Her answers revealed that 71 children were abused while in care during that year. Unbelievably, 30 of these children were actually abused by their CYFS approved caregiver; a further 41 were abused by a third party while in the protection of a CYFS approved caregiver.
These are shocking figures, and made worse by the fact that we only know about them because they were manually collated (over 7 weeks!) from individual CYFS sites. CYFS keeps no national data on the numbers of children and young people abused while in its care. They only reason we know how many were abused in 2010-11 is because the Minister asked for this manual review. The Ministry of Social Development has no big picture idea of how many children have been abused in CYFS care.
These revelations raise serious questions about both the CYFS carer vetting process and the support available to children in care in New Zealand. This is especially so given recent government signals that they may be intending to increase the number of children in state care as part of the Green/White Paper process for Vulnerable Children.
Children in care are some of our most vulnerable citizens and we need to ensure the proper supports are in place for what is almost always an extremely traumatic time in young people’s lives. Children and young people placed in care often report feeling isolated and disempowered. This vulnerability has the potential to make them targets for abuse.
Furthermore, their feeling of isolation could well lead to situations where abuse is not reported. For each of those 71 children, there may be more who did not report what had happened to them. Given what we know about the holes in the system this may well be the case.
In this context then I was pleased to hear about a campaign being run by CARE café, who are trying to gather support for an independent network for children in care. A similar initiative has been run incredibly successfully in Australia by a group called CREATE.
The purpose of the proposed network simple – it provides a forum for children and young people in care to have their say about their experience of the care system. These kids are experts on the realities of the care system, their views should inform decisions about the system for its betterment.
The benefits of such a network are numerous; it connects children and young people in care to overcome those feelings of isolation through contact with others who have similar experience. It further provides opportunities for children in care to learn about how the care system works and their rights.
While the network is not directly focussed at preventing or encouraging reporting of abuse it is easy to see that it may well go some way to having such an impact. By empowering these young people and teaching them about their rights they may be less vulnerable targets of abusive behaviour. Furthermore by connecting these young people up to a network we open lines of communication and support which would hopefully allow a better picture of what goes on for kids in care and who is at risk.
Despite this proposed initiative being a fairly straightforward and inexpensive way to improve the lives of New Zealand’s most vulnerable children, the government has refused to support the network. Minister Bennett apparently told representatives of the campaign that the Ministry of Social Development was looking at implementing its own internal network.
It is however quite clear that such a network must be independent of MSD and care service providers – this is what CARE Café are campaigning for. An internal network would be a conflict of interest, particularly in light of the fact that CYFS has approved carers that have then gone on to abuse children in their care.