Holly Walker

Govt asking the wrong questions on child abuse

by Holly Walker

The Dominion Post leads today with a story about “keeping kiwi kids safe”, especially those who are born into families from which previous children have been removed because of abuse.

The story was prompted by the release of two studies by the Families Commission on the risks to subsequent children in such families. The Commission makes a number of suggestions: improved information sharing between agencies, improved reporting processes, consideration of mandatory reporting, complementary interventions rather than single focus programmes, culturally appropriate services, and long-term more intensive follow-up.

The release of these studies comes while Social Development Minister Paula Bennett is in the middle of an intensive road trip consulting on her Green Paper for Vulnerable Children. She was in my town, Lower Hutt, last night, and in Whangarei earlier this week while I was there. From local reports, it sounds like the consultation process has been somewhat fraught, with locals in Whangarei frustrated that the Minister wasn’t open to hearing from people directly, insisting instead that they “put it in a submission“. Nevertheless I applaud the proactive way that the Government has approached the task of consulting on the Green Paper – they’ve really gone all out with meetings, websites, social media, and NGO engagement. Submissions close on 28 February and I do encourage you to make one.

The problem is I think they might be asking the wrong questions. The Green Paper makes similar recommendations to those of the Families Commission today, with a focus on mandatory reporting and prioritising social services for young children and families over older children and individuals.

There is no doubt that there is much that can be done to improve Child Youth and Families processes, better integrate services between Government agencies, improve information-sharing, and “wrap around support” (a current buzzword) for families at risk, to reduce the horrific rate of child abuse in New Zealand. To the extent that the Green Paper can achieve this, I applaud it.

However, I remain concerned both with the more controversial recommendations like mandatory reporting. As Metiria pointed out when the Green Paper was released in July last year, there is a very real risk that mandatory reporting of child abuse will be counter-productive, because it can frighten vulnerable families from access the support that is available to them. There is a huge stigma attached to having CYFS involved with your family which would only be intensified by mandatory reporting. In acute cases there are already very good best practice reporting guidelines for health professionals and social workers.

More fundamentally, I’m concerned that the Green Paper’s jurisdiction doesn’t extend to the underlying causes of abuse and neglect, namely poverty and inequality. The Northern Advocate called Paula Bennett’s consultation tour a “poverty roadshow“, but sadly, it is anything but. The submission template asks for opinions about prioritising services, monitoring families, sharing personal information, connecting families to services, and encouraging communities to take responsibility for child abuse, but nothing about poverty and how the  Government should address it. I’ve heard from those who were at the Lower Hutt meeting last night that the cost of living and inequality were are major theme of responses from the audience, but that the Minister’s focus was very much on reporting and information-sharing.

We know that financial stresses are a major contributor to child abuse and neglect. Beyond physical abuse itself, family financial hardship often exposes children to adult stresses that are detrimental to their wellbeing. This is a phenomenon I discussed with the team at 155 Whare in Whangarei on Monday, and one which is very real for children. When Metiria interviewed children at a Decile 1 school in Dunedin to produce our podcast of kids talking about poverty last year, they talked about loan sharks, credit cards, interest rates, and their parents “doing silly stuff” when financial stresses got too much. These are adult concepts and stresses that children simply shouldn’t be exposed to.

They also talked about going without shoes, parents going without meals to make sure their kids had enough to eat, living in cold damp homes that made them sick, and the unfairness of tax cuts that only worked out for the wealthy (yes really, with no prompting!).

Until we address child poverty and inequality, we can’t hope to make serious inroads on the child abuse issue.