Yesterday the Office of the Commissioner for Children (OCC) appeared in front of the Social Service’s Select Committee to discuss their performance. The OCC has statutory responsibility for advocating for children and oversight of the Child Youth and Family Act. Understandably most of our discussion was about child poverty and the safety of children in NZ. The Commissioner raised very large red flags over the Government’s approach on both points.
The Government has repeatedly said, against expert opinion and all the evidence, that reducing the number of children in families on a benefit will reduce child poverty. The Commissioner said reducing children in benefit dependent households was not reducing child poverty and that this was the wrong measure.
We have seen the number of children living in income poverty increase to 305 000 while the Salvation Army report points out there were 56 000 fewer children in benefit dependent households since 2010. The government says income poverty is irrelevant because it is based on a median – yet this is a standard OECD measure and sits alongside other measures that are also stuck.
The Government says it disagrees with the Salvation Army. They say they disagree with the Children’s Commissioner. They agree with their own perspective. And children keep dying of income related diseases such as bronchiectasis.
The Commissioner said we need a target to reduce child poverty and then we should be aiming for – reductions in income poverty, material deprivation, violence and improvements in housing quality. That’s what’s required to reduce child poverty. We can do that if we focus our attention and resources on it.
The National Party chair of the Select Committee asked the Children’s Commissioner if their work on poverty was out of scope of their duties and whether they should be more focussed on their other roles. The Commissioner said they had actually put more of their resources proportionally into monitoring CYF Act.
The Commissioner also raised huge red flags over their inability to properly monitor CYF residences. He said that funding constraints had forced them to limit their formal audits of residences to once every 18 months. Last year he thought that would be okay – it would be safe. The team has since discovered it is not. They found that with changes in leadership, things in residences could change very quickly and they could not verify if their recommendations were being applied. They have been reduced to talking with the CYF leadership. The Commissioner has had this discussion with the Minister but so far they have not been given any additional resource. So they are left with safety concerns for some of our most vulnerable children and no ability to assure themselves that things have improved. They have no ability to conduct investigations following complaints either. This is now all done in-house in CYF.
Further as pointed out by the Salvation Army, CYF refers out roughly 1/3 of the notifications to the community, mostly where domestic violence or addiction issues are present. The commissioner was open to this being a good idea as the community may have a better skill base for responding to these specialist issues. BUT Living in a house with domestic violence can have very significant life-long impacts for children. Children are not safe when there is violence in a home. The community agencies responding to domestic violence are all completely stretched and underfunded. Care of children in these situations is covered by the Act but again the Children’s Commissioner is unable to fulfil its statutory responsibility. No-one has oversight of the wellbeing of these children.
We need to put the welfare of our children before short–term and misdirected government targets.