Thursday, 12 November 2015

The Social Services to Prison Pipeline

By Dr Antje Deckert

Over the last five years, US criminologists have popularised the catch-phrase ‘the school to prison pipeline’ arguing that the US public school system tends to neglect and expel students who are in need of extra educational and social support. Since miseducation is linked to increased chances of incarceration, systemic neglect creates a vicious cycle or a pipeline effect. In the US, the pipeline disproportionately affects children of African American and Hispanic descent. It is argued that, in New Zealand, we are witnessing ‘the school to prison pipeline’ and ‘the social services to prison pipeline’; both of which disproportionately affect Māori children.

In New Zealand’s child abuse statistics, Māori make up 49% of physically and 38% of sexually abused children, while Pakeha make up 29% of physically and 50% of sexually abused children. Compared to Pakeha kids, Child Youth and Families (CYF) considered twice as many Māori children to have been neglected or emotionally abused, which leads to a total abuse statistics of 49% for Māori children, compared to 29% for Pakeha children.

In 2013, CYF placed 3,844 children in out-of-home care, of these 2,113 were Māori children and 1,324 Pakeha kids. It is reasonable to assume that most of these children must have suffered some form of violent abuse in order to justify a separation from their families. Considering the total numbers of sexually and physically abused children, Māori represent 42% and Pakeha 33% of violent abuse victims. However, of all children placed into CYF out-of-home care, 55% were Māori and 35% were Pakeha, which means that CYF places Māori children excessively in out-of-home care. In fact, there is an 11 percent point difference between Pakeha and Māori kids. It is estimated that of the total 3,844 children, around 200 Pakeha and 600 Māori children were placed into out-of-home care to protect them from non-violent parental abuse.

That means that Māori children make up roughly 70% of all children who are placed into out-of-home care because of neglect or emotional abuse. These figures indicate that racial bias influences CYF decisions about placing children into out-of-home care, at least in cases of non-violent abuse. That racial bias affects New Zealand media reporting on child abuse cases has been confirmed by research undertaken at Massey University in 2010. The study found that, compared to actual statistics, New Zealand mainstream newspapers tend to over-report the abuse of Māori children. Moreover, ethnicity is not mentioned in newspaper articles when the abused child is not of Māori or Pacific Island descent.

The future of children who are placed in CYF care, looks generally bleak. It is a future that entails a high risk of further abuse while in CYF care (see blog entry from 20th October 2015), educational underachievement, depression, and drug and alcohol abuse. Children in CYF care are also more likely to offend and be incarcerated. The Children’s Commissioner explains in his 2015 report:
In 2014, 328 young people aged 14-16 [and in CYF care] committed an offence resulting in a court-directed family group conference. This accounts for about 13 percent of all court-directed referrals to youth justice during this period. This means about 30 percent of children in care between the ages of 14 and 16 are being charged with offences, compared to about 1 percent of children this age cohort in the general population.

Evidently, CYF produces consistently poor social and educational outcomes for children who are in its care. CYF’s racially biased placement practices guarantee that it is predominantly Māori children who are being fed through ‘the social services to prison pipeline’.

And as if the situation wasn’t disturbing enough, neo-liberal forces may make matters worse in the near future. In 2015, the Modernising CYF Expert Panel was tasked to provide authoritative advice on CYF’s future operating model. In its interim report from 31st July, the panel recommends that “we will need to engage with the non-government and private sectors in creative and non-traditional ways. Legislation may be required to realise some of these potential opportunities.” A month later, Prime Minister John Key confirmed that at least some CYF services may be privatised.

In September, SERCO case managers were found visiting several CYF facilities in Auckland. SERCO is the international corporation that currently runs two private prisons in the Auckland area; the remand prison Mt Eden and the Wiri men’s prison. On 24th September 2015, Social Development Minister Anne Tolley claimed that these site visits were unrelated to any CYF privatisation plans but rather revolved around the transition of young people from CYF care into SERCO ‘care’:
There are occasionally young people on indictable charges, and it’s obvious they will be transferred from youth justice to the prison system. There needs to be a well-managed transition.

When 30% of children in CYF care are being prosecuted compared to 1% of children in the general population, saying “OCCASSIONALLY young people will be transferred” is not just a wrong choice of words. It is, in fact, a conscious and deliberate distortion of reality.

If CYF services were to be (partly) privatised, SERCO’s profit interest would have to determine how it delivers its support services to young people and their families. Since CYF has established a tradition of providing prisons with a steady stream of inmates, SERCO’s profit interest would be best served by continuing this legacy. It would be even more profitable for SERCO to increase the number of children who are fed through ‘the social services to prison pipeline’. However, it wouldn’t even matter if SERCO or another private business takes over CYF services because the pipeline serves profit interests at both ends. In either case, CYF privatisation would offer SERCO an opportunity to control (or at least stimulate) the influx of CYF ‘clients’ and thus increase its profit margin in the prison system; because what would constitute a ‘kickback’ in governmental operation of CYF, would merely be considered profit-sharing between two private businesses. Since CYF has already established a tradition of placing Māori children excessively into out-of-home care, there is no doubt that after CYF service privatisation most children in CYF care (and later inmates) would be of Māori descent as well. It demonstrates once again that colonisation isn’t just a historic event of the past. Colonisation continues its repressive operations in social, political, economic and cultural processes.

Brook, K. (2015). Restorative justice practices needed in classrooms. Available from
Children’s Commissioner. (2015). State of Care: What we learnt from monitoring Child Youth and Family. Retrieved from
Cunneen, C. and Rowe, S. (2014). Changing narratives: Colonised peoples, criminology, and social work. International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, 3, 49-67.
Kim, C., Losen, D., and  Hewitt, D. (2010). The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Structuring Legal Reform. New York: NYU Press.
Merchant, R. (2010). Who are abusing our children? An exploratory study on reflections on child abuse by media comments [MA thesis]. Massey University: New Zealand. Available from
Ministry of Social Development (2015). Modernising Child Youth and Family: Expert panel interim report. Retrieved from
Radio New Zealand (August, 31, 2015) Key: More CYF private sector involvement possible. Available from
Statistics New Zealand (2013). Quick Stats on Māori. Available from
Three News (September 24, 2015). CYF sites visited by Serco - Tolley. Available from

Wynd, D. (2013). Child abuse: An analysis of Child Youth and Family data. Auckland: Child Poverty Action Group.

1 comment:

  1. Ah yes, the ministry of social development. Probably the most ineffective government organisation in the country.