When 'throwing money at the problem' might just work

Talk to social workers and experts trying to get New Zealand's most troubled kids safely through to adulthood and the impression left is that the best thing to do may also be the thing that's most politically anathema to this government

When politicians start talking about "radical overhauls" and headlines speak of "sweeping changes", I confess a little scepticism, even nervousness. Especially when it's accompanied with talk of "no magic wands" and earnest talk of not "throwing money" at the system. And, adding to that, when these pronouncements are all made before the big report it completed.

It suggests conclusions already reached, and with that comes the sniff of ideology.

Yet one of the most striking things to come out of the two reports released last week into children in state care was the consensus that they highlighted the right issues. It can be hard to read through the jargon, when the talk is of a "more child-centred" approach and the like.

So while all agree that Child, Youth and Family is failing too many kids, there's a lot of room for interpretation over why it is; and that leads to very different responses.

What seems to be agreed is that CYF has got better and better, under the past two governments, at putting a fence at the top of the cliff. Social workers are usually quick to see the signs of trouble a comin' and good at dealing with emergencies.

The bigger problem, highlighted by the increasingly impressive Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills, is that for those kids who do go over the edge (about 5,000 as it stands; there will always be some) the longer-term care is unsatisfactory. There's a lack of monitoring, kids disappear of social workers' radars, we don't know whether the new care-givers are up to the job down the track and there's little support for them if they are struggling.

Some here that list of woe and blame the social workers. The fear is that when Social Development Minister Anne Tolley talks of "radical overhaul", she's buying into those complaints. While it's hard to know how radical she means until we've seen the report prepared by Paula Rebstock and her expert panel, the language is worrying.

Is it an excuse, as Audrey Young posited on the weekend, to bring more private sector providers into the sector just for ideological reasons associated with National governments (private good and innovative, public bad and bureaucratic)? Is it a chance for her to score political points by looking to be seen to be doing something?

Yet many in the sector are giving her and Rebstock the benefit of the doubt, for now. Because change is needed.

But here's the thing. Rather than blame the social workers and the bureacracy, you can look at CYF's failings through another lens. Through the money window.

Why would social workers be failing to monitor, letting children slip from view, and not ensure foster families are well enough supported? It's unlikely you'd be in that job if you didn't care about such things, yet some people leap rapidly to that assumption.

The more likely scenario is that there simply aren't enough social workers and families around. Getting more will cost more Reports suggests CYF is short as many as 400 social workers.

Consider this scenario. A five year-old needs care and a home is found. But the child is so difficult that family can't cope and opts out. The next family can take the child for a few days – buying the social worker a bit more time – but where to find another home? While you're looking, the next difficult child turns up and one of the other kids on your long list of care is acting out. The next night at 2am you get a call from the police and that other 15 year-old has been picked up and needs to be put somewhere. But where?

As discussed on The Nation at the weekend, last week in Auckland at a certain point in time there were simply no places for children in the city. Off-air UNICEF's Deborah Morris-Travers said that wasn't unusual.

So social workers get good at rushing from one fire to the next. But where's the time for them to follow up that child from a month or a year ago? Where's the next family able to take these troubled children?

Yes, there will be structural ways to improve things. Judge Carolyn Henwood has suggested splitting the CYF social workers in two – one group focused on those emergencies, another on the monitoring, so that the latter doesn't get forgotten.

Tolley seems inclined to raise the age of those in care beyond age 17, because that's simply too young to let a troubled young person lose in an adult world. Then there's more support for foster families. Some like to say that all these kids need is love. But, frankly, that's bollocks.

We're talking about asking families to take on some of the most needy and messed up children in the country. Normal discipline and love ain't enough. No, these families don't need to be clinicians, but they need to know what they're getting into, they need to be trained and they need support year after year after year. And while there are patches of such services available, it's not nationwide or standardised.

So there are plenty of great ideas. And when the minister talks about "radical overhaul", maybe all she means is implementing them. But guess what? They all add to the workload of an already burnout staff.

So here's the hard political truth – if you want safer kids, it's going to cost you more. Maybe a lot more. Hundreds of new social workers won't come cheap (or easily. I remember interviewing Jenny Shipley about the shortage in the early 90s when she was Social Welfare minister). And we will have to pay foster families more than they currently get to care for our toughest kids.

So, I'm sorry minister, but throwing money at the problem is exactly what's needed. It's crucial.

But here's the good news. The pay-off could be immense. One of the disturbing numbers I learnt last week, from Judge Henwood, is that 83 percent of those under 20 in prison went through some kind of state care.

Imagine if those kids had got the intensive social work care they needed. Imagine if they had been followed-up, that there was no "dump and run", and that their caregivers were monitored and supported, so that abuse couldn't occur but plenty of good stuff could. Imagine fewer victims of crime and those kids breaking the cycle.

As one CYF person said to me last week – "we know best practice, we know where we're going wrong and why. We just need more resources to get it right".

So for me, it's time to start throwing money at this problem, and quick.