Editorial: Action to help at-risk kids needs urgency

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

Releasing a Green Paper for Vulnerable Children, Paula Bennett talked of "the single most important debate this country can have".

Given New Zealand's appalling child abuse statistics, she has a point. Unfortunately, however, the contents of the document come nowhere near to matching the Social Development Minister's rhetoric. Supposedly controversial ideas smack of the obvious, and the Government's planned path involves a process that belies the urgency of the problem.

The green paper purportedly marks the start of seven months of public consultation, which will be the forerunner to a Children's Action Plan. However consultation has already occurred with groups expert in the care of children. Why the need for a second, lengthy process? Once that ends legislation implementing change will be needed. It is unlikely that this time next year anything will have changed.

That pedestrian pace might be acceptable if the Government was traversing new territory or if its initiatives broke fresh ground. Neither is the case. For well over a decade, successive Governments have examined how to protect the country's most vulnerable children. During that time, virtually all the ideas in the paper have been thrashed around. The only surprise is that they have yet to be implemented.

Take the core idea that funding should be targeted towards stopping abuse when children are young, when their "problems are just beginning to surface". Early intervention, with effective parent support, has been acknowledged for many years as the most likely solution for child abuse and an array of other social ills, including crime prevention.

The paper, however, seems keen to add a layer of complexity to all this. It suggests, for example, that some people will be miffed by families with vulnerable children being prioritised for state services, such as housing. If so, they are presumably irked by the whole concept of directing money where it is most needed and most cost-effective.

It is also noted that targeting those children in greatest need would mean reduced spending on others. Some well-liked or passionately supported programmes for vulnerable teenagers will have to be sacrificed in the concentration on early intervention.

Clearly, the Government has no intention of increasing funding in this area. But the distinctions between children "at risk" and "at extreme risk" are surely too blurred to impose hard and fast funding cuts. It is unclear how a spending trade-off for children and youngsters' welfare tallies with the green paper's talk of this "most important" issue.

Another relatively straightforward matter gains an undue prominence when the paper questions the preference for sending children removed from their homes to relatives, rather than placing them in foster care. There is no real issue here.

The only thing that matters is what is best for the child in terms of a safe and nurturing environment. In each case, that can be left to the professional judgment of experienced Child, Youth and Family staff.

Nor need there be any great debate on mandatory information sharing on suspected abuse between schools, doctors and the police. Currently, frontline workers are often unable to share information without family permission. That must stop.

The green paper amounts to little more than a reaffirmation of principles that are widely considered to represent the most likely solution to child abuse. Community involvement, another major leg, is already playing its part.

Notifications of suspected abuse or neglect to Child, Youth and Family more than doubled between 2004 and 2010. People are no longer prepared to turn a blind eye or absolve themselves from blame. It is time the Government showed the same sense of urgency and a commitment to spend money to improve children's lives.

- NZ Herald

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