In today's NZ Herald Dr Ian Hyslop takes fire at the government and its plans for vulnerable children:
The Government's proposed reforms to our child protection laws are regressive, myopic and likely to have unfortunate outcomes for children who have been ill-treated in stressed families.It is difficult to envisage a 'step backward' from what is a deteriorating situation. The incidence of child abuse among Maori is disproportionately high and 60 percent of children in state care are Maori.
They have been narrowly conceived and signal a return to rescue-based fostercare. This, in my opinion, is a huge step backwards for child protection in New Zealand, particularly for Maori.
I worked in state social work for 20 years and witnessed the genesis of the ground-breaking Children, Young Persons and their Families' Act, 1989. This legislation addressed institutional racism (identified in the Puao Te Ata Tu Ministerial Advisory Committee Report of 1988) by making an understanding of Maori values and social structures central to working with Maori children.
The 1989 Act responded to the cultural alienation of Maori children in the care of the state by bringing Maori concepts of whakapapa and whanaungatanga into mainstream statutory social work legislation.
It required that placement of children outside of immediate family be with a member of their whanau, hapu, iwi, or at the very least with someone from the same cultural background. This vision has never been adequately supported or resourced and now, under these proposed reforms, it is abandoned.
There is nothing in the statistics that would indicate that the "ground-breaking" Act was a success. Forty five percent of the children with a substantiated finding of physical abuse in 2015 were Maori. These children often develop into the offenders that go on to make up half of the prison population.
So, typically, blame for the lack of success went on inadequate support and resourcing.
I believe these misguided changes have been based on a persuasive but inaccurate and overly simplistic assertion that the ills of the current child protection system are due to an insufficiently child-centred approach.
Too often the focus has not been on the children. It has been on the parents. Social workers focus on sorting out the parent's dysfunction and trying to keep the child in their care. This can go on over crucial years of the child's life and development. A child-centered approach would actually put their need first. And while it is difficult to extricate their needs from their parents needs, more effort to do so is vital.
But it must be recognised that these reforms are also linked with the Government's social investment approach to public services. Social problems are seen in terms of the costs " prisons and benefits " that result from the behaviour of failing families. One way of breaking the cycle is permanently removing children from their care.This is a misrepresentation. More than once, in the cabinet papers referred to, Anne Tolley points out that the state cannot provide the love that children need. That must come from "stable and loving families". Her words.
Key principles of our child protection legislation are being revised with this goal in mind.
This approach is clearly reflected in the proposal that the CYP&F Act should include a commitment to ensure "those children and young people who come to the attention of the new ministry have a safe, stable and loving home from the earliest opportunity".
Of course, the notion of safety, stability and love triggers a powerful emotional response to the needs of children. However, an idealised notion of love provided by the state and middle New Zealand carers is no basis for a progressive child welfare system in my view.
In any case we've tried the "progressive child welfare system" and it has failed. The old system of adoption had its pitfalls too but the incidence of physical child abuse (as recorded by child protection services) was far lower.
In practice this will translate into the earlier and more frequent removal of children from parental care, into permanent alternative care and a reduced emphasis on securing whanau placement for children who cannot safely remain with immediate family.
Indeed it will. The cabinet papers twice mention the recruitment of more caregivers.
Anne Tolley says, "I am proposing...to develop a dedicated cross-agency transformation team to design and implement priority initiatives such as an engagement strategy for all New Zealanders, a
caregiver recruitment strategy and increased support for caregiving families."
The academic continues:
With high-risk families, the intention is to plan alternate care concurrently with intensive intervention to encourage speedy long-term attachment and stability with new carers. Further, Family Court judges may have the power to make final guardianship and custody orders without a formal declaration being made.
In other words, parents will have no opportunity to dispute the removal of their children and statutory social workers will not be required to formally prove the accuracy of the evidence they are relying on.
This is a breach of human rights justified by the quick dispensation of safety, stability and love. It is ideologically driven and, in reality, will be punitive and damaging to the socially disadvantaged in our increasingly unequal society.
Why is it that the current government is driven by ideology but former governments were not? The academic has his own ideology. We all do.
Great care must be taken over extending powers of the state. At the same time great care must been accorded to children who are demonstrably in danger. Getting the balance right is the challenge.
There are many New Zealand couples who would relish the opportunity to adopt (or provide life-long care to) a child whose parent or extended family is severely impaired by violence, addiction, and/or mental ill health. Temporary and transient fostercare and spells in state care have not worked well. Often the damage created to the child in his or her first months and years is irreversible.
Part of the new child-centered approach, which can potentially act as a brake on overzealous intervention is also proposed:
Legislation establishing an independent youth advocacy service to ensure that the voices of children and young people are heard in the design of systems and services.
The area of child protection is fraught but I disagree with Dr Hyslop (who I expect would lay the blame for child abuse on poverty and inequality disregarding that the vast majority of poor New Zealanders neither abuse nor neglect their children).
I believe the government is on the right track if only because the status quo is simply unacceptable.