Having been the centre of much discussion this week afret being promoted by NZ Herald as apotential Labour leader it’s worth checking Jacinda Ardern in action.
Yesterday she led the Urgent Debate on the Office of the Children’s Commissionaer State of Care Report.
Draft transcript: Office of the Children’s Commissioner— State of Care 2015 report
JACINDA ARDERN (Labour): On behalf of Carmel Sepuloni, I move, That the House take note of a matter of urgent public importance.
The report that we have before us today is an absolute indictment, and it is only right that this House gives its time and consideration to what can only be considered some of the most important issues that we have a responsibility to address as members of this Parliament.
There is no statement in this report that captures the seriousness of the issues more so than the statement that the Children’s Commissioner made that “We don’t know if children are better off as a result of State intervention, but the indications are not good.”
To hear from the representative and advocate of children in this country that we cannot even guarantee that a child who is potentially being abused and neglected, who has an intervention from the State, is necessarily better off as a result of that in an intervention. What an absolute indictment on this country that we are in this situation.
The commissioner lists a range of areas specifically where we are failing our most vulnerable, and they are our most vulnerable.
More than 50 percent of these children are under the age of 10, and 5,000 of them are in the care of responsibility of this State. The State is their parent. The State has become the only stable thing that the Government has determined needs to take over so that they can be assured of safety and security.
Yet what is happening to those children after that intervention?
We have the case of one child who had up to 60 different placements. What message do you send to a child who has experienced abuse and neglect at the hands of their own family or caregivers, to then shuffle them around into up to 60 different placements?
We have got records of constantly changing caseworkers and a lack of stability and care and support for those children—a lack of support when transitioning not only between care but out of care. Let us remember that “out of care” in this country means to be at 17 years of age, one of the youngest ages to exit care in the developed world, and even then we are not supporting those young people.
The horrific number of more than 100 children, who even once they are removed, is experiencing further abuse and neglect. What long-term hope do they have, when only 20 percent of these children are then reaching National Certificate of Educational Achievement level 2 or higher.
All of this paints a damning picture not only for the State but for the children themselves who are experiencing this. It is true to say that in an area such as this, where you have wickedly complex problems, we have had issues arise before.
Labour had to deal with it when we came into office in 1999, and what did we do? Straight away, we recognised the under-funding and under-resourcing. We increased the baseline funding of that department by more than 50 percent. I will say that again—when Labour last took office it increased support for baseline funding of Child, Youth and Family Services by more than 50 percent.
But even then, as the years went on, we recognised we needed to do more, particularly with the workforce. We undertook a baseline review. That piece of work was completed by the Hon Ruth Dyson.
And before that, we also made sure that we started registering social workers, and now we say it is time that that becomes mandatory. We improved relationships with the community sector and our 10-month baseline review resulted in $111 million in operational spending going into Child, Youth and Family Services.
Why? They did not have the resources they needed to do the job. When that happens you have got to stand up and have the courage to acknowledge it as a Government, and that is what we are calling on this Government to do.
Because as much as that Minister stands up and says “We can’t just throw money at the problem”, well, Minister, the last time we looked at whether or not this department was sufficiently resourced was 13 years ago—13 years ago was the last time a baseline review was done of Child, Youth and Family. And a lot has changed in between.
Reviewing these issues again is not chucking money at an issue; it is good practice to check that your social workers have the support they need to do the work that they do. What has changed?
We do not have a static picture when it comes to vulnerable children in New Zealand. Let us just look at the numbers. During the year 30 June 2014 Child, Youth and Family received 146,657 notifications of possible abuse or neglect—146,657, that is enormous.
That is 17 percent higher than just 5 years ago—80,000 notifications were made back then. That is just a massive increase in a short space of time. The Minister will claim that not all of that is substantiated, that we might have false reporting, that just more people know about the vulnerability of children. In part, some of that will be true, but not all of it.
In fact, we know that roughly a third of those notifications are coming from the police, who know that those children are witnessing domestic violence, and we know the impact that has on those children.
We also know from the police that a lot of them are in fact substantiated. In fact, the recorded number of cases where children have been abused has gone up to 5,397 offences. That figure is 56 percent higher than in 2009. So in that short space of time the workload on Child, Youth and Family and the increase in harm against children has absolutely been documented.
And what has happened to staff? What have we done to make sure that that are able to cope with those dramatic jumps? In the 5 years how many more social workers would you expect to be dealing with 66,000 more notifications? How many more staff?
Well, in that short space of time there have been 76 new fieldworkers—76 new field workers. Crudely, that is 877 cases per new social worker. That is phenomenal. There is no way anyone in this House could claim that that is sufficient to deal with the extra demand this department is dealing with.
Yes, some issues in Child, Youth and Family have cut across Governments—absolutely, no denying it. But there is no denying that right now, in this period of time that this Minister in this Government has responsibility for, the changes for Child, Youth and Family have been enormous.
The Children’s Commissioner put it like this: “The ability of CYF’s current workforce to improve the outcomes experienced by children in the care system is constrained in various ways: limited resources, high caseload, and the need to invest in training.”
The Minister cannot put her head in the sand—that she must support her department as part of answering these issues. I wonder if the Minister, in fact, could respond even to the body who represents social workers, when they said, and I quote from the New Zealand Public Service Association, “The Government must address these issues of underfunding and capability. Otherwise there will be no improvement for those in need.” I do not want to hear a contribution from the Minister that says: chucking money at this problem is not the answer. No one said to chuck money at anything.
We said: “Invest in the people that you have charge of. Make sure they are equipped to do the job.” It is a hard job and at the moment all of the indications are that the cracks are showing in what they are having to deal with.
No one knows this better than the Children’s Commissioner. Even he has had static funding. So much so that he has closed his Auckland office. He cannot do an annual visit of all of the residences that he is meant to monitor; they have moved to every 18 months. He himself is struggling under the weight of an under-investment in this sector. He will not say it, so we will say it on his behalf.
The one area that the Children’s Commissioner has said that Child, Youth and Family is doing a good job at focusing on is that first intervention—the first moment when it is told that there is a potential issue with the safety of a child. In fact, this is how he states it: “Our analysis is that Child, Youth and Family is very focused on keeping children safe and managing the intake and assessment processes at entry to the system.”
I will say that again—at entry to the system. He said: “They’ve lost sight of what children need while in care and what they need to receive to ensure they thrive once they’ve left.
That concerns me.” That beginning is incredibly important. It is the triage phase. It is the point where we make sure a child is not in immediate danger. Interestingly, it si also where the political risks exists. As the Social Services Providers Association stated in its response to the report: “CYF’s staff are extraordinarily challenged by the dual expectation of managing both political risk and the risk of abuse to children.”
Very few social workers ever speak out of turn. They are very professional. But I will never forget when I had a Child, Youth and Family social worker who retired and came to see me and said that they are required to keep a political risk register”—not a register of harm to children, not a register of risk to family—a political risk register. We all have to take responsibility when a department starts focusing on the politics instead of focusing on children.
That is an absolute indictment, and it is part of the problem. It is part of what must change if we are to focus on outcomes for kids. What have we lost sight of? The Children’s Commissioner put it clearly—transition into placements, support for caregivers, and focus on residential care.
I want to touch on residential care. The Minister knows she has had problems with residential care—Children, Youth and Family residences, including youth justice residences run by the department. How do I know that? I have Official Information Act information to prove it.
I have never used these statistics in the House, or anywhere in fact, but there is a youth justice facility in Christchurch that the Minister has been briefed on almost continually, for a couple of years. And why? Because based on the Official Information Act information I received, between July 2014 and April this year that facility had more than 600 dangerous incidents.
Hon Nanaia Mahuta: How many?
JACINDA ARDERN: I will say that again. Between July 2014 and April this year, a Christchurch-run Child, Youth and Family facility had more than 600 recorded serious incidents, including serious assaults, drug use, and self-harm. The police have been called to the centre numerous times, and in the past 2 years, as the Children’s Commissioner pointed out as part of the problem, they have had 16 temporary staff and five different residential managers.
I have briefings that show that the Government knew about the problems at this residence, and indeed it knows about the problems more broadly within Child, Youth and Family. What have we had from that Government in response to these kinds of issues? We have had a white paper, we have had a green paper, and we have got a Children’s Action Plan.
The Minister places a lot of weight on children’s teams, for instance. Apparently they are going to help 20,000 kids. Where is that resource going to come from? I will tell you where— Family Start.
The Minister is reprioritising resources that are already in the field on early intervention and shifting them to her new action plan. That whole exercise had the goodwill of the community sector behind it, but it did not address core issues.
What we should be looking at is putting children at the heart of all of the decisions that we make around them. We should be focusing on early intervention.
That means Ministers and the Government have to look at deprivation, poverty, and inequality in our communities. That is at the heart of many of these issues that we are dealing.
They need to join back together interventions in the home and continuity of care, because they have been separated. They need to focus on ensuring their department is resourced properly, trained properly, and supported properly. They need to guarantee they will not privatise the bits of the system that they are scared are falling over and causing accountability issues for them.
We have all heard rumours about Serco sniffing around youth justice facilities. We need the Minister to rule out that that will not be her answer and her way of getting this issue off her plate. What we also need to do is ensure that young people who are in care and protection right now, the kids who are in the facilities, the kids who are in care, and the kids who are in foster care are used to come up with the answers.
They should be part of this discussion. Not only did the Minister’s expert advisory panel not even include a social worker, but it did not include the young people who know care and protection better than anyone, and those are the kids who are in it.
Labour will use those voices. Labour will use the voices of social workers. Labour will use the community sector that works in this space. Only collaboratively will we come up with solutions, and that includes Māori and Pasifika as well.
Yes, some of these issues go beyond just the last 7 years, but this report absolutely has to be taken on board by this Government, and responsibility has to be taken by this Government to repair the damage that has been done to children’s lives right now. We should expect no less.