Barbara Staniforth: 'Vulnerable' label harmful step for child service

The renaming of CYF creates further disadvantage through calling children "vulnerable". Photo / iStock
The renaming of CYF creates further disadvantage through calling children "vulnerable". Photo / iStock

• Dr Barbara Staniforth is the director of social work (qualifying programmes) in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at The University of Auckland

Jaws are dropping all over the education and social services sectors at the news the Government plans to retire Child Youth and Family (CYF) in April of next year and bring in the "Ministry for Vulnerable Children".

At a time where the sector waits in fear that child protective and residential services may be farmed out to profit-driven corporations, and educational achievement gaps continue to grow for Maori children, this news is upsetting.

While there is cynicism that a name change will cost much taxpayer money and accomplish little else, the change is disturbing on a number of other fronts.

The proposed changes to CYF herald a move towards a "child rescue"-type philosophy with the predominant belief that children should be removed from "bad" families and relocated into "good" ones.

This moves away from a family-focused intervention that recognises that children are usually best kept connected to their whanau and communities with extra resources and supports put in place.

This philosophy presents a simplistic neo-liberal view about the causes of abuse and doesn't recognise the systemic, social and economic forces that contribute to stress and difficulties for families. It also remains unclear where these "good" families are going to come from.

The Children, Young Persons and their Families Act was brought into effect in 1989, and was lauded worldwide for its forward-thinking, restorative approach to child protection and youth justice.

While it has not been the panacea to fix child welfare concerns, many social workers believe that where it has failed has often been due to a lack of government commitment to adequate financial support.

The renaming of CYF not only removes the focus from the important family/whanau systems that support our youth, but creates further disadvantage through calling children "vulnerable".

In 1963, American sociologist Howard Becker came up with the concept of labelling theory. This theory essentially says that people grow to demonstrate the behaviours and identities that reflect what they have been called. What could be more disempowering than to be told that you are vulnerable from the start? People can also be treated differently based on the labels they are given and stigma and discrimination is often the result.

Teachers and social workers who work in challenging environments that are deprived of resources and support services are often overwhelmed by what they see in the children they work with.

More often than not, this feeling has to do with the resilience, determination and creativity these children demonstrate. There are many adults who have grown up in poverty and endured abuse who have made important contributions to Aotearoa.

They may not have done so however, had they been told just how "vulnerable" they were. While we would never wish a child to grow up under duress, not recognising and nurturing the skills and strengths that can develop in these situations can further victimise.

If we do have to name this "new" ministry, one that builds on strengths, provides hope, and recognises resiliency must surely be a better choice.

- NZ Herald

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