Academic journal article Social Policy Journal of New Zealand

The Underlying Instability in Statutory Child Protection: Understanding the System Dynamics Driving Risk Assurance Levels

Academic journal article Social Policy Journal of New Zealand

The Underlying Instability in Statutory Child Protection: Understanding the System Dynamics Driving Risk Assurance Levels

Article excerpt


A core component of the level of statutory assurance against the risk of child abuse is hazard detection through notifier surveillance, and through risk screening by both notifiers and the statutory child protection agency. Surveillance and screening are undertaken with a great deal of decisionmaking uncertainty and, as in most public risk-screening decisions, errors are common. In the New Zealand system it was found that increased attention to failed alarms (in the form of child deaths) drove reactive change to increase the level of risk assurance demanded of notifiers and the child protection agency. The combination of high error rates, high-stakes consequences for some errors and the ability to shift interventions thresholds, and competing pressures to meet incommensurable demands (i.e. to save all children from continued abuse, manage within resource constraints and avoid harming innocent families) suggests that deep instability in the underlying system will always be a feature of statutory child protection. The best that can be done is to tackle the main issues that contribute to the instability; specifically, intolerance of errors, lack of ability to defend errors, and the inability to transparently target a defendable and specified optimum level of risk assurance.


Since 2001 demand for a statutory child protection investigation, as measured by client notifications to Child Youth and Family (2) within New Zealand, has doubled. The research presented here was initially motivated by a desire to understand the drivers of this sudden surge in demand in New Zealand (see Figure 1).


The received view tends to be that demand is driven by exogenous variables such as changes in demographics (youth population and/or ethnic mix) and/or poorer social outcomes (e.g. increasing poverty, social isolation, etc) driving increased rates of abuse. While this may provide some of the explanation, the evidence presented here demonstrates that the main factors driving the demand surge are endogenous--factors relating to changes in the behaviour of the child protection system itself.

Understanding the system that can drive surges in demand has also provided a wider perspective on the relationship between the particular system pressures that are causing concern in New Zealand and how these are merely symptomatic of deeper issues for child protection in general.

The findings presented in this paper suggest that the underlying problem facing child protection is the instability of the level of risk assurance demanded, and that this instability is fundamental to the nature of the child protection system.

The evidence suggests that this central issue underlies the seemingly disparate range of difficulties that child protection agencies face: surging demand, inability to forecast or manage demand, the inability to respond to criticism for not being responsive enough (e.g. driven by high-profile child deaths), the inability to defend against criticism for being too intrusive (United Kingdom experience), pressure to apply reactive changes to intervention thresholds and continual pressure to risk-manage intake, and becoming more forensic to avoid errors, thereby shifting resources away from effective intervention (CYF 2000a, CYF 2003a, CYF 2003b, E. Munro 1999, Scott 2006).

The figures below show a comparison of increases in notifications in some states in Australia compared with New Zealand. Although it is difficult to make a direct comparison of the numbers, it should be noted that there have been similarly large increases in notifications in each of these regions (AIHW 2006).

The research here was undertaken within a system-thinking framework. This is an iterative process of investigating the nature of the dynamics of the wider system underlying child protection, modelling this, and then testing it against organisational knowledge and through data analysis. …

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