Richard Wood: Saving lives beats saving money

Govt’s focus has been on cutting costs rather than reducing childhood misery.
Recent Government attention to the issue of child abuse has ignored the importance of supporting parents. Picture / Getty Images
Recent Government attention to the issue of child abuse has ignored the importance of supporting parents. Picture / Getty Images

The Herald recently ran an article on child abuse and invited comments on what needs to happen to stop it.

A range of initiatives could be taken that would have a major impact on the level of abuse. But their success relies on a commitment by the Government to strategies that are as much about prevention as they are on action after the event, and a serious investment in both.

Successive governments have been reorganising Child Youth and Family (CYF) for decades and the public servants responsible for implementing those reorganisations have included some of New Zealand's finest.

The problem lies not with those entrusted with running CYF but those responsible for resourcing it.

It is impossible to operate effectively in the face of mounting demand for services (in one of the toughest frontline jobs in NZ), with inadequate funding.

I have some hope, given the people on the latest CYF review panel, that whatever agency is put in place may actually be better than those that have gone before it. But if it is going to meet its full statutory obligations and provide adequate support and protection to children, it will need to be properly resourced.

Unfortunately, I have little confidence this will happen because in recent years the Government's focus on CYF has been on reducing expenditure, not on protecting vulnerable children or their families.

The White Paper on Children was to be the template for making a difference for vulnerable children, but even before it was published we were told (in the Green Paper) that more than enough money was already spent in this area.

All the recent innovations, including Children's Teams, is about wanting to push the client demand on CYF out to non-government organisations and communities, with minimum compensation.

I wrote last year to Justice Minister Amy Adams congratulating her on new measures she was taking to address family violence, but noting that reactive responses take us only so far and that we need more preventative action.

I was told this lay in the Social Development portfolio and that the minster was carrying out a review of Government-funded programmes; evidence again that the focus is not on making a difference, but on reducing expenditure.

It should be no surprise that the number of deaths of children examined by the Family Violence Death Review Committee has not changed in the past 10 years.

The school environment offers an opportunity to influence the next generation of adults and parents about relationships and parenting that the most vulnerable children (including those most likely to go on and abuse others) will not pick up at home from their own parents.

Establishing or changing the attitudes of those young people needs to be supported by consistent and constant curriculum programmes throughout the school years, for children aged from 5 to 17, about respect, empathy and relationships. Programmes on parenting should be added for teenagers. (It is instructive to note that the Government recently stopped funding a pilot scheme on empathy aimed at primary school children and strongly supported by participating school principals).

NZ's Road Safety campaign has been operating for, I believe, at least 20 years, and has had a significant impact on reducing deaths on the road. It has proved the effectiveness of an initiative that all political parties are committed to, to the extent that funding and support has been maintained across the years.

Parent support is also important. Recent Government attention to the issue of child abuse has ignored the importance of supporting parents, particularly new parents. At the time the results of the Government's White Paper on Children was announced we were informed that CYF's focus was to be primarily on the most vulnerable children and those were children with bad parents.

Good parenting is critical to whether a child thrives. There are few parents who don't want the best for their children. But some parents, families and whanau struggle, for a variety of reasons.

You can't protect children effectively unless you support their parents where they need it. Effective, universal support programmes are needed.

And it is important to recognise that the community, in its different guises, can be a powerful influencer in reinforcing positive family values, including through community agencies, sports clubs, churches, service clubs, medical centres, community networks and even local authorities.

Community action on family violence and child abuse is ongoing in many communities. But it is discouraging for participants to know they are operating in a vacuum created by apparent disinterest by a Government more focused on saving money than reducing childhood misery.

The Government needs to understand that ensuring tougher judicial processes are put in place, and offenders locked up for longer means absolutely nothing to the child who has died, or the child who has had their mental state negatively and irrevocably affected.

Richard Wood is a retired deputy chief executive in the Ministry of Social Development who was responsible for family and community services.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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