THERE is a growing call for young people in state care to be kept on the books beyond 17 years of age, with some suggesting this be extended to their 25th birthday.

Youth Justice, Child, Youth & Family and health services and education are all geared to specific child/adolescent discharge ages for transition to adult services, but these do not align and create contradictions in continuity of care.

There is general cohesion around the notion that age 14 marks a milestone - a shift from child to young person - but once past 17 years the fragmentation into diverse adult categories begins.

For most young people this is another step in life but for those in vulnerable circumstances, this change can cut them loose from engagement with structures that have supported them - they exit from state care, can be tried in the district court and go to adult prison.


Chronological ages as markers for service discharge are only lines on the map of development stages. Young people who have grown up caught in dysfunctional crossfire may look their age but not necessarily their developmental life stage.

An adolescent who has experienced trauma, witnessed family violence and abuse at a young age may be 17 in years but still responding to these events as a struggling 13-year-old. Working with them to build confidence and future-proof them with resilience is not fixed to an age but to the ethos that, with support, a life trajectory can be renegotiated.

The partitioning of government ministries is outdated and needs to change. The ministries of education, health, justice and social development all have a stake in improving outcomes for vulnerable young people but seem unable to work beyond the boundaries of their respective portfolios.

I heard Guyon Espiner quiz Social Development Minister Anne Tolley on National Radio about the Office for the Children's Commissioner report on children in state care.

Guyon's tone was a combination of anger and puzzlement that so little had changed over what has been a long time in government. It was good to hear his well-tempered anger and I must admit I shouted at the radio, cheering him on. The minister could not hear me but I hope she can hear the voices of the young people that the system has failed to support.

One recommendation in the State of Care 2015 report is to "raise the maximum age to remain in the care of the state to at least 18, alongside a more comprehensive support package for all care leavers".

Russell Wills, the Children's Commissioner, said: "We acknowledge that the responsibility for improving outcomes for these children lies not only with CYF.

"When children are in the care of the state, all state agencies need to be responsive to their needs and accountable for their outcomes. That is why we recommend greater collaboration and accountability across government agencies to improve the outcomes of children in care."


The recent establishment of regional Children's Teams was clearly motivated by the politics of being seen to be doing something and an attempt to ensure more joined-up work around vulnerable children.

This approach is achieving good buy-in from families but the Children's Teams mandate overlaps with a range of existing funded programmes such as Strengthening Families, Family Group Conferencing, Whanau Ora, High and Complex Needs, Life to the Max and other wrap-round services and is too reliant on work being picked up by already under-resourced service providers and NGOs.

If it can bring the various ministries into a more comprehensive, aligned approach to improving outcomes for our most vulnerable youth, it will be a welcome sign that they have heard the kids.

- Terry Sarten is a writer, musician and social worker (NZSWRB) - feedback: