How New Zealand is protecting its next generation clearly isn't working. Norm Hewitt, former All Black-turned-children's champion, is urging all New Zealanders to "say something" on the Green Paper for Vulnerable Children, and change the end of the story for 160,000 at-risk Kiwi kids

It’s almost New Year, and so 2011 is over. It’s been a tough year for our children, our tamariki, with several appalling cases of child abuse in the headlines.

The Christmas-New Year period is a time when we often become reflective, both about the year that’s gone and the year that’s coming. It’s also a time usually spent with family, and a time we may think about families less fortunate than ours, and what we can do to help them and their children.

We know the names of children who have been killed through mistreatment, sometimes almost as well as we know the names of our own children. Those most recently in the media include Chris and Cru Kahui, JJ Lawrence, Serenity Jay Scott, Cezar Taylor, Terepo Taura-Griffith, and five-year-old Sahara Baker-Koro who died four days before Christmas last year. But these are just the names we know. They are only a tiny representation of the thousands of New Zealand children who silently live with abuse and neglect each day - children such as the nine-year-old West Auckland girl who was tortured by her mother. 

Each year, on average, 10 children are killed by family members – people who should have protected them. In New Zealand it’s estimated that 160,000 children are considered ‘vulnerable’, which means several factors in their lives reduce their chances of reaching their potential. Such factors include living with family violence, and having parents with health and mental health issues -- particularly drug and alcohol dependencies.

We’ve all seen the statistics that illustrate where this malevolent mix leaves our children. Quite frankly, it puts our children, our future generation, almost at the bottom of the heap. Children in New Zealand are marginally safer than children in Mexico and Turkey. That’s hardly a corroboration of our country’s continued self-congratulatory, self-endorsed myth that New Zealand is a ‘great place to bring up kids’.

Non-government and government agencies are trying to help our children and their struggling families. But it’s not working. The level of child abuse is hard to quantify, but one thing we can be sure of is that it’s not decreasing. We desperately need to change how we protect our children, because what we’re doing now clearly is not working - something that was bluntly illustrated by the Ministerial Inquiry into the case of that nine-year-old girl.

In July the Government released its Green Paper for Vulnerable Children. This is a discussion document posing challenging questions and asking for our opinions – anyone’s opinions – on what we, the public, think should be changed to strengthen our communities and ensure our children reach their full potential. I am very proud to be one of the champions of that Green Paper, along with South Auckland lawyer Sandra Alofivae and Barnardos chief executive Murray Edridge. We’ve spent the last few months travelling around the country, getting people talking about child abuse and the Green Paper.

Since leaving the All Blacks, I’ve dedicated my life to working for children. I am utterly determined to bring about social change in families and the wider community. I see the Green Paper as a great start to this change because the Government is asking for our opinions – what do we think will work? The Green Paper seeks to create a national debate about child abuse, and it’s a debate that’s long overdue.

I found the paper easy to read and understand. It gave me the sense that I wasn’t being told what to do, and I was being genuinely asked for my opinion to help make the changes required so that all children have the opportunity to thrive.   

Some of the questions in the Green Paper for Vulnerable Children are challenging. Should all children be tracked from birth? Should personal information be more easily shared? Should some people receive less funding so our children can receive more? Should communities be encouraged to take more leadership and responsibility on the issue? What policy changes should the Government make to protect children better?

Nothing has been decided yet, and to get it right we need as many people as possible from across our society to say something. It doesn't really matter what you say; you just need to say something. In fact, that’s become the catch-phrase of this discussion document and the name of our new website, www.saysomething.org.nz.

On that website you will find it’s very easy to have your say. You can answer as many or as few of the questions in the Green Paper as you like, or you can simply write what you think. You can also mail in a submission, or post comments on Facebook or Twitter. The only restriction is that submissions must be received by 28 February, 2012. After the submissions are read, a children’s action plan will be developed and released during 2012.

I urge every one of you to have your say on this. No submission is too small to be considered. It can be a few sentences or a collection of comments from you, your whanau, your neighbours, or your community group. You don’t have to be an expert to be part of the conversation. Talk to your children about it too – after all, they are the ones who have to live with the decisions we adults make.

I believe our tamariki are our future and we have to change what we are doing if every child is to thrive, belong and achieve. I think it’s safe to say we all feel angry and sad when we hear of another child being deliberately hurt, but we probably feel powerless to stop it, or to make a change.

This is something we can do. Now’s our chance to change the end of the story for children who are being abused – have your say on the Green Paper for Vulnerable Children and help make 2012 the year we start getting it right for our next generation of New Zealanders.

Submission details:

Submissions close on 28 February 2012. Go to www.saysomething.org.nz for more information on the Green Paper for Vulnerable Children.

You can:  

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