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Children at Risk and Where to from Here?

Posted on 31 Jul 2006

Speech to ACT Auckland Regional Conference, Squid Row, Auckland, Sunday 30 July 2006.

It is difficult to imagine exactly what could bring anyone to inflict so much force on the 3 month old Kahui twins that they died a brutal and what must have been painful death, caused, we are told, by a blunt force to their heads. Were they hit by a blunt object, or thrown against a wall?

It is hard to believe that, in their short lives, they were subject to such violence that autopsy showed broken bones from a separate incident to that causing their deaths.

Hard not to at least think in passing that these beautiful baby boys are probably better off dead than being subjected to a lifetime of beatings and abuse by a dysfunctional family.

And hardest of all to understand why most of the ten adults reportedly living in the Kahui family home are prepared to stay silent when they know who killed these defenseless little boys.

Traditionally, the diagnosis of the problem has been "poverty".  We've heard the excuses.  The answer of 'the left' has been more money and better education.  How often have we heard that these people are victims themselves and we must pity rather than condemn them?

Comments by those close to the Kahui family, such as that their silence is due to the family being in the "mystical realm of tangi", show that something has gone badly wrong in a society prepared to accept such behaviour, and such excuses.

In the storm of recent commentary about child abuse there have been demands that "something be done".  One example I heard was Brian Edwards being interviewed on National Radio.  He was sure that CYF should take more action and that people should be "educated" on how to care for children.  He should have come clean and said that he had no idea what to do.  In reality, CYF social workers are laden with responsibility, but have little power.  People are quick to criticise them, and vacancies are hard to fill.

Chris Trotter, in his weekly Dominion Post newspaper column, abandoned his usually thoughtful approach to speculate who God would blame for the Kahui twins' death.  Culprits, he concluded, include the colonial land grab, "thin-lipped" WINZ workers and Rogernomics.  He simply wrote a list of things he didn't like and said they are to blame for our social ills.  And he claims that God thinks the same way.

It is easy to lay blame and the authorities are an easy target.  Real blame, of course, lies with those who do the abusing, and it is to be hoped that eventually the Kahui twins' tormentors will be caught and held accountable.

There is nothing new about the Kahui case, but for some reason it has caught the attention of all New Zealand, and at last people are crying 'enough'.

It is the latest in a long string of child abuse deaths, each of them equally distressing when details are revealed of what these infants and children suffered in their short lives.  Lillybing, James Whakaruru, Delcelia Whitaker The list goes on and on.

When I gave my maiden speech in parliament in 2002 I said the following:

"...our current policies are failing dramatically in the social areas and failing dramatically in the area of the family.   As a society we are failing to protect our children from abuse.  Every day we seem to hear heart-rending stories of abused and murdered children.  Their life details are so violent that I cannot read their full stories because I find them too distressing.

To suggest change in social policy means that it is necessary to take a look at the nature of the state and its relationship to the family.  It was once adequate for the state simply to provide for the family's physical protection and the family was left to care for itself.   However the state has replaced the breadwinner in many homes, producing fatherless families."

Government's response to tragedies like these is predictable and inadequate – meetings, reports, recommendations and little if anything in the way of action. We have had a Families Commission for 2 years, producing well-reasoned reports that go nowhere.  Our babies and children are still being abused.

In the week just gone, there have been three reports published.  A Child Youth and Family Review, a report by the Council of Christian Services and the first report of the Multi-Agency Family Violence task force.

The CYF Review revealed 38 children were killed, most by family, in the five years to 2003.  The Council of Christian services gave the government a mark of 3 out of 10, saying there had been too many reviews.  What hasn't been said is that welfare dependency must be addressed, and I'll come to that soon.

It has generally been popular in traditional left wing (social science) circles to blame poverty for family violence and abuse.  If poverty is the problem then money must be the answer, and the implied solution was to increase welfare payments.

When government policy moved to implement the problem in this way it increased the numbers of people on benefits. Money hasn't of course changed anything – the numbers of children being seen by CYF continues to rise.  Figures I obtained through Parliamentary Questions this month show that it is now more dangerous than ever to be a child in New Zealand.

Until recently it was considered "right wing" to suggest that dependency on benefits caused a moral hazard for the beneficiary - that is to say, that those on a benefit were more likely to offend or come to the attention of the police.  Only ACT was brave enough to make the case in parliament until the arrival of the Maori Party.

Strong evidence that welfare dependency causes problems beyond financial hardship has long been abundant, but has been incomprehensible for those brought up on the 'class struggle'.

The Ministry of Social Development recently produced a 'Living Standards' Report and has found some useful - though not surprising - things.

It confirms that people on low incomes who earn their income from employment have a better living standard than those on low incomes relying on benefits.  Many, when given the choice between an income involving work and the same income without work, would choose not to work.  However, all the evidence says that those who work do better on a variety of measures, and are much more likely to advance through life.

Interestingly this report shows that 27% of Pacific Islanders are considered to be in "severe hardship", compared to 17% of Maori.  Despite this, the incidence of child abuse in Pacific Island families appears to be much lower.  I suspect that this is because there are a higher proportion of Pacific Island families living in traditional family arrangements.

Over representation of Maori in the statistics often draws the wrong conclusions.  The assumption is that family violence is a Maori problem – an innate predisposition.

But there is no family violence gene.  Violence is a learned behaviour and I contend that welfare dependence is at the heart of the matter.  Maori do suffer from heavier dependence on welfare, probably brought on by break down of the traditional family unit.  Before all of us white middle class European New Zealanders start criticising, however, I want to sound a word of warning.

We're not that far behind Maori in this trend.  Family violence is a problem for all parts of New Zealand society.

The debate over the death of the Kahui twins has made it permissible to discuss the effect of benefit dependency on children, whereas previously it had been politically incorrect to do so.  People are now saying what they had been thinking for some time.  New Zealand needs welfare policies that send the right message and provide the right incentives - policies that place the safety of children high on the list of required outcomes.  The research all points to children doing best when they live in working homes, but for too long our welfare policies have provided perverse incentives, where too many families are better off not working.

When a case of violence or abuse comes to light, Child, Youth and Family are asked to investigate.  They have to decide if the child is safe in their home.

There is no easy answer.  It takes the wisdom of Solomon to know when to remove a child from a family, and the whole area is fraught with uncertainty.  I knew one family who lived in a small rural town.  The parents were having difficulty controlling the behaviour of their adolescent son and were in despair.  One day the son burnt down their hay barn and the father administered a beating with the flex of an electric kettle.   The father was charged with assault and served three months in jail, to the great distress of his wife who had no hope of dealing with her delinquent son alone.  It is hard to see who benefited from the father's punishment.

The first thing that needs to change is that the public must have realistic expectations.  The thought that Child, Youth and Family should be responsible for all cases - including ones not on its caseload - is unreasonable, and simply drives good people out of the service.

There must be a differentiation between preventing problems and dealing with the problems that have already arisen. A two-pronged approach is needed.  It is not enough just to try and deal with problems as they arise - that is just treating the symptoms of the problem.  If any progress is to be made in preventing further deaths like the Kahui twins, the actual causes of the problem must be tackled.  I'm not just talking here about domestic violence, but also the burgeoning problem of welfare dependency.

There is a lot of unnecessary and unhelpful criticism of CYF. Recently the National Party accused CYF of failing to deliver on promises to reduce child abuse.   If one spends any time with social workers, they aren't promising much at all, and many think things are getting worse.  The way things are set up CYF can only act on information of abuse.  Even then they have to prove their arguments in court, so they can't act on suspicions.

An important statistic in the debate about child abuse is that the vast majority (between 70 and 80 percent) of children who are killed by their own family are not known to CYF.  No complaint has been laid.  Everyone is wise in hindsight, but foresight is more difficult.  There are dysfunctional families by the thousand, but only a few have disasters as bad as the Kahui twins.

We have to align CYF powers with its responsibilities, and CYF workers need access to better facilities for children requiring placement.   Some type of institutional placement (for want of a better term) is essential for emergency cases.  Safe houses for children are not a long-term solution but social workers need to be able to make emergency placements to ensure a safe temporary environment.

Most importantly, CYF must have the obligation to place children with whanau removed. As the law stands, social workers must place children with family if possible.  Children in danger and at risk must be placed in a safe environment.  Sometimes this will be with family but we have seen too many cases where, because of the law, children have been taken from one unsafe situation and placed in another equally unsafe family situation, leading to tragic results.  This simple change would make a big difference, and I am puzzled as to why the current law was introduced in the first place.  As the television advertisements remind us, domestic violence is often an inter-generational phenomenon. 

Finally CYF should be changed into a Child Protection Service with police, social workers and doctors working together on a full time basis.

This model is functioning well at Auckland's Starship Hospital.  Because of the passion and drive of a select few, a service now operates to serve children with suspected abuse who live in Auckland.  It wasn't easy, and it won't surprise many to know that one of the biggest obstacles was a protracted argument about how the participating government departments - health, welfare and police - would divide the costs of floor space!  Unfortunately this model hasn't been replicated elsewhere.  This service would better reflect the needs of children and would help overcome the conflict that currently exists between the policing and helping roles of CYF social workers.

Welfare dependency must be tackled head-on.  This is an area ACT has talked of since our inception and some our solutions have started to be picked up by other parties.  Time limits on benefits, naming the fathers of children to receive the DPB, training or community work for those who are able-bodied and on a benefit, regular assessments for those on sickness and illness benefits, and providing childcare for young Mums on a benefit so they can work part-time are all familiar ACT policies.

Unfortunately cases like the Kahui twins and the resulting public backlash brings on the knee-jerk solutions.  Two examples are those of the National Party's suggested 'Smart Card' whereby beneficiaries would only be able to purchase certain necessities using a credit type arrangement.  This would undoubtedly be good for some but it would also put huge constraints on those who were capable of doing their own budgeting.  Although there is nothing theoretically wrong with this type of system the real 'smart' solution is to get people off a benefit. 

The Children's Commissioner has suggested a national database be set up, tracking every child from birth to 18 years. She is trying to find a preventative programme and it's not hard to see where she is coming from.  The problem however is that this targets everyone to find the small percentage of children truly at risk. The cost in time and money of administering this system would be huge and those who need help least would be the ones that co-operated most.  Imagine the difficulty in enforcing child supervision in a Mongrel Mob headquarters.  And there is also the question of the safety of the information obtained.  Would the current government selectively use the information against their political opponents?  I suspect they would.  As Ken Shirley used to joke: "Just because you are paranoid, it doesn't mean they aren't after you".

Finally I would like to address the 'Whole of Government' approach. We constantly hear talk of this concept but mostly it is just that – talk.  That argument over who will pay for the floor space proves the point.

When I visited the CEO of a District Health Board recently he also highlighted the problem.  He said that the 100 families who cause the bulk of his problems are the same 100 families that give the education people in his area the most grief and the same 100 families are those best known to the welfare agencies.  "But" he said, "we don't talk to each other".

If we are ever to get on top of welfare dependency and family violence we must address all the problems families are faced with.  Integration of services is imperative and the lead must come from government, no matter how hard the obstacles that currently exist.

I want to finish with an example of the way things could be.

In Christchurch there is an organisation called Family Help Trust.  It is the brainchild of a woman called Libby Robbins who recognised that the worst families were being completely neglected and CYF was failing them or did not know of them.

Libby has a team of eight social workers and between them they have 100 families on their books at a time.  Referrals come from midwives, GPs and some other social agencies, with the odd one from CYF.

These social workers go into people's homes and mentor them. They help enrol children at dental clinics, make sure health related appointments are kept, help with housing issues, make sure the children attend school and counsel their clients when necessary.  Around a quarter of the Trust's income is from government agencies, the rest Libby fundraises from local organisations and businesses.

This is the thin end of the wedge but Family Help Trust really is helping these families.  I've been to see what they do.  But the words Family Help Trust are like a red rag to a bull when said in front of CYF Minister Ruth Dyson.  Why?

Because they are not her favoured group and they monitor their outcomes.  They know what they achieve – they have to prove their worth to their funders. Without results they won't get money next year.

Blinkered political thinking is the biggest obstacle facing our under-privileged.  Remove this and so many opportunities for those caught in the welfare dependency trap could become reality.  The alternative is to just sit and wait for the next Kahui twins tragedy – it won't be far away.