Special report: Sweeping changes are afoot in our systems to prevent violence and neglect of children. Simon Collins reports.

Fixing child abuse and neglect is all about building relationships with families in need, social workers say.

It requires respect and time and an ability to connect through a common culture. And that is likely to require far more fluid ways of working than the fixed roles and rigid time limits that have been part of the culture of Child, Youth and Family (CYF).

An expert panel led by economist Paula Rebstock that reported to Social Development Minister Anne Tolley this month is expected to lead to sweeping changes requiring CYF to work collaboratively with other agencies rather than deciding on the fate of families by itself.

A succession of inquiries into CYF has found collaboration has been sacrificed to deadlines. Repeated reviews of the worst cases, such as the 13-year-old boy who killed Henderson dairy owner Arun Kumar featured in the Weekend Herald, have found children fall through the cracks.

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Grant Wilson, a social worker for West Auckland's Te Whanau o Waipareira who worked with the boy's drug-addicted family, says CYF can't hope to build a trusting relationship with such a family under current rules. Last year the average CYF worker looked after 14 families and saw them for a total of only 13 per cent of their paid hours each week.

"My method is to build a substantial relationship with those people," Mr Wilson says. "Having a shared experience is a really important thing when you're trying to build a relationship with someone who's been in prison, who thinks their life is more ratshit than anyone else's."

Mr Wilson, who has been in prison and tried to stop his brother committing suicide, tells them: "Did you watch your brother shoot himself? Ah, no. Then take that [resentment] out of the relationship!"

He teaches students that when they go into a home they must first greet the eldest male, even if he is the suspected abuser, with a respectful, "Kia ora, my name is ..."

"Then you go to the oldest lady: 'Kia ora, aunty.' Then go to the children. Then you look for the shittiest seat there is. If you sit in the big armchair with the two remotes, which is obviously the old man's chair, where's he going to sit? You can guarantee he'll never let you back in."

Over several visits, he builds trust to the point where he can raise the hard issues. He might say: "Are you happy your child is turning into a drug addict, not going to school, being called dumb at school, being bullied?"

"They will say no, and I will say, 'What are you prepared to do about it?' They will say, 'What do you want me to do, Grant?'"

Katie Murray of Kaitaia-based youth agency Waitomo Papakainga says that as 58 per cent of children in state care are Maori, CYF must work with agencies like hers.

Dr Charles Waldegrave of Lower Hutt's Family Centre suggests moving from the English model of taking children into care and learning from the European
Dr Charles Waldegrave of Lower Hutt's Family Centre suggests moving from the English model of taking children into care and learning from the European "family services" model. Photo / NZME.

"You cannot be sending non-Maori into our hard Maori homes," she says. "But I can send any of my crew in there and it doesn't matter which gang it is, they all know us in town."

The Maori Women's Welfare League has told the Rebstock panel CYF needs to share investigation and decision-making with community groups, hand over running family group conferences to community leaders, hold the conferences on marae instead of in CYF offices, place children with extended whanau, and work with their parents so the children can return if possible.

"[We] need to develop a culture within CYF that they are there to help, not to prosecute," it says.

Dr Charles Waldegrave of Lower Hutt's Family Centre suggests moving from the English "child rescue" model of taking children into care, and learning from the European "family services" model which moves whole families into homes where they are supported to work on their issues.

Dr Nicola Atwool of Otago University says the Europeans take fewer children into state care - just one in 1000 in the Netherlands compared with five in 1000 in New Zealand, Australia and Britain.

She points to a live-in service for sole mothers and their children at the Anglican Trust for Women and Children in Otahuhu as a local example. "But it's not the whole family. I think the whole family has significant advantages," she says.

From tomorrow teachers, doctors and other professionals in Hamilton will be able to pass concerns about children to an independent Vulnerable Children's Hub, which can refer on to agencies such as the city's new children's team. If this proves better than notifying CYF in helping needy families early, it will be opened to the public and rolled out nationally.

There are risks in these changes. The Rebstock panel's terms of reference suggest focusing CYF on its "core role" of protecting children in immediate danger and "outsourcing some services". But if CYF concentrates solely on hard-end "rescue" work, even fewer families will open their doors to it.

"Our goal should be to work with families so they never get to that point," Dr Atwool says. "I'd beef up funding to Plunket and Tamariki Ora [Maori child health services] and think about other communities such as the Asian community. It needs to be the right people at the door. Make sure CYF is adequately funded for the hard-end work, but put much more into the front end."

Dedicated team puts families on right track

Whangarei Children's Team director Lianne Egli can see that her team is making a difference when families come into her shopfront office in Cameron St.

Lianne Egli of Whangarei Children's Team says they can see they difference they are making. Photo / NZME
Lianne Egli of Whangarei Children's Team says they can see they difference they are making. Photo / NZME

"We see parents who used to walk in with hoodies down and sunglasses, walk in [now] with their heads held high," she says.

"When you see a mum say to you that for the first time -- and this is with her ninth child -- she has been sober enough to hear her 6-year-old child read to her at night, then you kind of know that's making a difference."

Her team, the country's second of its kind, started in October 2013. It aims to help families with "multiple and interrelated needs" but who don't need immediate legal action.

Most of the 150 families accepted so far have family violence and addiction issues; many also have mental health, truanting or other behavioural problems, or their children have been caught offending.

A multi-agency panel meets weekly to consider each referral and choose the best "lead professional" to work with a new family. These professionals are mostly social workers or counsellors from non-government organisations (NGOs) such as Ngapuhi Social Services, Ngati Hine Health Trust, Te Ora Hou youth service, Barnardos, CCS Disability Action, Jigsaw North family services and Miriam Centre counsellors.

These agencies get no extra funding to take referrals and the team works within its funding constraints.

"We have over the last few months had a very controlled intake because we haven't had a lot of capacity," Ms Egli says. "However we have now freed up because some of the NGOs have managed to free up capacity for us."

The core team at 93 Cameron St comprises Ms Egli and two other paid staff plus a psychologist from the district health board and four "service brokers" from health, education, justice and social services.

The team works with each family to develop a plan.

"The top-of-mind things are the things we need to sort straight away -- is there food on the table, a roof over their heads, are the children engaged in education?" Ms Egli says. "Hopefully we start to work with the children and families to build trust and start to get to their underlying issues."

About 70 families have "graduated" so far, leaving 80 still working with the team. But Ms Egli says there is no time limit.

"We do whatever it takes for as long as it takes. It's about not giving up."

Whangarei numbers

200 families referred

150accepted

84 per cent with family violence issues

66 per cent with alcohol/drug issues

Over 70 per cent Maori

Find out more:

To read Jared Savage's account of Arun Kumar's 13-year-old killer click here.