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Dr Muriel Newman

Tackling Child Abuse

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Kahui_twinsIn March last year, Prime Minister John Key announced the introduction of performance goals for the public service. While we are all familiar with the operation of individual government agencies through our contact with schools, hospitals, post offices, Work and Income, the Police, tax department and so on, we are less familiar with the concept of chief executives being held responsible for achieving wider targets designed to help improve the outcomes for New Zealand as a whole.

The ten targets set for the public sector to achieve by 2017 are as follows:

1. Welfare: Reducing the number of people continuously receiving working-age benefits for more than 12 months by 30%, from 78,000 in April 2012 to 55,000 by 2017. The responsibility for achieving this rests with the Lead Minister Paula Bennett along with the Lead Chief Executive, Brendan Boyle from the Ministry of Social Development (MSD)

2. Early-childhood Education: Increase participation in early childhood education to 98% by 2016 – Tony Ryall and Hekia Parata with MSD’s Brendan Boyle – supported by Ministry of Education’s (MoE) Peter Hughes

3. Health: Increase infant immunisation rates from 90% in June 2013 to 95% by the end of 2014 and maintain this rate until June 2017, and in addition, reduce the incidence of rheumatic fever from 4.2 cases per 100,000 in 2011 to 1.4 cases per 100,000 by 2017 – Tony Ryall with MSD’s Brendan Boyle – supported by Ministry of Health Director General Kevin Woods

4. Child Abuse: Reduce the number of assaults on children by 5% from 3,108 cases in 2012 to 2,936 in 2017 – Tony Ryall and Paula Bennett with MSD’s Brendan Boyle

5. Education: Increase the proportion of 18-year-olds with NCEA level 2 or equivalent qualification from 77.2% in 2012 to 85% in 2017 – Hekia Parata with MoE’s Peter Hughes

6. Qualifications: Increase the proportion of 25 to 34-year-olds with advanced trade qualifications, diplomas and degrees (at level 4 or above) from 52.6% in 2012 to 55% in 2017 – Steven Joyce with MoE’s Peter Hughes

7. Crime: Reduce the rates of total crime, violent crime and youth crime by 15%, 20% and 25% respectively from June 2011 to June 2017 – Judith Collins with Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) Andrew Bridgman

8. Re-offending: Reduce re-offending by 25% by 2017 – Judith Collins and MoJ’s Andrew Bridgman

9. Improving Business: New Zealand businesses to have a one-stop online shop for all government advice and support needed to run and grow their business so that by 2017, business costs from dealing with government will reduce by 25% and government services to all businesses will have similar key performance ratings as those to leading private sector firms – Steven Joyce with Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment’s David Smol

10. Digitalisation: New Zealanders are able to complete an average of 70% of common transactions with the Government digitally by 2017 – Chris Tremain with Department of Internal Affairs’ Colin MacDonald

Each of these targets is being updated regularly, with detailed progress reports and case studies available HERE.  

The Minister of Social Development Paul Bennett took a definitive step last month in progressing Target #4: “Reducing the number of assaults on children”, through the introduction of new child welfare legislation. The public service goal for 2017 is to halt the 10-year rise in the physical abuse of children by 5 percent. If that goal is achieved, there would be 2,936 cases of substantiated cases of physical child abuse in 2017, rather than a projected 4,000 cases.

The new law that has been introduced into Parliament is the Vulnerable Children Bill, an omnibus bill that will result in two new principal Acts of Parliament – the Vulnerable Children Act and the Child Harm Prevention Orders Act.1 Submissions on the Bill close on Wednesday October 30 and can be made on-line to the Social Services Select Committee HERE.

The bill aims to make Government agencies – welfare, health, education, police, justice, employment, Te Puni Kokiri – jointly accountable to a responsible Minister for producing, reviewing, and reporting on a plan for vulnerable children. The objective is to ensure that front-line staff take full responsibility for keeping children safe from abuse and neglect. The bill also introduces measures to protect children from adults who may want to harm them, not only those who work with children, but people in a child’s own family and networks. In particular, the focus is on minimising the risk of future harm posed by those who have abused children in the past. Also addressed in the bill are ways to better care for those children who have already been abused in order to improve their long-term outcomes.

The rate of child abuse in New Zealand is a national disgrace. According to the Department of Child, Youth and Family, in the year to June 2012, there were 152,800 recorded notifications of potential abuse against children. However, after removing duplicate notifications for the same children and Police family violence referrals, which require no further action, there were 95,532. Of those, 61,074 cases required further investigation, with 21,525 cases of substantiated abuse being found – 52 percent involving emotional abuse, 22 percent neglect, 15 percent physical abuse, and 6 percent sexual abuse.2

So why is child abuse continuing to rise at such a rapid rate?

While there is no doubt that the increased focus on child abuse over recent years through the Green Paper and White Paper process has led to a significant increase in the reporting of potential child abuse cases, at the heart of this crisis are the intractable problems of family breakdown and long-term welfare dependency.

A study recently published by the Ministry of Social Development examined a cohort of 76,000 New Zealanders born in 1993 to ascertain the impact that the welfare system might have had on their upbringing. Of the total cohort, 41,000 spent time in households dependent on welfare, 6,000 were abused or neglected, and 3,000 became known to youth justice services by the age of 17.3

The analysis showed that children raised in families on welfare were 6 times more likely to be abused, and 14 times more likely to be known to the youth justice system than those raised in households that were not supported by the benefit system. And the longer the family was on welfare, the worse it became – children in families that had been benefit-dependent for nine years or more, were 13 times more likely to be abused and 29 times more likely to be known to youth justice services.4

In other words the study showed the long term welfare dependent cohort is likely to be disproportionately represented in a raft of social dysfunction that increases the likelihood of abuse and crime – such as drug and alcohol dependency, instability, violence and aggression, educational underachievement, the abandonment of the family by a parent…

Government officials are very much aware that there are a relatively small number of high risk families in communities where child abuse is most likely to occur. It is not unusual for these vulnerable families to be involved with more than a dozen different government agencies such as CYF, Work and Income, Housing New Zealand, Special Education, truancy services, ACC, hospitals, police, courts, probation and so on. The cost to the taxpayer of these uncoordinated, ad hoc family interventions runs into hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Yet, no single person or agency is able to report on exactly what has been spent, how it has been spent, or whether or not the expenditure on the family has been at all successful.

By empowering the public service, as proposed by the new bill, authorities would no longer have to wait until a child has been abused before they can step in. Instead they would be able to provide help and support at an earlier stage to address the dysfunctional traits and prevent the abuse from occurring. And it’s not as if this is a new concept. Interagency co-ordination has been successfully used for years by many of the highly effective mentoring services that operate around the country. Dr Patrick Kelly, the clinical director of the child abuse centre at Starship Hospital, has long advocated an inter-disciplinary approach to child welfare using the model that has worked so well for them, whereby social workers, police, and health professionals work together in highly effective child abuse teams. Dame Lesley Max of Great Potentials has promoted inter-agency cooperation for over 20 years using a successful family centre model for low income communities that has, as one of the key outcomes, the reduction of family breakdown and child abuse.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator is welfare researcher Lindsay Mitchell, who has examined the Vulnerable Children Bill and has raised concerns about the continued lack of attention that is being paid to one of the main underlying factors in child abuse cases – the sole parent benefit.

“In New Zealand children are casually produced because someone else is made to take responsibility for financially providing for them. Their arrival guarantees an ongoing source of cash. It is hardly surprising that those without the financial wherewithal to raise a child also struggle with the emotional requisites.

“What then is being done to reduce the incentives that encourage ill-equipped entry into parenthood? Not enough. A young female (aged 19 plus) can still have a baby and expect government assistance and a home for five uninterrupted years. When the child goes to school she’ll have to look for a part-time job and take one if it materialises. But if she is in a rural area the chances of that occurring are slim. Just as slim are the chances of a full-time job cropping up when her child turns 14. The DPB replacement is still a promise of unearned, long-term income and housing for young females. And males, some who will pose a known risk to non-biological children, will continue to piggyback on it.”

Until all parents are once again required to accept the full responsibility for raising their children – which means providing for their financial support as well as their proper care and protection – child abuse will continue to flourish.

The incentives need to be changed – and urgently. Although no-one pretends that single-parenthood is easy, the research is overwhelming that children are better off if parents work. Open-ended sole parent benefits must be replaced with support and services that lead to jobs. And more needs to be done to ensure that biological fathers share the responsibility for raising and protecting their children.

In public policy, you get what you pay for. New Zealand is one of only a handful of countries to have a stand-alone sole parent benefit – and, as a result, a child abuse crisis! Most other countries support sole parent through work focussed benefits. If the incentives for sole parent welfare were changed to reinforce work, family, and independence from the state, the record levels of child abuse and neglect that each year break our hearts, would finally begin to wane.

So while more needs to be done to change the underlying incentives that drive casual parenting and irresponsible behaviour, there is no doubt that ensuring the public service – which is in regular contact with the families of society’s most vulnerable children – work together to improve their outlook and reduce their risk of abuse, is a step in the right direction.


Should assistance be provided to sole parents through a stand-alone sole parent benefit or through the work-focussed Job Seeker Support?   

Click HERE to see all NZCPR poll results




  1. NZ Government, Vulnerable Children Bill 
  2. Child Youth and Family, Notifications 
  3. MSD, Children’s contact with MSD services 
  4. Rodney Hide, PC approach obscures facts