'Tough' talk needed over child abuse

By Hayden Donnell, NZPA

Minister of Social Development and Employment Paula Bennett. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Minister of Social Development and Employment Paula Bennett. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Child welfare advocates have called for "tough conversations" on the contents of a long-awaited paper on reducing New Zealand's shocking child abuse rate.

The 'Green Paper on Vulnerable Children', launched in Auckland's Aotea Square at 1pm today, proposed giving families with vulnerable children priority access to state services and redirecting funding for older children toward young abuse victims.

It is a response to New Zealand's dire child abuse statistics, which show two children are physically, sexually or emotionally abused every hour and 1286 children are admitted to hospital because of assault, neglect or maltreatment every year.

Child, Youth and Family confirmed 21,000 cases of abuse and neglect in 2009/10 and statistics show young children who are in contact with CYF are five times more likely to have a criminal record by age 20.

Children's Commissioner Russell Wills said the paper showed the time had come for New Zealanders to have tough conversations about how to improve children's lives.

"It is easy to say children are taonga and we'd do anything for them - but we need to talk about what we're prepared to sacrifice and change to make the lives of vulnerable children better.

"The Green Paper is an opportunity to make changes for those children who are failing, hurting or missing out."

Dr Wills said many New Zealand children grow up in an environment filled with poverty, addiction, abuse or neglect.

Those children became ill, develop behavioural problems, failed at school while were not having their most basic needs met, he said.

"Our children deserve better than this. But unless we change what we're doing these children will do badly. They will fill our prisons and mental health units and will not get jobs. And they'll go on to parent their own kids poorly.

"If we really want these kids to do well we need to talk about what we're prepared to give up to ensure their needs are met."

Plunket chief executive Jenny Prince said she was pleased to see the Green Paper focusing on the welfare of children aged five and under.

She said it was a chance to discuss what New Zealand can do to improve life for its most vulnerable residents.

"Evidence tells us there are no quick fixes... We need to concentrate effort on ensuring that families have the support they need to safely care for and raise New Zealand's future generations.

The New Zealand Medical Association (NZMA) also welcomed the paper.

Its deputy chair Mark Peterson encouraged doctors to take a leading role in the consultation on it at a national level and within their communities.

"How we care for our children and whether they have the opportunity to thrive and achieve is a key indicator of whether we live in a fair and just society," Mr Peterson said.

"A child's exposure to stress, emotional neglect, violence and even environmental uncertainty has a profound influence on the incidence of disease and mental illness later in life."

However, the Green Party said the paper's proposals would not address the root causes of child abuse.

Its co-leader Metiria Turei proposals to shift funding away from older children and individuals and implement mandatory reporting of suspected abuse would not work to reduce child abuse.

"Until we adequately address poverty and deprivation, we won't get far in stopping abuse and neglect."

Green Paper proposals

The paper proposed mandatory information sharing on cases of suspected abuse between schools, doctors and police, in a move earlier signalled by Social Development Minister Paula Bennett.

Under current legislation, frontline workers are often unable to share information on vulnerable children without family permission.

It also calls for funding to be targeted towards stopping abuse while children are young, when their "problems are just beginning to surface".

That may mean reducing investment in older or less vulnerable children and scrapping programs people "like or passionately support", it said.

Families with vulnerable children could be prioritised for state services such as housing and the preference to send children removed from their homes to relatives could be questioned, the paper said.

Ms Bennett said while the report was "unquestionably controversial", it was needed to reduce New Zealand's shocking child abuse statistics.

A discussion on how to stop child abuse was the "single most important debate this country can have", she said.

"It has to stop. We have to make a concerted effort to protect children from the lifetime of harm abuse can cause."

Prime Minister John Key said hundreds of millions of dollars in investment across multiple sectors had failed to tackle New Zealand's child abuse problem.

"Despite decades of good intentions from Government, we're still failing too many of our kids."

"We will all need to work hard across a number of fronts and develop new, integrated solutions to improve outcomes for young people. I don't believe there are any quick fixes here."

The Green Paper proposed introducing changes within the framework of a Vulnerable Children's Action Plan outlining common goals and policies for reducing child abuse.

It said legislation requiring Government ministers to report progress on action plan goals could be introduced.

State sector chief executives' performance evaluations could be tied to their progress on addressing the needs of vulnerable children under action plan goals, it said.

Proposals raised in the report:

* Priority treatment for parents to access a range of services;

* mandatory reporting of abuse including for doctors, teachers and nurses;

* reconsideration of the preference to send children removed from their homes to relatives; and

* better sharing of information even when there were privacy issues.

Shocking statistics:

* Child, Youth and Family confirmed 21,000 cases of abuse and neglect in 2009/10;

* more than 30,000 students were truant from schools on any given day;

* 7342 school leavers left with no qualification in 2009;

* 13,315 avoidable hospital admissions in 2008/09 were for children under five, and 1286 admissions for all children were as a result of assault, neglect or maltreatment.

* 47,374 children (aged 0-16) lived with a victim of family violence incidents reported to police in 2010.

* Research showed at any one time 15 per cent of children (or 163,000 children aged under 18 years) needed support and intervention.

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