The shortcomings at Child, Youth and Family identified by Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills were predictable enough. They reflect an agency that hasn't coped with a significant switch in societal attitudes to child abuse due, in major part, to under-resourcing. That, however, does not make the statistics featured in Dr Wills' first annual report on the agency any less damning. A situation in which 117 children were abused last year while in the agency's care and in which children are moved up to 60 times between multiple foster carers is utterly shameful. A meaningful government response cannot be delayed.
Dr Wills found Child, Youth and Family was focused on "front-end" investigations as it struggled with 150,000 notifications of possible child abuse or neglect each year. As a consequence, it did not provide enough ongoing supervision and support to foster carers and staff looking after the 5133 children in state care. Thus, while the quality of front-end social work practice was generally high, that was far from the case with services the agency provides to children following initial assessments and investigations.
It's not difficult to understand Child, Youth and Family's focus. People have sat up and taken notice of the country's wretched child abuse statistics. No longer are they turning a blind eye. A sharp rise in notifications of suspected abuse is the consequence. The agency, for its part, has become more proactive, even attracting criticism for early interventions in some instances. This appears unfounded, given tackling matters at the first opportunity, along with parent support services, seems the most likely solution to child abuse.
The focus has served the purpose of removing children from harmful surroundings. But too many have not found the safe and nurturing environment they require. Child, Youth and Family has, says Dr Wills, lost sight of what children need while in care and what they need to receive to ensure they thrive once they have left. The outcome is disaffected and aggressive children. Thirty per cent of the children in care aged 14 to 16 were charged with offences last year, compared with 1 per cent nationally.
Unsurprisingly, Dr Wills suggests more resources should be put into ongoing care and boosting staff training. He also wants outcome targets, an independent advocacy service for children in care, and the prioritising of Maori cultural capability and iwi links. To address these recommendations, the Government must commit to spending more money to improve the lives of those children in care. Child, Youth and Family has to be able to attend to all aspects of its job, rather than one area to the detriment of others.
The Government seems to accept this. Social Development Minister Anne Tolley says she's fine with all the commissioner's recommendations. They should, she says, help inform a new operating model for the agency being drawn up by a panel led by economist Paula Rebstock. "I'm expecting the new system will require extra resources." Dr Wills' report confirms they can't come quickly enough - and that, after 14 reviews, enough is enough.