It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Government needs to go back to the drawing board on the Child Youth and Family (Oranga Tamariki) Bill.
Māori have been leading the charge on raising questions on what the Government is up to and whose interests are being served. For such a major overhaul, which the Minister has described as a four to five year major transformation programme, we would expect the Government to be ensuring that it does everything right and follows good process.
The Children’s Commissioner joins the Māori Women’s Welfare League, and the Law Society in calling for the Government to start again and do it properly. The Government needs to put the interests of children and their families ahead of saving face and admit they’ve messed this up. Indications are though that they are not listening. In fact, they are rushing the submission process to the point of holding concurrent hearings from submitters – which meant I could not hear all the submissions.
Here are some of the things I’ve been hearing about the bill.
It does some good things:
- It allows some 17 year olds to be able to stay in the youth justice system
- Improves support for carers
- Increases the age of support for young people to 18 in both the care and youth justice systems
- Holds the agency to greater account for setting and achieving outcomes for children
- Recognises the need to support young people as they transition through care beyond 18
- Adds reference to the UN Convention on Rights of the Child and UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
- Repeals section 141 and 142 so that disabled children and young people in state care are subject to the same protections and safeguards as all children and young people
It raises some pretty profound concerns:
- It removes the whānau first principles, reversing very basic protections put in place in 1989 to stop the institutional racism that had so brutally destroyed so many lives.
- It breaches Te Tiriti o Waitangi in process and content.
- Helicopters in Māori words in a way that is not consistent with the tikanga of the words (Waikato-Tainui) or in the words of Judge Adams of the Law Society “this bill feels white with a sprinkling of Maori”.
- There was little or no consultation despite significant changes that will impact the way a wide range of practitioners work.
- Experienced lawyers, from the NZ Law Society, struggled to understand what some parts of the bill would mean in practice. Confusion means at best it won’t achieve the results intended, at worst it will put children at increased risk.
- Domestic Violence has been acknowledged but there is no integrated understanding of domestic violence in the legislation. This is despite the majority of child protection cases happening in the context of domestic violence.
- It seeks to place children earlier in permanent safe stable and loving families. This could potentially mean children are removed from their whānau for reasons other than safety.
- It enables social workers to demand individual client’s files from doctors, psychiatrists, and pretty much anyone else, and then share that information with a disturbingly wide range of people.
- It effectively puts the decision of whether a 17 year old can be dealt with by the youth court or adult court in the hands of police rather than the Court. The police association expressed the view that ‘frankly the boat had sailed on’ these young people. If that view is shared by other police then the bill will result in more serious charges being laid against 17 year olds.
- It doesn’t acknowledge the context or relationship of child protection systems and, the Vulnerable Children’s Act, Children’s Action Plan or children’s teams despite talking about early intervention.
- The new purpose section of the legislation signals a focus on time-limited intervention and speedy permanent placement which is likely to undermine attempts to rehabilitate families and whānau to enable them to care for the children.
- Embeds the social investment approach. This appears to focus on short-term rather than long-term outcomes and to minimise the complexities involved with attributing long-term outcomes to service inputs.
- It is replacing “welfare and best interests” to “well-being”. There is a significant body of New Zealand case law on the current wording, and litigation will occur in the courts to sort out the meaning of the new wording.
- It creates lots of new purposes but they don’t relate to the content of the bill.
- There is currently no provision to ensure disabled children and young people receive support, reasonable accommodation and assistance to enjoy their rights on an equal basis with non-disabled children and young people.
- The official papers say the legislation carries no significant fiscal impact. This is despite the need for more social workers, more training on domestic violence and cultural competence, and setting up a whole new system that doesn’t force workers to meet KPIs over ensuring the safety and wellbeing of children and families.
These concerns are about process and content. If the Government wants to realise the intent of these reforms they need to work in partnership with Māori and other communities, and they need the legislation to be clear and consistent. The concerns being raised suggest this bill will make this worse rather than better. The Government needs to stop progressing this bill and make sure they’re getting this right. The future of our children is too important to be rushed through.