TIME FOR A CHANGE IN WELFARE POLICY
By Dr Muriel Newman
Last week the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, published their annual report card on child well-being across the countries of the European Union and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. They ranked New Zealand in 38th place out of the 41 nations.
To provide some perspective, UNICEF’s measures of child well-being are based on their UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. While in last year’s report they included Marxist notions of ‘fairness’ and ‘social justice’, this year, they have incorporated their ‘Agenda for Sustainable Development’. As a result, child wellbeing assessments now include such things as climate change, the environment, and peace.
That a political agenda pervades the UN is evident in the UNICEF Report’s child poverty measure. It is defined in relative terms as 60 percent of the median household income.
Poverty, of course, was originally based on the human struggle for the basic necessities of life such as food and shelter. This is a reality in third world countries where abject poverty is defined by the World Bank as living on US$1.25 or less a day.
However, with universal welfare safety nets leading to the disappearance of real ‘poverty’ in developed nations, advocates of income redistribution and progressive taxation have reinvented the measure as a relative term.
In essence relative poverty is a political construct based on a country’s income distribution. Under this measure, people are considered poor if they earn less than a benchmark based on the median wage. With Statistics NZ data showing that the median disposable household income for a Kiwi family of four was over $1,800 a week in 2015, UNICEF’s definition would mean that any such families with a weekly household income of $1,000 or less, would be categorised as living in poverty.
By defining poverty in relative terms, even if incomes were to double, the claim could still be made that New Zealand had a poverty problem because the same percentage of people would remain below the median income.
In fact, the only way to alleviate relative poverty is to equalise incomes. That means that under this measure, countries like North Korea and Cuba – where everyone is equally poor – would probably be defined as having less relative poverty than New Zealand!
In spite of UNICEF’s report card being highly political, it does nevertheless reveal areas where our Government’s policy settings are putting children at risk.
In particular, it has found that 16 percent of New Zealand children live in jobless households – the third highest in the developed world, with only Hungary and Ireland faring worse.
What this means is that our welfare system is failing to require able-bodied beneficiaries to find work. The consequences for those 180,000 children who live in benefit-led households can be devastating with sole parenthood and long term welfare dependency known to be two of the most serious risk factors for children.
The UNICEF report outlines just how dangerous such arrangements can be. New Zealand is ranked the seventh highest country for child murder – with 0.78 child murders per 100,000 children in 2010 – and we have the highest rate of teenage suicide in the developed world, with 15.6 deaths of 15-19 year olds per 100,000 population in 2010.
Provisional statistics released by the Coroner’s Office, shows that the situation is getting worse, with 51 (16.02 per 100,000) teenage deaths by suicide in 2016 and 52 (16.41 per 100,000) in 2015.
In comparison, Portugal had the lowest rate of teen suicide with 1.7 deaths per 100,000, with Italy and Spain close behind.
According to Youthline, each week two young New Zealanders aged 24 years and under take their own lives, with another 20 hospitalised for self-harm.
The potential for suicidal behaviour greatly increases for children living in dysfunctional families on welfare, with even greater risks for those who’ve been in the care of Child, Youth and Family.
In order to reduce these risks, the Government is undertaking a major revamp of child protection services, and is updating its Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy. But what is alarming, when looking into these reforms, is the dominant role played by the Treaty of Waitangi and biculturalism.
When it comes to the country’s most vulnerable children, it appears that culture has precedence over safety.
This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator is Brian Giesbrecht, a retired Canadian Judge with over 30 years of experience in the provincial Court system, who observed firsthand how race-based policies destroyed child welfare services in Manitoba. Since New Zealand policy makers often look to Canada for guidance, his warning against prioritising race over child safety is timely:
“The majority of child welfare cases I heard as a judge involved aboriginal families. Typically, the parent or parents had serious drinking problems, and the agonizing choice facing the child welfare worker was whether to leave the child in a substandard or possibly dangerous situation and risk a tragedy — or take the serious step of removing the child from the home and risk damaging the bond between child and family. The child care workers appearing before me, some of whom were aboriginal, were excellent caring people, respectful of aboriginal culture and committed to doing what was in the best interests of the children they were sworn to protect.
“By the 1970s it was clear that there were far too many aboriginal children in care. The government desperately sought solutions. Aboriginal activists blamed the ‘culturally insensitive’ non-aboriginal child welfare system for causing the problem, and assured the government that if the existing workers and agencies were replaced with aboriginal workers and agencies the problem could be solved. The government recklessly accepted this specious reasoning on no evidence, and began gutting the existing system and replacing it with brand new untested agencies. Senior child care workers and supervisors were lost to the system and a child welfare system that had refined itself over many years was decimated.
“While that process was in its infancy, I conducted an inquiry into the death of an aboriginal boy named Lester Desjarlais, a 13-year-old member of Sandy Bay First Nations, who committed suicide in his foster home in Brandon while in the care of one of these new agencies. Unqualified workers and agency incompetence were major factors in his death. At the conclusion of that hearing I wrote a report strongly warning the government against proceeding further on the dangerous path it was following. Others gave warnings as well. Despite those warnings the government accelerated the transferring of responsibility for aboriginal children to these hastily created agencies. This transfer was done without safeguards ensuring that proper educational standards for workers be maintained, and without proper controls. The entire child welfare system, including what was left of the existing agencies, was degraded.
“Under an aboriginal child welfare system, the best interests test, namely the cardinal rule in child welfare that an agency must do what is in the best interests of the child was abandoned. Instead, racial identity was given primacy. Children were torn from loving homes and placed in substandard situations simply because the foster parents were not aboriginal. I refer to one notorious example in which an aboriginal girl was taken from a southern home where she had been loved and cared for all her life, and placed on a northern reserve where she was repeatedly raped and brutalized. This was racial politics at its worst, and it also was child abuse. The agency was abusing the very children it was sworn to protect.”
The situation in New Zealand is not too different.
Child, Youth and Family, the country’s current child protection service has a ‘whanau-first’ policy, whereby if a child is at risk of abuse or neglect and is to be taken from a dysfunctional home, the priority must be to place the child with “a person who is a member of the child’s or young person’s hapu or iwi, or, if that is not possible, who has the same tribal, racial, ethnic, or cultural background as the child.”
The problem is that such children suffer higher rates of repeated abuse than children placed in safe homes with unrelated caregivers: “29 percent of Maori children who were returned to their homes after being placed in CYF care were re-abused, compared to 17 percent of non Maori children. A further 11 percent were re-abused when permanently homed with the wider whanu, compared with two percent homed outside of the care of their wider family.”
These higher rates of abuse suffered by Maori children at the hands of their wider family, led the Social Development Minister Anne Tolley to remove the ‘whanau first’ rule for the new child protection agency, proposing instead that placing children with a “safe, stable and loving family at the earliest opportunity” should be the priority: “The new Ministry for Vulnerable Children will be totally child-centred and everything it does must be completely focused on safety and the very best long-term outcomes for children and young people already in the care system, or who are at risk of needing care.”
However, this proposal to prioritise child safety over culture was strongly criticised by the Maori Party and Maori welfare providers, who do not want their bicultural Maori world view dominance of child protection services threatened – even though it is putting vulnerable children at risk of harm.
As a result of the ensuing controversy, the new Bill, which is still in front of Parliament, now contains a predominance of Treaty of Waitangi partnership requirements, the need for Maori providers to deliver services, special rights for Maori families, and cultural competency requirements for the department’s workforce.
Judging by the Manitoba example, it is this obsession with Maori culture that is underpinning New Zealand’s failure to keep vulnerable children safe.
It’s the same story with youth suicide.
The Government’s suicide prevention strategy is based on a theory that the over-representation of Maori youth is due to ‘cultural alienation’.
As a result, the Treaty of Waitangi partnership concept dominates the strategy, as does the need for Maori providers to design and deliver services to youth at risk: “Maori to engage with their own culture, values and practices, and making services and programmes relevant to and effective for Maori.”
While culture features strongly in the strategy, there is little mention of family breakdown, even though overseas data suggests that children growing up without a father are more than twice as likely to commit suicide, than children with dads.
In a 2003 study published in The Lancet, Swedish researchers found “the risk of suicide was more than twice as high among children in one-parent households compared with those living with both parents. This conclusion came after first identifying some 65,000 children of single-parent homes and 920,000 living with both parents beginning in the mid-1980s, and examining their death rates and hospital admissions throughout the 1990s.”
In fact, although it is no longer politically correct to say so, the reality is that most of the social ills faced by vulnerable children – including child abuse and teenage suicide – relate to a lack of fathers in their homes.
Children from fatherless families are more likely to be poor, become involved in drug and alcohol abuse, drop out of school, be victims of child abuse, and suffer from health and emotional problems. Boys are more likely to become involved in crime, and girls are more likely to become pregnant as teenagers.
What’s worse is that no politicians are highlighting these issues. No-one is raising the alarm that one of the main contributors to the serious disadvantage faced by Kiwi children is a welfare system that rips apart families, leaving children vulnerable to serious harm – and even death.
Reforming welfare to remove the incentives that breaks up families should be one of the country’s main policy priorities. It would save children’s lives and substantially reduce the number of families trapped in the hopelessness of long-term intergenerational welfare dysfunction.
THIS WEEK’S POLL ASKS:
Should Maori cultural considerations play a dominant role in New Zealand’s new child protection service?
*Poll comments are posted on the website daily at the end of the main article.
*All NZCPR poll results can be seen in the Archive.