THE Children, Young Persons, and Their Families (Advocacy, Workforce, and Age Settings) Amendment Act 2016 includes provisions to allow the chief executive to devolve child protection services beyond statutory social workers.
The bill has just passed the third reading stage in Parliament and this aspect is cause for concern.
On the plus side, the legislation will extend the time a young person can remain in care to 18 years, giving continuity for young people who have already had a tough start, rather than simply cutting off that support at aged 17.
On the downside, the wording of the bill creates an opening for private companies to pick up child protection responsibilities that currently reside with the state.
The notion that corporates might be contracted to manage vulnerable children and young people flies in the face of the Vulnerable Children's Act's intentions to improve the response to abused, neglected, at-risk children and adolescents, so this opening needs to be watched closely to ensure that corporate interests do not sneak in via the back door and take up the role of the state as another way to generate profits.
The warning bells that sounded when Serco was contracted to run a public prison had been rung earlier in Britain, where this particular multinational corporate was found to have mismanaged government contracts.
Serco was found to have charged taxpayers, via its contract with the British government, for monitoring people on home detention who were no longer on the programme and, in some cases, were dead.
It was hard to understand why the New Zealand government even considered doing business with Serco when it had such a poor record; a classic example of how the corporate profit model does not serve the people it provides services to, only shareholders.
The bill, in its current form, would allow a corporate to become a major provider of care and protection services, a role carried out by registered statutory social workers.
The worry is that the government has not given any indication of what this aspect of the legislation might mean in practical terms.
Cynics could say the government does know but is keeping its agenda under wraps or actually has no idea is are stumbling about trying to find a quickie divorce for the state from its obligations.
The current child protection system is not perfect, and it does need a rethink that will ensure future generations of children taken into state care come through that experience having gained from real care, compassion and love in their lives.
It is hard to see how a corporate model could provide any of those things.
The core work is carried out by skilled (over-worked) social workers who are responsible for the wellbeing of vulnerable children on behalf of the state, represented by government ministers.
It may be a well-established political strategy to create a buffer between government by handing services to corporates so that blame can be shifted as far away from the decision-makers as possible.
That Child, Youth and Family was swept into the Ministry of Social Development is a good example of this in practice.
But politicians need to be advocates for children, not advocates for ideological policy decisions.
The mismatch between benefit policy and inequality effects on children is one example of this; the government funding vulnerable children programmes with one hand and, with the other, using benefits to punish parents with little thought to the effect on the very children they are trying to support.
**Terry Sarten is a Whanganui-based social worker, writer and musician. Feedback: email@example.com