Adverse Childhood Experiences in Aotearoa New Zealand: An Implicitly Racist Tool?

This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society.  Click here to access the article.

Programmes that aim to address child abuse and neglect always have at their heart good intentions, however they are not always as benign as they are presented. In Aotearoa New Zealand, as in other countries, there has been a shift towards trauma informed practice. A major review of the child protection system emphasised the treatment of trauma as a means to reduce future harm and break the cycle of violence. An increasingly common component of trauma informed approaches’ is the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) checklist. We contend that this checklist, whilst perhaps appropriate for use at a population level, and seeming to be ‘common sense’, is actually flawed and unfit for purpose as a diagnostic tool. In this article we discussed how the ACEs checklist can fail to take colonisation and institutional racism into account and thus inevitably leads to a net-widening approach that individualises systemwide problems.

Aotearoa New Zealand has a history of colonisation, and prior to the arrival of the British, Māori whānau family structures were large, extended, and certainly quite different to the imported, Protestant family dynamics of the settlers. However, in the years since those first waves of colonisation, loss of land, culture, language, and institutional racism has been a direct contributor to Māori being over represented in negative outcomes in health, education, and a range of other social factors. This over representation is starkly demonstrated by child protection statistics which show that despite being only 28% of the child population, Māori children are 40% of those notified, and make up 60% of the children in care. Few things have changed since 1984 when a Ministerial Advisory Committee delivered a stinging rebuke to the then government and called for a complete overhaul of the social welfare system. In particular the committee drew attention to child protection and the role that institutional racism played in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Thus, any ‘tool’ to be used within child protection in Aotearoa New Zealand, and arguably anywhere, must be critically examined to ensure that it does not explicitly or implicitly contribute to institutional racism and thus racist outcomes. This is a particularly challenging area given that recent evidence suggests that current practice is continuing to perpetuate racist outcomes.

The ACEs checklist began life as an epidemiological tool in the late 1990s, intended to be used to assess population level data for correlational links to health and disease. The initial population studied was mostly white, US-based, within a medical setting and had medical insurance.   Now however, this tool, and slightly modified versions, are being proposed as a way to diagnostically ‘assess’ trauma and to identify families and children in need of help and intervention. As discussed here, there are numerous problems with taking a checklist approach, giving someone a mark out of ten, and then basing an assessment off that: either in full or in part.

Our article took one of these ten questions from the original ACEs checklist, ‘Did a household member go to prison?’, and considered this against the backdrop of colonisation in Aotearoa New Zealand. Given that there is clear evidence that Māori experience differential incarceration, prosecution and conviction rates in comparison to Pākehā (white) New Zealanders we suggested that any answers given to this question would also, in effect, be measuring an aspect of institutional racism. Further, given that the wording of the ACEs questionnaire states that the question is a measure of criminal activity in the home, we suggest that such a question is not only methodologically flawed but cannot possibly be measuring what it purports to. Use of the ACEs checklist in Aotearoa New Zealand would inevitably capture more of the criminal activity of Māori parents than Pākehā parents, thus false positives in the first instance and false negatives in the latter. The use of such a tool can therefore only perpetuate and exacerbate current inequalities and bring Māori families and children more firmly under state surveillance whilst allowing Pākehā families to remain unobserved.

We concluded that the ACEs checklist, whilst deceptively simple, actually masks and silences existing inequalities. Furthermore we contend that the use of ACEs reinforces notions of white, middle-class parenting and has no consideration for colonisation, poverty and racism.

About the authors

Eileen Joy is a PhD Candidate at the University of Auckland.

Liz Beddoe is Professor of Social Work at the University of Auckland.


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