Talk to social workers and experts trying to get New Zealand's most troubled kids safely through to adulthood and the impression left is that the best thing to do may also be the thing that's most politically anathema to this government

When politicians start talking about "radical overhauls" and headlines speak of "sweeping changes", I confess a little scepticism, even nervousness. Especially when it's accompanied with talk of "no magic wands" and earnest talk of not "throwing money" at the system. And, adding to that, when these pronouncements are all made before the big report it completed.

It suggests conclusions already reached, and with that comes the sniff of ideology.

Yet one of the most striking things to come out of the two reports released last week into children in state care was the consensus that they highlighted the right issues. It can be hard to read through the jargon, when the talk is of a "more child-centred" approach and the like.

So while all agree that Child, Youth and Family is failing too many kids, there's a lot of room for interpretation over why it is; and that leads to very different responses.

What seems to be agreed is that CYF has got better and better, under the past two governments, at putting a fence at the top of the cliff. Social workers are usually quick to see the signs of trouble a comin' and good at dealing with emergencies.

The bigger problem, highlighted by the increasingly impressive Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills, is that for those kids who do go over the edge (about 5,000 as it stands; there will always be some) the longer-term care is unsatisfactory. There's a lack of monitoring, kids disappear of social workers' radars, we don't know whether the new care-givers are up to the job down the track and there's little support for them if they are struggling.

Some here that list of woe and blame the social workers. The fear is that when Social Development Minister Anne Tolley talks of "radical overhaul", she's buying into those complaints. While it's hard to know how radical she means until we've seen the report prepared by Paula Rebstock and her expert panel, the language is worrying.

Is it an excuse, as Audrey Young posited on the weekend, to bring more private sector providers into the sector just for ideological reasons associated with National governments (private good and innovative, public bad and bureaucratic)? Is it a chance for her to score political points by looking to be seen to be doing something?

Yet many in the sector are giving her and Rebstock the benefit of the doubt, for now. Because change is needed.

But here's the thing. Rather than blame the social workers and the bureacracy, you can look at CYF's failings through another lens. Through the money window.

Why would social workers be failing to monitor, letting children slip from view, and not ensure foster families are well enough supported? It's unlikely you'd be in that job if you didn't care about such things, yet some people leap rapidly to that assumption.

The more likely scenario is that there simply aren't enough social workers and families around. Getting more will cost more Reports suggests CYF is short as many as 400 social workers.

Consider this scenario. A five year-old needs care and a home is found. But the child is so difficult that family can't cope and opts out. The next family can take the child for a few days – buying the social worker a bit more time – but where to find another home? While you're looking, the next difficult child turns up and one of the other kids on your long list of care is acting out. The next night at 2am you get a call from the police and that other 15 year-old has been picked up and needs to be put somewhere. But where?

As discussed on The Nation at the weekend, last week in Auckland at a certain point in time there were simply no places for children in the city. Off-air UNICEF's Deborah Morris-Travers said that wasn't unusual.

So social workers get good at rushing from one fire to the next. But where's the time for them to follow up that child from a month or a year ago? Where's the next family able to take these troubled children?

Yes, there will be structural ways to improve things. Judge Carolyn Henwood has suggested splitting the CYF social workers in two – one group focused on those emergencies, another on the monitoring, so that the latter doesn't get forgotten.

Tolley seems inclined to raise the age of those in care beyond age 17, because that's simply too young to let a troubled young person lose in an adult world. Then there's more support for foster families. Some like to say that all these kids need is love. But, frankly, that's bollocks.

We're talking about asking families to take on some of the most needy and messed up children in the country. Normal discipline and love ain't enough. No, these families don't need to be clinicians, but they need to know what they're getting into, they need to be trained and they need support year after year after year. And while there are patches of such services available, it's not nationwide or standardised.

So there are plenty of great ideas. And when the minister talks about "radical overhaul", maybe all she means is implementing them. But guess what? They all add to the workload of an already burnout staff.

So here's the hard political truth – if you want safer kids, it's going to cost you more. Maybe a lot more. Hundreds of new social workers won't come cheap (or easily. I remember interviewing Jenny Shipley about the shortage in the early 90s when she was Social Welfare minister). And we will have to pay foster families more than they currently get to care for our toughest kids.

So, I'm sorry minister, but throwing money at the problem is exactly what's needed. It's crucial.

But here's the good news. The pay-off could be immense. One of the disturbing numbers I learnt last week, from Judge Henwood, is that 83 percent of those under 20 in prison went through some kind of state care.

Imagine if those kids had got the intensive social work care they needed. Imagine if they had been followed-up, that there was no "dump and run", and that their caregivers were monitored and supported, so that abuse couldn't occur but plenty of good stuff could. Imagine fewer victims of crime and those kids breaking the cycle.

As one CYF person said to me last week – "we know best practice, we know where we're going wrong and why. We just need more resources to get it right".

So for me, it's time to start throwing money at this problem, and quick.

Comments (20)

by Andrew R on August 31, 2015
Andrew R

Hi Tim. Yes more $ needed but that will screw up getting surplus. So ideology and fudging will win over looking after kids.

by onsos on September 01, 2015
onsos

In 2008, the budget for CYF and related services was $505 million. In 2014 it was $505 million. These numbers are not inflation adjusted; there has been 14% inflation since then, representing a 12.2% cut in funding in real terms.

Meanwhile, there has been a significant increase in children experiencing poverty and deprivation. This means there has been increased demand for services.

That is the context for the government's current movement to reform. They have slashed funding while need has escalated, and then blamed the organisation for the failure.

by Peggy Klimenko on September 02, 2015
Peggy Klimenko

@ Tim Watkin: "... the longer-term care is unsatisfactory. There's a lack of monitoring, kids disappear of social workers' radars, we don't know whether the new care-givers are up to the job down the track and there's little support for them if they are struggling."

This list of failings bespeaks lack of funding - as you suggest further on in your post. Throwing money at the problem is indeed exactly what the Government needs to be doing.

I'm a longtime listener to RNZ: I've lost count of the interviews done about CYF and its previous incarnation over the years. The issues canvassed at each interview have been depressingly similar to the list above. Over and over, social workers have pointed out that all these issues can be fixed by enough trained and qualified staff, and properly funded support services. More money, in other words. But successive governments have refused to fund the service properly, despite the blindingly obvious link between children in care and our prison population, a link that has been pointed out repeatedly by critics.

I suppose there's no chance that the people actually attempting to make five go into four (so to speak) will actually be listened to this time? Thought not...

by Charlie on September 02, 2015
Charlie

Tim: So here's the hard political truth – if you want safer kids, it's going to cost you more

If we want safer kids we need to tackle the root causes of parental neglect within our society. No amount of CYPS funding will impact the problem if the child has suffered psychological damage at the hands of his parents before he/she even gets on the CYPS radar.

What is the profile of these 'at risk' children?

Actually the statistics are quite clear:

http://www.stats.govt.nz/browse_for_stats/people_and_communities/Childre...

My conclusion: The structure of our benefit system encourages the farming of children for the income they generate.

by Tim Watkin on September 02, 2015
Tim Watkin

Onsos, those are interesting numbers, thanks.

Charlie, you're right the stats tell a story. A few of the problems stem from bad life choices, but most come from being victims, being poor or having mental health issues. All difficult things to control. So I struggle to see how you leap from those stats to your conclusion.

Why on earth would the benefit system – which keeps you in just about every definition of poverty – would be a financial incentive to have children makes no sense to me. Given that there are other ways to generate much more income, it seems like money is the least of the motivations... unless you feel more or less trapped. The point of this post is that more money on social workers and caregivers is a tangible, effective way to break the cycle. The evidence suggests that these troubled, damaged kids are likely to grow up to make some bad choices and continue to be victims.

Contrary to your bleak prediction, good state care could help them reach adulthood with more skills and ability to break out of those stats. It won't save every child, people will not always behave perfectly. But you can repair kids and a concerted effort than is early and ongoing has a decent shot of stopping that child growing up into an adult who knows no better than to make the same mistakes with their children.

 

by Peggy Klimenko on September 03, 2015
Peggy Klimenko

@ Charlie: "If we want safer kids we need to tackle the root causes of parental neglect within our society."

This is one of the things that a properly-funded CYFS could do. And without doubt does manage to do in many cases with which its social workers deal. The problem at present is that it is understaffed and those staff are run off their feet by the amount of need. Better funding would allow more trained staff, and properly-resourced support services.

Cutting off at the pass the problem of child abuse and neglect would improve outcomes for the next generation. And - if you want an instrumental reason - it would save us the taxpayers from so much of our tax contribution going into the black hole of the justice system.

'No amount of CYPS funding will impact the problem if the child has suffered psychological damage at the hands of his parents before he/she even gets on the CYPS radar."

If intervention is early enough, children can be helped, while they're young and their brains are plastic. And who wouldn't wish to save the innocents? It's a terrible life for the children CYFS must get involved with. But it takes money: a great deal more than the Government currently puts into it. It's not useful to blame the parents, who have themselves often come from a background of abuse and addiction, and know no better. But they too can be helped, were there enough money and staff to do the job. In my experience, the number of parents who don't want to do the best they can for their children is vanishingly small. It's just that they don't always know how.

by Tim Watkin on September 03, 2015
Tim Watkin

Peggy, I couldn't agree more. Your answer is much better than mine!

by Charlie on September 03, 2015
Charlie

Tim, I agree that good state care may lessen then effect of parental neglect but it is a financial black hole and it does not address the root cause of the problem: PARENTAL NEGLECT.

If you want to "break the cycle" as you say you have to address the root cause.

A friend, who is a senior civil servant, tells me that the MSD have analysed the DPB statistics and found that a large percentage of these women are not just feckless as many of us have previously assumed. Instead they carefully time their pregnancies to maintain the welfare cash flow. I have personally witnessed incidents that confirm this. This is why National were advised by MSD to tighten up on DPB.

So these poor children are brought into this world for money rather than love. They have no father figure, are exposed to abuse from their mum, various boyfriends and whanau and often are not fed correctly. How quickly Corel Burrows, the Kahui  twins, Lillybing and all the other nameless ones who weren't beaten quite hard enough to kill them.

So either you can cut into this mess by sorting out the welfare system or you can  build an enormous bureaucracy at the bottom of the cliff to catch these damaged individuals.

by Charlie on September 03, 2015
Charlie

edit - add "we forget" after how quickly

by Charlie on September 03, 2015
Charlie

Case in point today:

http://www.odt.co.nz/news/national/354444/murder-charge-laid-over-raumat...

A man arrested in relation to the death of a 6-month-old baby girl on the Kapiti Coast has had his charge upgraded to murder

The key point: "He was in a brief relationship with Gracie's mother at the time of her death, police said"

Before I even read the details I said: "I bet she was on welfare and he was not the genetic father" and so it is!

Tell me how your better funded CYPS would fix this!

 

 

 

by Peggy Klimenko on September 03, 2015
Peggy Klimenko

@ Charlie: " a large percentage of these women are not just feckless as many of us have previously assumed. Instead they carefully time their pregnancies to maintain the welfare cash flow."

It seems to me implausible that so many women could be so strategic with conception: those of us of a female persuasion are well aware of how capricious fertility can be, contraception notwithstanding.

Then you go on to claim that the children of these women "...have no father figure, are exposed to abuse from their mum, various boyfriends and whanau and often are not fed correctly."

These two pictures don't seem to marry up: on the one hand, women exhibiting a considerable degree of strategic thinking, yet on the other hand, they can't look after the children they do produce. The haphazardness and chaos of the latter doesn't match the organisation of the former.

Of course, if there are women who do carefully time their pregnancies, it's much more likely that they also look after their children equally carefully. And it's the other ones, chaotic and disorganised, who abuse and neglect their children and come to the attention of CYFS.

In any event, whatever the circumstances of their conception, it's never the children's fault: they're the innocents, and CYFS exists to help them and their parents, no matter how feckless said parents are. The service needs to be properly funded to enable its staff to do their job.

"Before I even read the details I said: "I bet she was on welfare and he was not the genetic father" and so it is!"

Yup: you can write the script, that's how we characterise it in this household. Another sad case of someone acting like a stereotype. But you - and we - can't know the counterfactual: underfunding of CYFS has a deep history, and it's quite possible that young man is one of the children that they didn't have the resources to help. Very likely, actually. Supposing that CYFS'd had the wherewithal to intervene effectively in that man's life when he was one of the innocents? A life would likely have been saved and a crime prevented.

by Charlie on September 04, 2015
Charlie

Peggy I think you've missed my point. Let me explain:

These two pictures don't seem to marry up: on the one hand, women exhibiting a considerable degree of strategic thinking, yet on the other hand, they can't look after the children they do produce. 

Firstly it's not that strategic to know when to go on an off the pill in order to maintain the benefit. Beneficiaries talk among themselves - they know how to manage the system. I recall my youth in the UK when in the pub opposite the Income Support office there was a guy who, for a fiver, would explain in detail how to wangle all the entitlements. He even filled the forms in for his clients.

Later in NZ I know of one woman who went on DPB after her husband broke her cheek bone and subsequently earned a degree and today is a working professional but I also know of several who deliberately got pregnant in late teens and kept popping out kids to keep the money coming. Sadly I also have a niece in the UK who had just had her fifth child to a fifth man and subsists solely on welfare. What sort of outlook will those kids have?

Secondly, you're assuming they're trying to look after the kids. It seems some just don't give damn and watch the latest druggie boyfriend smash their baby about the house. How was the woman in the case I cited above caring for her baby? What was Corel Burrows mother thinking when sending her child off to school with her latest boyfriend who she knew to be a P addict with nearly a 100 previous convictions and out on bail at the time for several more? In their world the child is just an unwanted by-product of the main objective - the money.


by Eliza on September 04, 2015
Eliza

"kept popping out kids"...

Definitely not something that anyone who's given birth would ever say.

Charlie, this whole logic is deeply misogynistic. The idea that women would have babies in order to get free money ignores a really huge factor: pregnancy and childbirth are HORRENDOUS. I've been through it only once and hand on heart, I would rather do literally anything else for money than carry a child to term and give birth when I didn't want that child. Your argument is insulting to all mothers and utterly implausible as an explanation for child abuse.

Here's the real root cause of child abuse: human beings are a social species and we did not evolve to care for children in long stretches of one-on-one time. It's hard even for an emotionally stable and loving parent to always keep calm with small kids, especially when there's no-one else there. For people who were themselves ill-treated as children, the fact that they go on to abuse their own children is completely unsurprising. One of the most obvious solutions is to start seeing abused children as one stage in a cycle of violence - they are the future parents, and to break the cycle we need to pour resources into teaching them some key things such as how to manage emotions like anger and frustration without resorting to violence. This means, as Tim said, we need to throw money at it. 

by Peggy Klimenko on September 05, 2015
Peggy Klimenko

@Charlie: "Firstly it's not that strategic to know when to go on an off the pill in order to maintain the benefit. Beneficiaries talk among themselves - they know how to manage the system."

I'm afraid that it isn't as simple as that for most women. A woman can go off the pill in the hopes of getting pregnant, but it doesn't at all follow that it'll happen at all, let alone when she wants it to happen. These stories of yours sound like anecdote at best, urban myth at worst. No country should make social policy on that basis.

Tim Watkin's post was about CYFS, and the suggestion that more money really would help it to do its job better. And you've diverted off into DPB recipients, as if their children exhausted CYFS' caseload. Given that family violence doesn't have class and ehnic boundaries, I doubt that CYFS works exclusively with beneficiaries in general, let alone those on the DPB.

"Secondly, you're assuming they're trying to look after the kids. It seems some just don't give damn and watch the latest druggie boyfriend smash their baby about the house. How was the woman in the case I cited above caring for her baby?"

In my experience, all but a vanishingly small number of parents want to do the best for their children. That includes DPB recipients. Believe me, well-educated and well-heeled parents can be just as feckless: it isn't - or isn't solely - an income thing. Rich parents are just better at hiding it. Ask the staff at Starship about the children who fetch up there injured by an adult in their lives.

Thus far, we know only what's been said in court regarding the death of the Raumati baby to whom you refer. But let's sheet home the blame for her violent death to the man who's been charged with her murder. Her mother wasn't in the house when the child was injured: why would you want to blame her for what that fellow did to her baby?

@ Eliza: " "kept popping out kids"...

Definitely not something that anyone who's given birth would ever say."

Ha! Oh indeed, my thought as well.. Take note of what Eliza says, Charlie. She speaks truth, and she speaks it for all women.

by Charlie on September 05, 2015
Charlie

Some facts:

Dated Jan 2013 ( I hope these numbers have come down with the tightening up of the DPB rules)

By the end of last year 13, 634 of the babies born in the previous 12 months had a parent or caregiver relying on a benefit. Data supplied under the Official information Act reveals that 48 percent of these caregivers were Maori. Assuming the ethnicity of dependent children generally matches the ethnicity of their caregivers, 37 percent of all Maori children born in 2011 were on welfare by the end of the same year. The corresponding figure for non-Maori was less than half at 16 percent.

Most of these babies are born directly onto a benefit – usually the domestic purposes benefit. Some are first births. It’s not unusual for their mothers to initially be dependent  on either the sickness benefit for pregnancy or the dole, then transfer to the DPB with the newborn in tow. But according to a Cabinet Paper publicly released last year, in 2010 4,800 births were second (or subsequent) children being added to an existing  DPB. This happens most commonly in Whangarei, Whakatane, Rotorua, Kawerau and Wairoa, and the rate at which children are added has also been increasing.

The high rate of  NZ children born onto welfare  gives rise to numerous health and social problems down the line, not least abuse and neglect. We now know thanks to a recent Auckland University study that 83 percent of substantiated child abuse and neglect cases concern children who appear in the benefit system before the age of two.

http://www.nzcpr.com/born-onto-a-benefit/

So Peggy & Eliza, your view simply doesn't match reality.

To reiterate: To fix the abuse problem and the CYPS caseload you fist have to fix the welfare system.

 


 

by Katharine Moody on September 05, 2015
Katharine Moody

I've often thought that the universal basic income proposed by Gareth Morgan in The Big Kahuna would joyfully end all aspects of the above argument. AND with no need for WINZ we could plow the cost of all that administration into positive action for vulnerable children.

by Charlie on September 06, 2015
Charlie

Katherine whilst I think the 'universal basic income' idea is lunacy (who is going to bother to do any work?) I do think we could be more creative in our welfare system - like offering a reward to 'at risk' women for taking long term contraception. Then we'd at least only have to support one generation. Call it an investment...

 

 

by Brendon Mills on September 06, 2015
Brendon Mills

Charlie -- you do realise that chopping the DPB/Sole Parent Support will see thousands of mothers and children being plunged into poverty (as in living under a bridge poverty), and will probably drag down many of those in work as well, as wages fall upon a lot of desperate people entering the workforce.

 

by Katharine Moody on September 06, 2015
Katharine Moody

Charlie, of course people will still seek work if they want more materially and socially out of life - just look at the number of superannuitants still working and/or volunteering their time if physically able. Most importantly though, raising children is work and a UBI recognises that. Additionally, it gives those who (for whatever reason) choose not to be in wage-related employment so much more choice to live their own lives the way they want, without the state breathing down their neck about cohabitation, means-testing, abatement calculations and employment seeking actions. All that administration is such a waste. Employers don't want people who don't want to work anyway - so for those who genuinely want to be not traditionally employed - leave them be!!!! Perhaps they just want to paint or read or study or grow their own veggies or raise children or visit the elderly or go for long walks with the dog. Why are we so hell bent on forcing 100% of our adult population below the age of 65 into wage-related employment? Traditional employment is a shrinking commodity in a resource constrained world. New ideas for social/societal organisation are needed.

by Peggy Klimenko on September 09, 2015
Peggy Klimenko

@ Charlie: "We now know thanks to a recent Auckland University study that 83 percent of substantiated child abuse and neglect cases concern children who appear in the benefit system before the age of two."

Been away from the computer: normal transmission has resumed... I'm aware of those stats, but my point stands: the evidence you adduce shows that CYFS' caseload isn't exhausted by the children of DPB clients.

There are serious issues of neglect, abuse and alcohol and drug addiction among, in particular, Maori in the benefit system. However, it cannot be the case that the benefit system itself, DPB or not, causes such problems. Clients bring these problems with them.

What sort of reforms would fix such problems, when the causes are multifactorial and their origins lie elsewhere in society and further back in the past? And what of the children, the innocents in all this? It's never their fault. And Brendon Mills points out above what the likely consequences would be for them.

Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.