I often feel sorry for my social work colleagues in statutory care and protection roles.
If children are removed, Child, Youth and Family are criticised; if they leave an at-risk child with their family, they are criticised. This no-win situation defines the difficulties of protecting the most vulnerable in society - decisions have to be made with the safety of the child in mind, and this is not an easy task.
Some years ago a cartoon appeared in the newspaper after a child died as a result of violence. It had a sequence of images, beginning with a crowd, a community, then dwindled back to neighbourhood, family and finally just two people - a police officer and a social worker who carried the burden of responsibility for what had happened.
With that image in mind, I have been reading the recently-released report on proposals to reform CYF called Investing in NZ Children and Their Families.
At the same time, I was reading an article called Baby Doe in the February 1 edition of the New Yorker by Jill Lepare. It focused on how violent child deaths and the recurring pattern of crisis, knee-jerk political response, and failure of resources to meet needs constantly recycles itself in the United States. Aspects of this pattern chime and resonate in our own national parliamentary echo chamber.
We see the media reports of a death or serious injury of a child at the hands of those charged with care, and we react. Our politicians pronounce that things must be done; laws and policy are produced to reinforce the obligations of agencies and families; and funding may be shifted about, often made contestable in the fiscal equivalent of a lolly scrabble, pitching providers against each other rather than in partnerships. This all passes as action until the next child dies as a result of violence and the cycle repeats.
The CYF report proposes a range of changes.
Extending the age for engagement with CYF and raising the age for youth justice intervention are solid steps. The emphasis on the core function of being child-centred has merit but is dependent on political commitment. It may bring a shift in the focus or may prove to be simply a smokescreen to hide the fact that unless wider issues are also addressed, effective change may remain elusive.
The report makes no mention of the well-researched evidence of the power of social determinants in children's lives. These create environments that can either support or diminish options.
The report does not mention disadvantage or inequity, nor does it refer to the impact of government social policy on children.
The report does, between the lines of plans and strategies, reflect a National Party approach based on individual responsibility for social outcomes that conveniently ignores the bigger influence of social determinants, such as poor housing, lack of real jobs that pay a living wage that can support families and their children's education, health, social belonging and wellbeing.
(In fairness, National are not alone - none of our current political parties do any real effective lobbying for child and youth issues).
Many of those who come to the attention of state agencies already have the odds heavily stacked against them by violent and abusive childhoods, and it requires incredible resilience to rise above such circumstances.
It is important to acknowledge that there are children and young people who do find their way out of such circumstances but it is critical that we keep in sight those for whom it becomes a lifetime of struggle and a critical eye on the political process that should be acting in the best interests of children.
-Terry Sarten is a social worker, writer and musician who will continue to harp on about the welfare of children - feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org