It will be April Fool's Day when the new Ministry for Vulnerable Children gets under way.

An unfortunate coincidence that feels distinctly Freudian.

While the timing of the establishment of a new agency attempting to overcome our horrific record of child maltreatment as the Government continues to refuse to launch an inquiry into historic abuse of children in state care is certainly something of a joke, there's very little humour to be found in it.

No one likes to think of Kiwi kids being mistreated; it's an ugly thought that we'd rather not dwell on.


It is arguably even more unpopular in an election year, when a number of politicians would rather we had our minds firmly fixed upon the marvellous election promises they are dutifully cooking up for us.

But some things are too important to ignore.

Like the beleaguered ship currently known as Child, Youth and Family.

Just as slapping a new coat of paint on the hull of a boat won't fix structural damage, neither will slapping a new (and problematic) name on a ministry.

Overhauling important aspects of child protection legislation amid a storm of objections from iwi - whose children will sadly be some of the main clients of the new ministry - likely won't bode well either.

It's time that we got real about our kids, and that means taking a comprehensive and dispassionate look at where we're stuffing up.

When we're faced with statistics that show that 83 per cent of prison inmates under the age of 20 have a care and protection record with Child, Youth and Family, something has to change.

Which is why the new Ministry for Vulnerable Children would likely argue it has been set up.

I hope it achieves its goals. I would like nothing better than for the new ministry to be a resounding success, improving the lives of Kiwi kids who require the protection of the state.

A series of red flags have, however, tested my faith in this new body, and the Government that has brought it to life.

The first - besides the victimising name - is the flat refusal of the Government to call for an independent inquiry into the horrific and life-altering abuse of a large number of children taken into state care in the 20th century.

The harsh reality is that some of the perpetrators of this abuse are walking free among us, while their now-grown wards are shouldering a life sentence of suffering as a result of the actions of those who were supposed to protect them.

Where is the accountability?

Back in December, Judge Carolyn Henwood, who chaired a panel set up to listen to the stories of adults who had been abused as children in state care, told Radio New Zealand that she had "lost faith" in the way the Government was dealing with the issue of historic abuse within the state system.

"I thought that they were just trying to sweep it to one side as a minor thing, instead of the very significant thing that it is," she said.

The panel made seven recommendations, one of which was to set up a body like the Independent Police Complaints Authority, to be tasked with monitoring the department responsible for the safety of our most at-risk children.

"We haven't investigated the department itself, we haven't spoken to staff ... there's been no inquiry on the side of the thing, the ledger, so why wouldn't it happen again?" she asked.

Judge Henwood's question struck a chilling chord with me.

Indeed, why wouldn't the system fail again? Arguably it has, over and over.

Just this week two stories have hit the national headlines about the failings of Child, Youth and Family.

How will the new ministry ensure that it doesn't fall back into the same old destructive ways when there is no one there to keep watch?

And how on earth does a ministry built on legislation that intended (and may still intend) to remove crucial cultural protections for Maori tamariki propose to create better outcomes for its tangata whenua charges?

Experts have pointed to institutional racism in the state care system at least since the influential 1988 Poau-te-Ata-tu report.

Many Māori kids were made state wards for trivial things like stealing lollies.

When Maori are drastically overrepresented in our prison populations, and a correlation between incarceration and earlier state care records has been established, surely a thorough investigation into the state care system is not just warranted, but vital.

Why has a group of politicians decided that whanau or hapū placements are no longer a priority for Maori tamariki?

In 2017, it beggars belief that new child protection legislation would seek to undermine the importance of whanaungatanga.

Even if the Government backs down on the removal of protections for cultural connections, that they were willing to push such tactics in the first place is alarming.

If I were to be cynical, I would wonder whether any of this is surprising given the Government's reluctance to come up with any appropriate plan to address drivers of childhood misery such as poverty.

I would ponder whether a refusal to set up an independent authority to oversee our state care system, a refusal to launch an independent inquiry into historic abuse of children in state care, and an attempt to remove cultural protections for Maori children were merely indicative of a government that has run out of ideas when it comes to looking after little Kiwis at the bottom of the heap.

The question that I can't shake is why on earth we would trust the Ministry for Vulnerable Children to get it right this time, when as a country we haven't been brave enough to independently investigate the disastrous mistakes of the past.

When we haven't had the guts to create an independent authority to act as a clearly needed watchdog.

We have failed our kids.

It's time that we acknowledged it, and found the courage to make sure it never happens again.