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Lindsay Mitchell

Vulnerable Children Bill: Will it make a difference?

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A recent Child Poverty Action Group report about child abuse claimed that, ” …the Ministry of Social Development and its predecessors have been researching and writing about child abuse for almost quarter of a century.” Wrong. Investigations extend back much further. Concern over the issue prompted a 1967 survey of established cases which produced not dissimilar results to the current situation with Maori children six times more likely to be a victim.1 (This heightened incidence may have been long-standing but newly urbanised Maori hadn’t previously caught the attention of the Child Welfare Division of Education Ministry). Suffice to say, child abuse has been a long-standing feature of New Zealand society.

Today abuse is split into four categories; emotional, physical, sexual and neglect. In 2012 emotional abuse made up 56 percent of substantiated findings, physical – 15 percent , sexual – 6 percent and neglect, 22 percent. Child, Youth and Family record data about the nature of substantiated findings. Unfortunately information about the relationship between the offender and victim is not available.

Pieces of information about that relationship can be collated though. Almost 85% of emotional abuse findings are associated with family violence situations.2 In terms of child injury mortality and homicide, “… most perpetrators are parents, acting either alone or together. “3  Emotional abuse and neglect tends to be associated with parents who abuse alcohol and drugs and/ or have untreated mental health problems.4 Sexual abuse is the only type of abuse that is commonly associated with offenders outside of the immediate family but even then a third of perpetrators were parent figures and just over a fifth were other relatives according to a sample of childhood sexual abuses cases reported to police.5

Despite this the Vulnerable Children Bill, currently under public consultation, focusses very strongly on vetting people who work with children. The bill’s digest states:

Main Provisions

Safety checking of Children’s workers

The Bill makes provision in this context with the aim of reducing the risk of harm to children by requiring that people (“children’s workers”) employed or engaged by “specified organisations” in a “regulated activity” that involves regular or overnight contact with children are “safety checked”. Crown organisations may be prosecuted.

One wonders whether child workers and their employers aren’t starting to feel under siege, distrusted and demoralised by the degree of promised scrutiny. But more importantly, whether it’s warranted.

New Zealand children are not generally killed by strangers, especially not teachers or other child workers. Neither are they routinely physically or emotionally abused by those who work with them. What society has been increasingly anxious about is how children are treated in their own homes; how they are treated by their own parents or caregivers.

A report, Children’s Contact with MSD Services, has recently become available (though MSD for whatever reason has pulled it from their website). It shows that children on benefit are six times more likely to be abused or neglected than those who aren’t benefit supported. For children in benefit dependent households for 9 or more years the likelihood rises to 13 times. 83 percent of all children experiencing a substantiated finding of abuse by age 5 had also appeared in the benefit system by age two. There is a clear and strong link between abuse and benefit dependence. Why?

For a long time now, at least twenty years, around a fifth of all children born each year go onto welfare directly or soon after their births. Their parents haven’t given much thought to how they’ll provide for their children immediately or later. It’d be fair to say that many, if not most of these children’s unfolding stories will not be unhappy. On becoming parents people tend to get their act together. Nevertheless significant numbers of these children will go on to spend their most formative years in sub-standard, crowded, housing, around dysfunctional adult relationships, being left to their own devices at best, and being callously maltreated at worst.

When Minister for Social Development, Paula Bennett, talks about vulnerable children I believe these are the children most New Zealanders envisage. I could be wrong but they are certainly the children that epitomise my idea of vulnerability.

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. (‘Child harm prevention’ orders, another feature of the bill, are an attempt to address these circumstances but existing protection orders to safeguard women are often ignored, sometimes with tragic outcomes).

Practical and potentially promising interventions with younger parents are afoot however. Assignment to a dedicated youth services provider aims to stop ensuing long-term welfare dependence. Income management (WINZ pays rent, power, food directly, and pocket money only) aims to cut the early addiction to cash hand-outs. Mandatory parenting and budgeting courses should be attended to secure and keep their assistance. Ultimately though, and quite quickly, the young beneficiary graduates to the non-supervised ‘grown-up’ benefit. While adding a child to a benefit has become more difficult, again, if a parent lives away from employment opportunities, work obligations are irrelevant.

There is no getting away from the facts. Most of the children who become the subject of a substantiated finding of abuse or neglect are children from benefit dependent homes. Breaking the welfare habit is crucial to reducing children’s vulnerability to abuse and neglect. Scrutinising the many thousands of individuals whose vocation is working with, teaching and inspiring children, is not.

1. Bronwyn Dalley, Family Matters, p 252
2. Manion, K. Renwick, J. (2008). Equivocating over the care and protection continuum: an exploration of families not meeting the threshold for statutory intervention, Social Policy Journal of New Zealand. 33: p 70-94
3. The scale and nature of family violence in New Zealand: A review and evaluation of knowledge, April 2007
4. Paul Nixon, CYF Chief social worker, Caring for vulnerable children, DomPost, September 25, 2013