Reflections on the Child Youth and Family Review: On evidence and prevention

Emily Keddell


This Briefing Paper critiques two aspects of the recent CYFS Review process of child protection services. A wider analysis of the process is in my longer report, an extract from which has also been published as a Briefing Paper here.

The prevention policies proposed by the CYF Review are under development. The basic logic is sound: to create a range of preventive services, sensitive to the actual needs of families, that are well coordinated and effective, so that the harm caused by child abuse can be prevented from occurring. However, if we dig down into the details of what is proposed so far, we find multiple points of tension between this vision and the proposed policies. This Briefing Paper critiques two aspects of the CYFS Review process: the inappropriate choice of comparison group and the framework of individualism.


Reconsidering the evidence

The CYF Review is based on statistical evidence that compares those in contact with CYF with those who are not. What this comparison wrongly implies is that contact with the care system is the sole cause of poor outcomes, rather than contact with the care system being a symptom of social problems (which may or may not be compounded by contact with the care system).

This may seem like hair-splitting, but it is important to consider the context of the population in contact with the child protection system, the majority of whom face poverty and other significant inequalities. While experiences of children in care are highly variable, ranging from terrible to fairly good, the rhetorical and statistical device of comparing children in the care system with all children who aren’t, overstates the influence of system contact on poor outcomes. A better comparison group, in line with best research practice into the outcomes of foster care, would be with those from a similarly disadvantaged background, in order to gain an understanding of the relative influences of social context and system contact. Otherwise social determinants of this contact are invisible.

This results in a shift in focus onto the care system alone, narrowing the policy response. In particular, it compels us to overlook important sources of family troubles, such as material conditions and community factors, which are identified as significant in other research into child abuse and neglect. It results in the main policy responses being directed toward the care system, a focus which is welcomed by that subsystem, but downplays an emphasis on the family contexts that lead to children entering care. As the theoretical and empirical literature shows, prevention of child abuse and neglect is best conceived as a reduction of stressors across the whole ecological spectrum, involving a much wider understanding of prevention than the CYF Review embraces.[1]


A framework of individualism

The CYF Review’s individualistic framing of the causes of abuse downplays key evidence about the relationship between child abuse and neglect and the broader social and economic context. Child abuse and neglect has a range of well-established relationships with social inequalities, community factors, and access to adult health services, with poverty a particularly consistent correlation.[2] The CYF Review’s overly narrow view of prevention is reflected in the exclusion of social protections such as income adequacy and housing provision, the rejection of these aspects of policy from the remit of the new Ministry of Vulnerable Children| Oranga Tamariki, and the lack of plans to increase universal services. In doing so, the CYF Review separates abuse prevention out from a wider range of ‘coalescing goals’ that could be addressed simultaneously in a prevention policy framework, while minimising the relationship between parenting and the social context it occurs within.

This individualistic approach to conceptualising the causes of abuse results in solutions that target the individual parent, and only the problem of child abuse. Yet addressing child abuse and neglect requires investment across the range of policy areas that will improve overall wellbeing, not just prevent child abuse, and should include community and macro-conditions, not just behaviour modification. As Ward states: ‘[D]espite the harms associated with maltreatment, if I were advising a mayor or governor, I would not recommend that he or she make major new investments in programmes that are framed as child maltreatment prevention programs. Preventing maltreatment must be a desired outcome, but not the primary focus, of public investments in children’(p. 183).

Human behaviour is shaped by subtle influences that emanate from both social contexts and individual responses. In social environments riven with inequalities, low social cohesion, or lack of access to universal services for issues such as parental mental health, individualised services aimed at teaching positive parenting will have a limited effect.[3] Solutions must include efforts to reduce poverty and work with communities on solutions relating more broadly to economic and social cohesion. These are serious omissions in the CYF Review, especially given that there is strong research (for example, here, here and here) that supports an enduring correlation between poverty and child protection system contact, and the longstanding associations between poverty and other child-related ‘coalescing goals’ such as improved child health and education. Solomon and Asberg point out that the greatest single cause of abuse is parental stress, that preventive interventions must work to reduce stress for parents; and that poverty is often implicated in that stress. Counts et al. note that reducing stress through access to concrete resources like money, food, shelter and medical care may assist with ameliorating parental stress in the context of child abuse. Ensuring adults have access to mental health services and substance abuse services is an important part of reducing stress, as well as providing general social supports for people parenting in isolation. Yet our mental health services in particular are increasingly overburdened.

Some studies have found that providing financial and concrete supports to parents is more effective than programmes aimed at improving parent-child relationships or educating parents about child development. These include studies that show:

This latter research prompted Bywaters et al. to consider contact with the child protection agencies as an expression of inequalities. This, in turn, led them to quite a different and more helpful question: Do child welfare interventions reveal, reinforce, or redress these inequalities?

The inclusion of social contextual factors must be taken seriously. The separation of mechanisms which are able to deliver things like income adequacy from the remit of the Ministry for Vulnerable Children | Oranga Tamariki will make this challenging.



[1] Wolfe, D. A. (2011). ‘Risk factors for child abuse perpetration’. In W. White, M. P. Koss & A. E. Kazdin (Eds), Violence against women and children: Mapping the terrain, vol. 1 (pp. 31-53). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

[2] Cancian, M., Shook Slack, K., & Yang, M. Y. (2013). ‘The effect of additional child support income on the risk of child maltreatment’. Social Service Review, 87(3) 417- 437.

[3] & R. Prinz. (2009). ‘Toward a population based paradigm for parenting intervention, prevention of child maltreatment, and promotion of child wellbeing’. In K. Dodge & D. Coleman (Eds.) Preventing child maltreatment: Community approaches (pp. 55 – 67). New York: The Guildford Press.

[4] Bywaters, P., Brady, G., Sparks, T., & Bos, E. (2014). ‘Child welfare inequalities: New evidence, further questions.’ Invited Seminar at University of Bradford, UK.

Categories: Poverty, Social Policy

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Emily Keddell
About the author

Emily Keddell

Emily Keddell is a senior lecturer in social work at the University of Otago. Her practice experience is in child protection and family support social work, and her research interests include various aspects of child welfare policy and practice including: decision-making, politics, systems design, income poverty, risk prediction and data use, and inequalities in system contact. She blogs with her friends at Reimagining Social Work and tweets at @EmilyK100.
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