.
    I do not think that Minister Tolley really wants to hear our true voices and genuinely I do not think she really cares about the intensity and the quality of much of the work our colleagues in CYF complete day in, day out.
    There are continuous opportunities for improvement, I agree and an open transparent and robust review with a panel that was chosen objectively and for purpose could effect some positive change. I suspect however that yours and my ideas around positive change might be very different to the ideas that the government has in mind.

    Best regards,


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