Plus ça change … Alison Gray

Family Matters: Child Welfare in Twentieth-Century New Zealand
Bronwyn Dalley
Auckland University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1 86940 190 5

Not long after this is published, the Department of Social Welfare will be restructured. Again. What was CYPS and then CYPFA will become CYPWS. There will be new letterhead, rebranding, new public offices perhaps, but what really will have changed? Not much, if Bronwyn Dalley’s book is any guide. What struck me reading this lively, personable history of child welfare in New Zealand was not how much things have changed, but how much they have stayed the same. The context may be different, approaches may vary, but children who are sad, bad or mad still need help. So do their parents.

Much of the institutional memory of DSW has been lost through endless restructurings and high staff turnover.  Some of it could be regained if staff were encouraged to read this book.  The beleaguered social workers, for example, might be comforted to learn that government social workers have always worked under pressure.  Their workloads have always been high, their credibility questioned, their training opportunities limited and their professionalism challenged, but their commitment has never been in doubt.

The substance of their work has stayed the same, so basically have the methods they have used to deal with the tasks that confront them. Social workers have always been concerned with child abuse and neglect, youth offending, out-of-family care and the special needs of Maori families. They have always had to decide whether to put children into institutions or foster care, to board or adopt them out or leave them in their families.  Their work has been carried out within a social context that on the surface appears to change, but in many ways has stayed the same. In the 1940s, for example, children’s poor behaviour was blamed on lack of parental control, poor home conditions and poverty.  Sound familiar? In the 1950s, the influence of comics, radio serials, films and advertising was to blame.  Familiar again? Nothing ever seems to be removed from the list of possible explanations, which is probably realistic, since as all parents know, there is no single or simple rationale for children’s behaviour.  Sometimes there seems to be no explanation at all, but we keep looking.

Today’s social workers might also recognise the ongoing debate about what role the state should play in the care of children and how partnerships should be arranged between the state and private enterprise, the community and the family. The debate began before the First World War when the government was concerned about institutions run by churches and private organisations. It continued through the 1930s, when 4000 children were in private institutions and orphanages, and on into the 1950s, when 2500 children were in foster care.  It continues today and the issues are the same – control versus autonomy, care versus cost, care and protection versus punishment, the rights of the family versus the rights of the child, and always, probably forever, the availability of resources.  Disputes over the role of social work within the state system are not new either. Dalley documents the lack of co-operation and even antagonism between departments that has plagued the social welfare system over the years. Magistrates and child welfare officers clashed in the 1920s; the relationship between social workers and the judiciary is still fraught. In the 1950s Child Welfare and the Department of Justice squabbled over who should be responsible for adoptions; today the argument is over whether the state or private agencies should have that role.

The pressure on resources appears in several guises. In the early part of the century, children in institutions were sent to work in service or in industry, depending, of course, on their gender.  This was both productive and economical. Later, children were boarded then fostered out, which was, of course, much cheaper than placing them in institutions, especially when the prevailing view was that foster parents should not be paid too highly in case some of them took on the work for money not love. That debate goes on. The care plans agreed to in family group conferences, first introduced in 1989, have always been under threat from under-resourcing. Children themselves can be treated as a resource. In the early part of the century, the country needed more children to boost the population. Child health and welfare were of concern to society as a whole. The focus now is on children as the individual responsibility of parents who, some argue, have chosen to have them and should therefore be totally responsible for them. It is not surprising, given the climate, that fertility rates have declined below replacement level. It will be interesting to see how much further they fall before the state reviews its policies on child support and child welfare. Even adoptions can be discussed in terms of resources, with social workers in the 1950s and 1960s pressuring single mothers to put their babies up for adoption to meet the demand for babies.

If the threads of continuity are one of the strongest features of this book, the wrapping of social context is also important. Dalley describes some shifts in attitudes towards children, particularly towards young women. At the turn of the century, “sexually precocious” young women were seen as a source of moral degradation, contaminating the young men with whom they came into contact. By the 1960s there was a growing awareness of child abuse and a greater understanding of the effects of sexual abuse. Young women were more likely to be seen as victims than predators, needing protection rather than punishment. Dalley talks too about the Department’s leading role in responding to Maori needs, culminating in the landmark publication of Puao-te-Ata-Tu, which developed a new vision for the Department.  The document has a long history. As far back as the 1940s, child welfare officers saw the need to support traditional tribal structures and foster Maori responsibility for community welfare.

The Department, in its various incarnations, has rarely been a follower of fashion and it is good to be reminded of that. One of the reasons for the Department’s successes, particularly in the early years, was the influence of a series of strong leaders, like John Beck, who were able to transform their vision into both legislation and action. Leaders now have less room to move, as they struggle to manage within fixed or reducing budgets and a political climate determined to reduce welfare dependence. It will be interesting to see whether the establishment of the Children, Young Persons and their Whanau Service as a stand-alone agency heralds a new direction or a withering of services below their already minimal level.  Whichever way it goes, it will be some consolation if an historian as articulate as Bronwyn Dalley is around to record events.

Alison Gray is a Wellington social researcher and writer who regularly works in the area of youth justice and social policy.

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