Key Points:

, Ian Hassall (himself a former Children's Commissioner) argues that merging it with the Families Commission will not work, given that the "expectations" of various groups, including children and families, "are sometimes in competition with one another". Families in competition with children?

Indeed, when we emphasise children as a separate group from families, with competing interests, it's easy to see why people think a joint commission won't work.

The concern, though, is that if we misunderstand the relationship of children as part of a family then the way we tackle issues around children's welfare will be limited. It is emphasising children as a part of a family that makes discussion about families' responsibilities for children's welfare meaningful.


Many of the most significant issues New Zealand is facing affect children especially - child abuse, poverty, low educational achievement, youth offending. What do we know about the best ways of tackling these issues? As a starting point we know that none of these situations happen in a vacuum, a web of family relationships forms the context of a child's life. Sometimes these relationships are working and other times they're not. And unfashionable as it may be to say it, this context matters.

We are not alone in the problems we face. When we look at the state of the Western world that much is obvious. Stories like Nia Glassie's echo through the Western press. When so many vulnerable people suffer, something isn't working. Philosophically our societies have been permeated by an individualism which has destroyed our focus on relationships and our sense of duty towards each other. The impact on child welfare has been immense.

How many couples now stay together for the sake of the children? How many families deliberately choose jobs which may have lower remuneration and less responsibility so they can have more spare time to invest in their neighbourhoods or volunteer at the local school? And where is the encouragement to make these kinds of decisions?

Divorce might seem like a decision that primarily affects the parents, but actually such an adult decision affects children in a direct way, relationally as well as financially. Once a family breaks up, financial pressures mount as income is now split across two households. Even time is at a premium - it is much harder to invest in a child's educational needs with half the adult presence in a house.

We all know of children who have coped in spite of horrific odds. They have fought the statistics, made staggeringly wise choices in the face of adversity and turned out fine. But for many the odds are just too great. We know that if a child lives with their two biological parents they are substantially less likely to be abused than if they live in a house where their mum has a string of successive boyfriends.

If we have ever needed organisations and agencies to stand up in our culture and say that we need to do better for our children, it is now. Many community organisations are taking a more holistic approach, displaying a more rounded view of children and these issues, rather than an atomistic and simplified one. If we want our government agencies to support them in their endeavours it makes sense for these agencies to be coming from a similar perspective, a perspective which a merged commission would help facilitate.

Child welfare is a complex area - poverty, stress, family breakdown, low educational achievement, family violence, alcohol and drug dependency, mental health issues - in situations where these factors compound, it's meaningless to talk about child welfare without recognising that we have to help the family.

It's unfortunate that we ended up with two separate commissions; perhaps it was an accident of history or perhaps ideological. Either way their interests should be the same. There isn't a single issue central to a child's welfare which doesn't require us to recognise that the child exists within the context of a family and that the web of relationships which surrounds them is critical. If we want to effectively tackle the many issues we face with regard to children's welfare then we cannot afford to ignore the need to have an agency that takes a holistic approach.


* Ruth Porter is communications manager at the Maxim Institute, an independent research and public policy think tank.