Bennett accepts proposal may intrude on privacy, but 'for those kids, let's get intrusive'

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett Bennett has rejected criticism that the newly released White Paper on Vulnerable Children falls short because it does not address child poverty, saying "poverty is not an excuse to abuse children.''

Speaking after launching the White Paper at the Jigsaw Conference in Wellington this morning, Ms Bennett said many people lived in financial hardship who did not abuse their children.

"Poverty is not an excuse to abuse your children. This paper was always about the most complex and hardest to reach kids. They need us more than any other children in this country.''

Her comments were in response to comments by Labour's social development spokeswoman Jacinda Ardern and Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei that poverty was the most significant factor in child abuse.


Ms Bennett said she was confident that the plans set out by the paper - including a Vulnerable Kids Database of up to 30,000 children considered to be most at risk of maltreatment - would work, and results would be seen almost immediately.

The Government had put aside $20 million initially to set up the database and fund the 'risk predictor' model that would identify the children who needed to go on it, as well as set up the first two Children Teams - teams of health and social professionals who would work with vulnerable children in each region.

She said more funding would be needed, including for training professionals to identify child abuse. More funding would be provided in the Budget and resources would also be taken from areas where it was not having as much of an impact as it should. Regional children's directors would be responsible for deciding how resources should be used and where Government contracts should go.

She said the database was the most critical because it would allow all information about a child to be stored in one place - from changes of addresses to concerns raised by a GP. She said she would guarantee it would be secure.

It was inevitable that some children would be put on the database who were ultimately not at risk, but the database would not be used to "stigmatise'' them.

''... it will only be when professionals are putting information in themselves, because they're face to face, that it would activate any response. So we're certainly not going to see children stigmatised or worked with unnecessarily.''

She said it had not been done before because it was complex and involved many government agencies working together. Ms Bennett said public opinion also had to be ready for it.

"It is intrusive if you've got a group of people sitting around discussing a child. Quite frankly, parents are the best people to bring up their kids, certainly not the State and we should only be intervening when we really have to.

"I don't want to be intervening in good people's households that are getting on with it. There's always that line, and we have to be very careful we don't cross it.''

Save the Children's chief executive Liz Gibbs said the Government's White Paper for vulnerable children is a move in the right direction, but provision of support for children should be universal.

"We would like to see the Government developing a clear, child-focused, cross-party reporting framework that is a long-term approach to improve outcomes for all children,'' she said.

Ms Gibbs suggested the Government report to the UN Committee on the rights of the child every five years.

Unicef's national advocacy manager Barbara Lambourn said the Government should go further and address New Zealand's "severe and persistent poverty.''

She said the Government needed to address a lack of access to healthcare, children living in overcrowded conditions in poor housing, and children with poor nutrition.

"Poverty is a factor in neglect, poor health and lack of opportunity. The White Paper does not offer solutions to plan better outcomes for these children,'' said Ms Lambourn.

Manager of Every Child Counts, Deborah Morris-Travers, said the Government were making the right moves to improve systems and practices to respond to vulnerability, but believed changes needed to be well resourced.

"Care needs to be taken to ensure that universal services such as antenatal care and well child health are not eroded, and the agencies involved in the delivery of the Children's Action Plan have both the skills and resources needed,'' she said.

The database of about 30,000 "at risk" children is to be created and accessed by health, school and social workers without parental knowledge as part of a huge overhaul of laws tackling child cruelty.

Teachers, doctors, community organisations, Child, Youth and Family workers and others will have access to the database and be able to add to individual children's records. High-risk adults will also be added to the database so they can be tracked and an alert given if a child moves into their household.

The database - a key part of the Government's white paper on vulnerable children to be published today - will assess the chances of a child being abused and act as an early alert system.

Ms Bennett said parents would not necessarily be told if their child was on the database, although they could request records under the Privacy Act.

It is one of about 30 changes the Government is committed to after a lengthy review of the law and processes relating to vulnerable children.

The proposals stop short of introducing mandatory reporting by health workers and teachers - but do impose legislative requirements for government agencies when dealing with suspected abuse.

They also introduce measures such as protection orders to keep potential abusers away from children, and the ability to strip parents of guardianship rights.

Ms Bennett said the database was one of the most critical plans. It would allow agencies involved in a child's life to see if serious issues had been raised by others - and could act as an early alert to prevent abuse.

She accepted some people might consider it intrusive, but said it could have helped prevent deaths such as that of Rotorua toddler Nia Glassie. Ms Bennett said in some cases, various agencies had different bits of information on a child.

"But no one put the pieces together. [The database] is going to put the pieces together. So for the small risk of it being seen as being a bit intrusive, for those kids, yeah let's get intrusive."

She said efforts were being made to ensure privacy - some people, such as teachers, would be able to access only limited information on a child. The database would be monitored to see who accessed it, for how long, and which children they looked up. Misuse would be penalised.

The model was developed by the University of Auckland after assessing 52,000 children born between 2003 and 2006 whose parent or parents were on a benefit, and monitoring them for five years.

In other changes, all agencies working with children will be required to set up processes to deal with reporting abuse.

There will also be a public education campaign on recognising the signs of child abuse, and teachers and health workers will be given extra training.

A specific Vulnerable Children's Bill will be introduced to Parliament, setting up a layer of professionals to work with those vulnerable children who fall short of requiring Child, Youth and Family intervention.

A string of Children's Teams will be led by regional children's directors who will have significant powers to award contracts for services targeting children. Ms Bennett said it would also free up CYFS to work with the children most at risk.

Regional directors would have to report on outcomes such as truancy and child-abuse rates.

Other changes include a list of pre-approved iwi carers to take care of children of the same tribe who are removed from their own homes, and more money for family members such as grandparents who raise children.

Abuse forecaster

The Vulnerable Kids Information System will be developed from a "risk predictor" which can assess a child's chances of abuse before they are even born based on their home life and parental history.

It was developed by a team of ethicists, social workers and economists at Auckland University.

Associate Professor Rhema Vaithianathan said about 57,000 children were scored to see whether abuse before the age of 5 could be predicted. The results gave the researchers about 131 assessment variables, such as whether the parent was abused, the type of benefit, the partner's background, and prison history.

The plan
Database of 30,000 "at-risk" children
Who sees it Teachers, social workers, doctors and health workers
Criteria 130 risk factors, including whether they live with a known abuser
Aim To act as an early alert system to prevent abuse

What the minister says

"If you look at those high-profile cases that have gone through the coroner ... our lovely Nia Glassie, a whole lot of people held a small piece of information. No one put the pieces together. [The database] is going to put the pieces together. So for the small risk of it being seen as being a bit intrusive, for those kids, yeah let's get intrusive." - Paula Bennett

Nia Glassie

Was 3 years old when she died from head injuries in August 2007, after being kicked in the head. She had been subjected to months of abuse by her family, including being placed in a clothes dryer at top heat for up to 30 minutes and hung from a spinning clothes line. Her mother was jailed for manslaughter, her mother's partner and his brother were jailed for murder and two others were jailed for child cruelty.

Labour's social development spokeswoman Jacinda Ardern

Labour's social development spokeswoman Jacinda Ardern told Radio New Zealand the white paper was intervening at a mid-point.

"Whilst I do agree with the Minister saying what we need to do first is making sure that our front line workers ... are appropriately trained to identify abuse when it's occurring, we also need to make sure we're properly resourced to respond."

The paper omitted to acknowledge the scale of the child poverty issue.

"It's a good plan when it comes to children who are at risk of being abused or are being abused currently, but every time we've raised the terrible issue of child poverty ... the Minister has always referred to her report on vulnerable children," she said.

"We've been a world class place to bring up kids, and we can be again, but this is just not going to be enough if we are to return to that position.''

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei said the Government's Children's Action Plan and White Paper refused to deal with poverty, and neglected New Zealand's most vulnerable children.

Ms Turei said the White Paper on vulnerable children and the Children's Action Plan, released this morning offered a narrow approach to preventing child abuse.

"It beggars belief that the Government could write a plan to help vulnerable children without addressing the one thing that makes them more vulnerable than anything else.

"The White Paper was an enormous opportunity to do something big and meaningful for our most vulnerable children, to prevent them from becoming at-risk in the first place.

"But because it is allergic to helping poor parents, the Government has chosen to ignore the 270,000 children in poverty and park its ambulance at the bottom of the cliff instead."

Ms Turei said nothing in the paper relieved the stresses on families that can't afford decent food or warm, dry homes for their children.

She said children needed a Minister for Children, a Children's Act, and child impact assessments.

"Children need their parents to earn a living wage, and if their parents can't work they need benefits adequate enough to afford healthy food."