CYFS too quick to take kids, says study

By Simon Collins

The Government's top social workers say a "culture of blame" over child abuse is driving social workers into taking children from their families to avoid any risk of being blamed if things go wrong.

Child, Youth and Family Services (CYFS) chief social worker, Dr Marie Connolly, and her predecessor Mike Doolan say "sensationalist" media coverage of high-profile child deaths is making social workers less willing to trust the families of the children referred to them.

The number of children and young people in CYFS care has risen by half this decade, from 3533 in 1999-2000 to 5191 at the end of last year, despite an actual decline in child deaths from 1.07 a year for every 100,000 children in the 1990s to 0.79 a year in the first five years of this decade.

In a new book on child homicide, Dr Connolly and Mr Doolan call for a move away from the "culture of blame" to what they call a "public health model of welfare" which targets the whole range of factors that lead people to harm children.

In a foreword, the director of the Australian Centre for Child Protection, Dorothy Scott, calls for specific moves to:

* Cut problem drinking by raising alcohol prices, restricting advertising and tightening parents' control of their children's drinking.

* Make sure health services reach all new mothers and catch post-natal depression.

* Work proactively with vulnerable men in custody disputes.

A detailed study of nine cases where CYFS was involved before children were killed found that three of the cases followed Family Court custody hearings.

In one case, a father killed his child just hours after the court ordered him to transfer custody to the mother.

In another case, a mother agreed to transfer custody to the father, but the father "reported significant management difficulties with the child" and killed her two weeks later.

Although all nine case studies involved families where the parents had split, the broader analysis of all 91 children killed in New Zealand between 1991 and 2000 found that more than half the children died at the hands of their biological parents - 30 per cent fathers and 24 per cent mothers.

Only 18 per cent were killed by step-parents and the other 28 per cent were killed by other relatives, acquaintances or strangers.

Almost two-thirds of the children killed were preschoolers and a quarter were under 1 - a fact the book attributes to "their physical vulnerability, their total dependence on adults, and their capacity to cry incessantly and drive an exhausted/enraged parent to act in ways that they normally would not".

Yet despite these cases, the book strongly endorses the current law that requires social workers to keep children within the extended family whenever possible. But in the book, Dr Connolly and Mr Doolan say that every high-profile child death review has led to tightening managerial controls over social workers which have made them less willing to risk leaving children with their families.

NZ CHILD HOMICIDES
1991-2000

WHO DIED
Boys 53 per cent
Girls 46 per cent
Unknown (unborn child) 1 per cent
0-1 year old 26 per cent
1-4 years old 37 per cent
5-10 years old 19 per cent
11-14 years old 18 per cent
Maori 52 per cent
Pakeha 39 per cent
Asian 4 per cent
Samoan 3 per cent
Unknown 2 per cent

HOW THEY DIED
Battered 47 per cent
Stabbed/knifed 20 per cent
Strangled/suffocated 19 per cent
Poisoned 5 per cent
Drowned 3 per cent
Shot 2 per cent
Neglected 2 per cent
Unknown 1 per cent

WHO KILLED THEM
Men 66 per cent
Women 34 per cent
Biological fathers 30 per cent
Biological mothers 24 per cent
De facto step-parents 18 per cent
Other relatives 9 per cent
Neighbours/acquaintances 6 per cent
Non-family caregivers 2 per cent
Boarders 1 per cent
Strangers 6 per cent
Unknown 4 per cent

Source: Connolly & Doolan, Lives Cut Short.

* Lives Cut Short, by Marie Connolly and Mike Doolan, Dunmore Publishing for the Children's Commissioner, $24.95.

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