Cross-Examination: Will the Ministry for Vulnerable Children Bring the Changes We Need?

Content Contributor, Claudia Russell

 

After repeated allegations of failing New Zealand’s most vulnerable, Child Youth and Family (CYF) is set to be replaced by a new Ministry for Vulnerable Children, Oranga Tamariki, as of March 2017. After the system was restructured fourteen times, it was crystal clear that nothing short of a complete overhaul would bring positive change. Opposition parties are already asking whether the new ministry will provide children with the care they need to flourish, or whether we will see the same results as CYF under a different name.

“This is not a rebranding exercise,” Social Development and soon-to-be Vulnerable Children’s Minister Anne Tolley insists. She states that the new name comes with an entirely new operating model.[1] Considering the long-term outcomes for youth in state care up until this point, one would certainly hope so. Statistics released early in 2015 showed that out of children who had been placed in care, 90 per cent were on the benefit by age 21, while 80 per cent did not have NCEA level 2.[2] Shockingly, the rates of death due to self-harm by age 20 are four times higher in those who had accessed CYF than those who had not.[3]

Of course, CYF does not necessarily cause these problems. Children entering care through the system have often been previously subjected to abuse and neglect by people they trust, leaving emotional and physical wounds that last a lifetime. However, any ministry working for the sake of these children would ideally mitigate this harm by providing at-risk children with the love and support they need to grow into thriving adults. Hopefully within the next 4 -5 years of change proposed by the ministry, the country will begin to see more positive outcomes for vulnerable children and young people.

Anne Tolley states that her main goals are to ensure that the ministry would not operate by simply responding to crises and that it would swing into action early to prevent unnecessary tragedy. While CYF often tended to intervene only once a child was exposed to dangerous situations, the new ministry promises to focus on prevention right through to transition.[4] It also plans to be independent and streamlined so that there is a single point of accountability with a clear organisational focus. This being considered, many of the proposed changes are well-meaning, but fairly vague. These include:

  • A child-centred approach,
  • A focus on early intervention,
  • A stronger focus on reducing the over-representation of Maori youth in the system,
  • Targeted support for caregivers.

Evidence on how these changes are to be made is scarce. However over the proposed 4 -5 years that implementation will take, it is hoped that they will become more concrete. On the other hand, the proposed legislative changes are promising:

  • Extending the jurisdiction of care up until a child is 18 years old. Previously under the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act 1986, “young person” referred to those under the age of 17.[5] This meant that after their seventeenth birthday young people may be thrust into independent living, as there was no legislative framework to fund their continued care. The new legislation will also allow any young person the option of retaining full care to 21, and some support until they turn 25.
  • A direct purchasing model. Along with a proposed boost in funding, specialist services such as counselling, trauma, psychology, education and health will be able to be purchased on behalf of the child when they are needed. This is similar to the ACC model, and ensures that children are seen to faster than they are currently; staff will not need to spend excess time negotiating with agencies.[6] The Ministry of Social Development hopes that this will allow social workers to spend more time with children and less in the office.
  • Legislation will establish the country’s first independent youth advocacy service to ensure that the voices of children and young people are heard in the design of systems and services. The service will be effective as of March 2017.
  • National care standards will be introduced for the first time in New Zealand. These are essentially a set of overarching principles and standards of service which will help user know what standards of care they can expect, as well as guiding providers in designing services.[7]

The response amongst political parties and non-governmental organisations has been largely positive. The move to increase age of care garnered huge support, as did the decision to increase funding overall. In a country with such high rates of child abuse-related deaths, it is to be expected that any move to improve outcomes for vulnerable children is un-controversially welcomed. There has, however, been widespread outcry and almost confusion as to the complete lack of acknowledgement poverty has been given in the establishment of the new ministry. For a ministry which purports to take on a totally new, preventative model, many are failing to see what ‘prevention’ could involve if it does not mean addressing child poverty.

The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) warns that because poverty plays such a huge role in child abuse and neglect, not addressing it in the reform of CYF means that the proposed outcomes may not materialise. It is clear in recent press releases that the Ministry for Vulnerable Children will not address poverty. The Ministry of Social Development stated that ‘services that focus on supporting adult members of a family will remain with the Ministry of Social Development.’ These include the assessment and payment of welfare benefits, employment support and training and social housing assessments.[8] Additionally, in the 302-page document establishing the ministry (Investing in New Zealand’s Children and their Families) the words ‘poverty’ and ‘inequality’ were both mentioned only once.[9] When questioned in Parliament, Anne Tolley repeatedly refused to comment on whether the ministry would address child poverty. Labour MP Jacinda Ardern stated in response that “nothing I’ve seen suggests they will be looking at issues beyond child protection.”[10]

The announcement of the ministry was timed just days after an article by The Guardian shaming New Zealand’s child poverty rates sparked huge public debate. When asked about the article, Hon Anne Tolley dismissed it as “sensationalist.” The statistics speak for themselves, however, and currently they say that 29% of New Zealand children are living below the official poverty line as defined by UNICEF.[11]

Associate Professor Michael O’Brien, CPAG’s social security spokesperson, states that the amendments will only go so far. “More needs to be done to address the root causes of vulnerability among children in New Zealand,” he said. “Families living in poverty face enormous stresses. Government can minimise those stresses through sound, child-centred policy.”[12] While quality social services are important for supporting abused and neglected children, they cannot undo the damage that comes from failing to tackle child poverty. Strong links between poverty and abuse are nothing new to sociologists. A CPAG report provides clear evidence that any policy aimed at reducing child abuse needs to have a strong focus on improving incomes for families.[13]While abuse certainly occurs in all socioeconomic groups, research shows that poverty can sap parental energy, undermine parental sense of competence, and reduce parental sense of control – those factors may lead to an increased likelihood of abusive or neglectful behaviours.[14] Poverty can also be an underlying cause of substance abuse and mental illness, which in turn makes good parenting a struggle. The link between poverty and neglect appears to be stronger than that between poverty and other forms of abuse.[15] In many cases, if the parent had not been poor they would be able to provide their children with adequate food, a safe home, and childcare when needed.

Part of the difficulty in governments addressing these connections in legislation is that if we intertwine child abuse services too closely with services for the poor, we may further the negative stigma surrounding poor parents in New Zealand. There already exists in our social fabric a belief that poor parents are lazy and less deserving of their children than ‘others’. Providing poor parents with aid is seen by some as enabling parents to make bad decisions, and this belief may be further extended if we were to combine the benefits system with the Ministry for Vulnerable Children.[16] We must remember that the vast majority of poor parents do not abuse their children.

It is clear that there are well-founded reasons for not taking a primary focus on poverty in the Ministry for Vulnerable Children. The two groups will always have different roles to play in society. What is clear, however, is that if our government is serious about child abuse prevention it must to some extent try to strengthen families instead of just filling in for them when things go wrong.

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[1] Speech: New ministry to focus solely on vulnerable children (18 August 2016) <www.beehive.govt.nz/speech/new-ministry-focus-solely-vulnerable-children>

[2] http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PA1608/S00311/new-ministry-to-focus-solely-on-vulnerable-children.htm

[3] Modernising Child, Youth and Family: Expert Panel Interim Report (31 July 2015) Ministry of Social Development <www.msd.govt.nz/documents/about-msd-and-our-work/work-programmes/cyf-modernisation/interim-report-expert-panel.pdf>

[4] Speech: New ministry to focus solely on vulnerable children (18 August 2016) <www.beehive.govt.nz/speech/new-ministry-focus-solely-vulnerable-children>

[5] Children, Young persons and Their Families Act 1989.

[6] More protection for young in CYF overhaul (7 April 2016) Otago Daily Times <https://www.odt.co.nz/news/politics/more-protection-young-cyf-overhaul>

[7] National Care Standards Guide, Scotland <http://www.newcarestandards.scot/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/NCS-pocket-guide-the-princples.pdf>

[8] Investing in New Zealand’s Children and their Families (18 August 2016) Ministry of Social Development <https://www.msd.govt.nz/about-msd-and-our-work/newsroom/media-releases/2016/oranga-tamariki-established.html>

[9] The Absent Elephant in the 2016 ‘Modernising Child, Youth and Family Expert Panel Report’ (23 April 2016) RSW Collective <http://www.reimaginingsocialwork.nz/2016/04/the-absent-elephant-in-the-2016-modernising-child-youth-and-family-expert-panel-report/>

[10] Katie Kenny, Faces of Innocents: CYF to be shut down and replaced by a new ministry (28 July 2016) Stuff <http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/faces-of-innocents/82526149/Faces-of-Innocents-CYF-to-be-shut-down-and-replaced-by-a-new-ministry>

[11] Measuring Child Poverty (May 2012) UNICEF <https://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/rc10_eng.pdf>

[12] CYPF Amendment Bill Must Provide Better for Children (28 July 2016) Scoop NZ <http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PO1607/S00314/cypf-amendment-bill-must-provide-better-for-children.htm>

[13]Child Abuse: What Role Does Poverty Play? Child Poverty Action Group (2013) <www.cpag.org.nz/assets/Publications/130610%20CPAG%20Child%20Abuse%20Report%201%20June%202013.pdf>

[14] Child Abuse: What Role Does Poverty Play? Child Poverty Action Group (2013) <www.cpag.org.nz/assets/Publications/130610%20CPAG%20Child%20Abuse%20Report%201%20June%202013.pdf>

[15] Child Abuse: What Role Does Poverty Play? Child Poverty Action Group (2013) <www.cpag.org.nz/assets/Publications/130610%20CPAG%20Child%20Abuse%20Report%201%20June%202013.pdf>

[16] ‘Child Poverty in New Zealand’ Jonathan Boston and Simone Chappelle