Child abuse needs new solutions

Few of the services CYF provides to vulnerable children and their families have been shown to work.   Dr Bryce Wilkinson talks about child abuse on NBR Radio and on demand on MyNBR Radio.

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Child abuse is a shameful thing. It occurs to a disquieting degree. Child, Youth and Family (CYF), the police and health professionals deal with it on a daily basis. Few could envy them.

Last year the police, health professionals, the public and others notified CYF of care and protection concerns involving 61,000 children. That represents about 6% of children aged  up to 16.

Each year CYF investigates and assesses about 5% of all children and finds that 2% of them have been abused or neglected.

Of course, it is not the same children each year. Sadly, the proportion of children maltreated at least once by age 18 is higher than 2%, much higher. 

By age 18, about 15% of those born in 1990-91 had come to the attention of CYF because of care and protection concerns. CYF has found that 7% of children born in 1990-91 had been maltreated by age 18.

The outlook might be worse for those born between 2005 and 2007. By age five, 18% of these children had come to the attention of CYF for care and protection reasons.

CYF aspires to achieve a safe environment for children who have been abused, or are at high risk of being abused. This is a tough job.

Sometimes CYF has to take newborn babies away from their mothers. Reportedly, it did so 800 times in a recent five-year period.

More often CYF takes children into care. It has been taking about 2% of children aged  up to 16 years into care each year. That represents approaching 20,000 children.

The number in custody at any time is lower. In recent years fewer than 10,000 have been in CYF residences and 2000 have been with caregivers.

So how is this working out? Unacceptably poorly, according to an expert panel’s interim report that Social Development Minister Anne Tolley released last month.

One concern is the high rate of repeat abuse of children on exit from CYF care. The panel reports that in 2010, within 18 months of leaving CYF care, 23% of children put into the care of their biological parents were re-abused, as were 10% of those put into the care of kin or whanau.

In contrast the abuse rate for those released into non-kin, non-whanau care was only 1%.

Not placing children in care in the right place the first time was another concern. The average age of vulnerable children in care is between seven and eight and they have had seven to eight prior placements.

Moreover, the panel also considered that some CYF in-care residences could be doing more harm than good. It suggested that secure residential care should be a last resort.

Certainly, the longer-term outcomes for the 1990-91 birth cohort who have gone through state care or placement are lamentable. By age 21, almost, 90% were on a benefit, more than 25% were on a benefit with a child, almost 80% did not have NCEA level 2, more than 30% had had a youth justice referral by age 18, almost 20% had had a custodial sentence and almost 40% had had a community sentence.

To what degree CYF can be fairly blamed for all this is not clear. CYF is dealing with the saddest cases for which poor outcomes are most likely. The state has to act to protect children from abusive carers but real love and affection is something money can’t buy.

More pointedly, the panel has found CYF lacks clarity of purpose, capabilities, mandate and accountabilities.

According to the report, few of the services CYF provides to vulnerable children and their families have been shown to work. Moreover CYF reportedly lacks the analytical tools and methods to “support an evidence-based approach.”

It is hardly CYF’s fault if successive governments have not given it steadfast clarity of purpose or imposed the required spending and operational disciplines. What is going to change that?

The panel’s strong conclusion is that CYF needs “modernising.” It appears that the minister agrees.

Well, CYF is a product of 1989 legislation. It has been reviewed almost continuously since inception, including 14 restructures between 1988 and 2008.  Why stop there?

According to the interim report, “modernising” means adopting a child-centred “investment approach” built on a “professional practice framework” that engages families and communities. What this means in practice is not clear. Its next report should make it clearer. It is due in December.

The panel’s apparently absolutist vision is that “New Zealand values the wellbeing of our children above all else.” But does this “our” mean our children or those of a complete stranger? Few are going to put their own children second.

Moreover, is this really code for requiring CYF to remove children from mothers on weaker grounds and more permanently than now? That is potentially a draconian power. Real constraints based on presumed innocence until proven guilty are necessary.

Taxpayers might also need to watch their pocket books. In the year to June 2014, the government spent, through the Ministry for Social Development, just over $700 million on services aimed at vulnerable children and families.

The report’s foreword starkly states it “is clear that our [ie, your] upfront investment in New Zealand’s most vulnerable children is insufficient.” Yet the panel also says that the existing spending programmes are ill-justified. So how does it know the spending would be insufficient if well-directed?

The deeper concern is that the panel’s terms of reference are too narrow to allow it to look at broader issues. These include the incentives to bring unwanted kids into the world, undue barriers to jobs and better education, the responsibilities of biological fathers, the failures of families to form in the first place and adoption.

Take adoption, for example. A successful adoption solves the problem of finding a loving home environment. Many would-be parents who want babies are incurring expensive fertility treatments.

Yet the panel reports that there are now fewer than 100 approved domestic adoptions each year. I don’t know why there are so few.

One suggestion I have heard is that the “new norm” of open adoptions could deter many potential adopters. Open adoptions allow the biological parents to be in contact with the adopting family. That could be a scary proposition.

None of this is to argue against Mrs Tolley’s drive to get better outcomes for children and better value for money for taxpayers in CYF.

A “modernised” CYF might be able to do a better job. But it will still be like the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. Important, necessary, but not able to alter the big picture.

Long-standing welfare analyst Lindsay Mitchell plausibly argues that a restructured CYF will not be an effective response to the grim statistics being used to justify that restructuring. It won’t be able to stop mothers from having babies that are going to be abused sooner or later. Nor can it wave a magic wand over the damage caused to abused children.

The search for remedies for the grim statistics being cited needs to look beyond the ambulance.

Bryce Wilkinson is a senior researcher at The New Zealand Initiative

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