Good on the government for its determination to keep having the "uncomfortable conversation" about child abuse. Sad it's not talking much sense

Discretion. Professional judgment. Tough decisions made from years of experience. These are some of the most important tools available to Child, Youth and Family staff when it comes to deciding how best to protect vulnerable children, so why would the government want to take that away?

The short answer is because child abuse is a problem that refuses to go away. It seems our abuse rates just aren't decreasing and remain some of the worst in the developed world, so any responsible government should be looking at creative ways to keep Kiwi kids safe. We should all be feeling desperate about how we can turn this terrible trend around. If I give Paula Bennett the benefit of the doubt – and accept that this is an issue of deep concern to her, as she says and as I've been told by others – I can put her latest policy idea down to just such desperation.

But the temptation in politics is to do something, anything, without stopping to make sure that the something tried doesn't make things worse. I think this is such a case.

Bennett says cabinet is considering changing the law so that the court can tell abusive parents that any future children will be removed at birth. The goal is to stop abusive parents having more children, she says. What she doesn't say is just how this would all be enforced, but it seems it would be some mandatory court order.

This idea appears flawed on numerous levels, such as how anyone could enforce such a law (without compulsory sterilisation), whether victim mothers would end up suffering for the sins of abusive fathers and if there aren't better ways to address the causes of abuse, thus building a fence at the top of that ol' cliff.

But the flaws begin with the very premise this vague policy idea rests on. It assumes a significant number of New Zealand children are being left in the care of known abusers. I'd like to see Bennett's evidence for this, because my understanding is that's not the case. Those who abuse, even neglect, their children will already have them taken away in – to use a favourite National Party line – 'the vast bulk' of cases.

As it stands, Child, Youth and Family has the power – through existing court orders – to remove a child from the care of an abusive of negligent parent. Last year, 148 babies were removed in the first month of their lives; in 2010 it was 177.

Bennett implies many more should have been removed. But the number of children removed from abusive parents is in truth much higher than that. I have no idea how many, but more children are removed at two months... at six months... at a year.

The reality as I understand it is that CYF workers take a child-focused, preventative approach, especially for pre-schoolers. While Bennett talks about removing kids from the most serious abusers, such as killers, children are already removed from homes for much less. Most "unexplained accidents" are sufficient for CYF to remove a child, if the professional assessment is that the child is at risk.

Those, such as Peter Dunne, who have complained at the level of intervention Bennett is suggesting are missing the point; the power for intervention and removal already exists and is frequently exercised.

What does "remove" means? It might be for a while or forever; it may mean the child lives with a family member but the parent has some access; it may mean the parent can earn access again if they can deal with whatever's plaguing them – get out of an abusive relationship, kick the drugs, get counselling for the abuse they themselves suffered or whatever.

Sometimes it may be clear as day that a child has to be whisked away from an abusive parent or household. But if another family member can care for the child, the law encourages the child to stay within the whanau.

So could an abusive parent not have the chance to re-build their relationship? Or while a parent may be too violent or drunk or plain hopeless to be lead caregiver, might there not be a place for them somewhere in the child's life? Sometimes, no. But in other instances, I could imagine that working out.

If we stop, think for a minute and get past our anger, it's obvious abuse or neglect aren't always black and white issues. Talk of "zero tolerance" sounds tough, but it ignores the messy grey areas of life. 

If one parent is abusive, is it necessarily true that the child is better away from both parents? Can we really assume that a parent once abusive will always be abusive? With the right rehab or with support "wrapped around them", maybe the child needn't be removed permanently. If a single example of abuse or neglect leads to a single conviction, should that deny someone the right to parent for all time?

Because, while the child's basic safety is the number one priority, maintaining or rescuing family relationships should also be of concern. We know that kids who succeed – what Sir Peter Gluckman calls resilient kids – have strong family relationships. So if a parent can change, that could be of immense benefit to the child.

The point I'm making is that every tragic case is different, and the social workers, child psychologists, teachers, doctors and nurses, judges and so on closest to the case are best placed to use their discretion to figure out what's best for that child in that circumstance. They're certainly better placed than cabinet to define who is an "unfit parent".

I agree with John Key when he says we need to keep having this "uncomfortable conversation". But a blanket, mandatory policy that just says 'no' steals vital discretion from the experts, and to me seems like a serious mistake.

Comments (6)

by DeepRed on June 08, 2012

Paula Bennett: the Minister for Attacking the Symptom. And funny how the blue-rinsers accuse the reds of social engineering.

by Lucy Hawcroft on June 08, 2012
Lucy Hawcroft

One of the things that worries me about this policy is that also, if you did massively increase the number of children you were putting into foster homes, would you have the capacity to ensure that they were actually good homes?

Perhaps it is just one of those situations that gets a lot of media attention but actually doesn't happy very often, but I feel like I've read quite a few articles about kids who were moved into foster situations that turned out really badly in one way or other.

Also, because child abuse is disproportionately likely to affect Maori children we would, to a certain extent, be creating another Stolen Generation. That worked out real well for Australia, not.

When I try to imagine a person who would be willing to foster a large number of (likely) quite disturbed or difficult to deal with children, I can imagine some awesome people who'd do a great job for highly ethical reasons. But I can also think of some really nasty reasons why you might want to have access to a lot of very vulnerable children.

I also do wonder just exactly how well paid the staff at CYFS are and, most importantly, how much capacity they have to look after the children in their care and/or monitor if foster families are doing a good job?

Because I still remember that about 6 years ago I met a CYFS case officer. She told us that she had 30 families assigned to her which, if she worked a 40 hour week, meant that she had about 1.25 hours to dedicate to each child or family. 60 hours and she could give each child 1.5 hours. And this was families where the situation was so bad they had been referred to CYFS and assigned a case officer which typically means pretty serious physical abuse, neglect etc etc. She also told us that her colleague who had a similar job but in a private practise had about half as many families assigned to her.

As it happened, this particular CYFS officer was a single mother and so, effectively, she had to choose between working 40 hours and being there for her own child and being there for these many other children.

When you do see cases of children being born into abusive families and not being removed in time, the story is often about how CYFS "slipped up". They didn't detect the birth or they didn't realize how bad the situation was or they didn't act swiftly enough. Whenver I see those stories i think of this woman who always looked chronically tired and stressed out.

So perhaps part of the answer (aside from trying to put a fence at the top of the cliff to stop people getting to a stage where the only relief they can see from their problems is to shake their baby or beat their child) is to give CYFS more resources to deal adequately with the children in their care?

I don't know of course, perhaps the situation has improved in the last 6 years, perhaps CYFS staff are no longer so stretched. But given the cuts we have seen elsewhere in the civil service it seems unlikely.

by Lucy Hawcroft on June 08, 2012
Lucy Hawcroft

oops, 2 hours per child. Assuming the CYFS staff member didn't do any administrative work, go to any staff meeetings, take lunch breaks etc :)

by Richard Aston on June 08, 2012
Richard Aston

Lucy your social worker's case load was light ! I have met social workers who had 30 mins to give to one case.

Also many social workers are young kids themselves fresh out of their social work degrees and no life experiance. Making decisions about people's lives. I shudder at times.



by Richard Aston on June 08, 2012
Richard Aston

As you say Tim its complex human issue and political policy can be such a crude instrument when we are dealing with the full human story.

You ask "What does "remove" mean?" it’s a good question. It makes people feel good to hear a child has been removed from abusive parents like somehow the problem is solved, but no, the chances are those parents will abuse the next child, so ok we that that one away as well. What actually happens to that child, maybe a whanau placement - these are known to problematic and sometime just as abusive, or a foster placement, and another , and another.

I have meet far too many people who grew up bouncing around whanau and foster placements and suffered for it - I am not convinced it’s a real solution, it’s a band aid.

Working with the abusers is the heroic solution but for reasons I cannot understand so much child abuse policy is centred on the children not the abusers. For god’s sake the kids are not the problem it’s those who abuse them.
Dealing with child abuse from the side of the abusers means exploring the roots of abuse which run deep. This kind of work doesn't lend itself to quick policy fixes or TV soundbytes , its hard, complex and ultimately takes compassion. It can be done and is being done in places. Its seriously underfunded and lacks deeper research.   

I made a submission to the green paper suggesting better screening of foster parents , whanau parents, child workers etc . I have been working in the area of sex abuser screening for 8 years.  I suggested we take an assertive approach to preventing identified child sex abusers getting access to children. I just found out mine was the only submission along those lines.

I don't get it, seemed like a logical part of the solution to me.

by stuart munro on June 09, 2012
stuart munro

The problem with Bennett and her ilk is that the best protection for the child lies in preserving the health of relationships and communities, which then have greater reserve capacity to foster or support.

As the National economic miracle - the falling tide that strands all boats -plays out it is not surprising that, with nowhere to live, and no jobs worth getting out of bed for, the centre cannot hold and things begin to fall apart.

We should build a fifty metre tall statue of John Key to commemorate his failure to address any of New Zealand's long term problems. There needs to be something left poking out of the sand when the Icarus returns the survivors of these ill-conceived policies to New Zealand.

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