Dita De Boni 's Opinion

Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni: From the front lines

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Ira* was a social worker through the 1990s, until she left the front lines because she felt burnt out, unsupported, and was sick of seeing so many abused children being returned to their wider families. Photo / Thinkstock
Ira* was a social worker through the 1990s, until she left the front lines because she felt burnt out, unsupported, and was sick of seeing so many abused children being returned to their wider families. Photo / Thinkstock

The problem, according to Ira*, is that the Children, Young Persons and their Families (CYPF) Act, 1989, had an assumption written into it that mothers and fathers don't ever set out to harm their children; and that there will always be people in the wider family who are normal and able to step into the breech when parents are found wanting.

"It's crap, to be honest" she says.

Ira, not her real name because she still works in the public system, is a distant relative of mine who got in touch with me a few days ago after reading stories and blogs concerning the horrific child abuse cases we're hearing so much about recently.

Ira was a social worker through the 1990s, until she left the front lines because she felt burnt out, unsupported, and was sick of seeing so many abused children being returned to their wider families.

She also says she had had enough of taking six-year-olds out to lunch to tell them they would not be returned to their families.

In many cases, the parents simply didn't want them.

Her recollection of cases was still fresh. Two young girls, taken from their mother and returned to their grandmother, who resurfaced to the agency after showing up at doctors' rooms covered in cigarette burns.

Three boys, just the latest victims of three generations of severe abuse of all kinds - sexual, physical and emotional. Starved and malnourished, the younger boy wet and soiled himself all day long at school while displaying all sorts of other problematic behaviour. After many notifications, teachers and school management managed to finally break through to the agency, which uplifted the kids to care.

Ira dealt with the prime abuser, the grandfather, who started out trying to charm her ("you're the best social worker we've ever had") before turning nasty, threatening violence and following her around town. He's just recently, forty years after his reign of terror began, been jailed.

Commonly, families seen by her team had no furniture in their houses - "just a blanket for the kids to share" - no books, no food. Yet they would be able to be able to avail themselves of the services of the best legal aid lawyers to deluge social workers with paperwork when their kids - aka their welfare payments - were removed.

"The Act worked very much on the assumption that families were best kept together, no matter what. There was also a very strong belief at the time - which persists - that there would be normal, sane relatives that could take the child when things got tough for a family. But time and again, this proved to be a dangerous assumption," she says.

"We spent hours and thousands and thousands of tax payer dollars at family group conferences, with reports drafted in from counsellors, psychiatrists, Maori elders, extended family members and the like. There would be so many reports, all talking about how the mother was 'working on her issues', how the aunty was 'involved with gangs but trying to turn her life around' and that kind of thing. Whoever's story was the most convincing was the one going home with the child," she says.

Being 'captured' by the sob stories of abusive families was a constant risk. It lead to the frequent heartache of seeing kids returned to their wider families and subjected to even worse abuse - and the frequency and severity of it eventually burnt out and discouraged the most idealistic social workers, says Ira.

"There was little support or backup on the front lines, the pay was minimal, and many of us worked for managers who were not properly trained."

The solution, Ira believes, is that everyone - the public and the lawmakers - need to try and put aside the emotive side of the argument and "face facts".

"People want to believe that mums and dads always 'really' have their kids best interests at heart, that mothers are 'sacred cows' than can never be found wanting," she says.

"But there are so many people who are simply 'not normal' out there, whatever the do-gooders say. We need an Act that understands that, and, moreover, puts the safety of children before the feelings of the family."

May we all put on our New Year's wish list that the Minister and other agencies do an urgent review of the CYPF Act.

Dita De Boni

Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni is a columnist, commentator and TV producer/journalist. She first wrote columns for the NZ Herald in 1995, moving to daily business news in 1999 for four years, and then to TVNZ in Business, News and Current Affairs. After tiring of the parenting/blogging beat for the Herald Online she moved back to her first love, business (with a politics chaser), writing a column for Friday Business since 2012.

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