Vulnerability has been a guiding narrative to state interventions towards children and their families in New Zealand. This article shows how this progressive notion has been systematically managed to fit pre-established political and policy priorities. These processes have emphasised: (i) categorisations of risk to those who demonstrate vulnerabilities; (ii) pre-emptive, multi-agency involvement in the lives of those deemed potentially ‘vulnerable’; and (iii) a responsibilising expectation that children and families will avoid vulnerable situations and comply with interventions. This individualising logic of vulnerability has solidified policy interventions towards Māori, and re-emphasised colonial practices of viewing Māori children and young people as deficit-laden risks to be managed. With a late 2017 change in government, the political dalliance with vulnerability appears to be in decline. A new progressive policy discourse – of child ‘well-being’ and ‘best interests’ – is being engaged. Yet, the emphasis on risk, and its corresponding elements of pre-emption and responsibility, persist. These discursive and institutional arrangements will ensure that Māori remain perilously entrenched in welfare and justice systems.