Changing The Face Of Care - The State Can't Be An Effective Parent

  • Roger Sowry
Social Services, Work and Income

Waikato Diocese School for Girls
River Road, Hamilton

Euan Laurenson, Federation members, Parliamentary colleagues good evening.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak at your annual conference again this year.

It has been a busy year in the care and protection field since we were last together, and I am encouraged by the theme of this year's conference.

This theme sums up the approach that I believe is needed if the care and protection sector is to be fully equipped to cope with the demands and challenges of vulnerable children and their families beyond the year 2000 - to look to the past, to consolidate the present, and move to the future.

In a way my department has already taken on board the Look Back and Stride Forward objective when it developed the Social Services Strategy 1995 - 2005 which forms the basis of all its policy and practice development today.

We live in an ever changing society and nowhere is that change more evident than in the make up of families and the stresses on families today.

The problems and situations being faced by New Zealand families today are not necessarily worse or greater but more complex than problems of just a decade ago.

So it follows that individuals and groups working in the child protection sector and in our communities are facing greater challenges.

At the core of this Government's strategy is to focus effort on policies and services to strengthen families.

To make families stronger we are:

ensuring that state intervention does not extend too far and thereby maintain a dependency relationship,

ensuring that effective interaction and co-operation exists between agencies who provide services to families - that is both State agencies and not for profit sector, and

providing the correct range of services and programmes where State intervention is necessary.
The most important point here is I believe, the interaction and co-operation between agencies. That is a reflection of the principles in the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act and the Government's belief that no longer is the State the be all and end all for children in need.

I have repeatedly said that I believe that State can't be a parent, because of the simple fact that the State can not nurture, or support, or love a child like a parent and a family can.

The Act which came into being 9 years ago actively promotes families and whanau as the best agents for caring for their children and young people.

For the objectives of the Act to work, everyone involved in the care and protection system - the Children Young Persons and their Families Service, families, caregivers, foster parents, social workers and service agencies - must work together to ensure that the child grows and flourishes and that his/her family is supported, challenged and assisted to make whatever changes are necessary for the safe and permanent return of their child.

I know that the Federation and the Service have had dialogue on the issue of permanency and that there has not necessarily been agreement. However if we fail to address the protection issues for a child they may be seriously injured or die. If we fail to attend properly to their needs for permanency their 'soul' may wither from lack of love, cultural isolation, no sense of belonging and an absence of commitment.

When all differences are put aside everyone in that foster care partnership is working towards the same goal - that every child where possible has a safe, supportive and permanent place within a family whether their own or an alternative.

The challenge facing your Federation and all those involved in the care equation is that if the vision of the Act and realities of permanency planning is to be achieved, then some aspects of the foster care partnership will be under threat.

Many of you will be aware that the Service has been conducting reviews of children in care to identify those children for whom the permanency options need to be carefully managed.

For example, in Dunedin over the last eighteen months 190 children in care have been reviewed, and for 39 children transfer of guardianship from the State to their current caregiver was identified as the best solution for those children.

The Service and the local association have worked together to ensure the review process meets the needs of all parties. I know that hasn't been without conflict, but conflict often arises with any change. The challenge to the Federation and the Service is to remain focused on the needs of each and every child.

I am pleased that the interface between the Service and Income Support has loosened considerably to improve access to resources for those of you who take on guardianship and custody of the children in your care, which should alleviate the concerns of many caregivers.

I am aware that in other parts of the country associations are telling caregivers not to get involved in discussion on permanency, and I have to say I find this very disappointing and short sighted. Lack of dialogue will not help to address the problem of children and young people drifting in care, and will not help those children to find regular family life to get on with the business of growing up safe and loved within a family.

I said earlier that the State can't be a parent, but neither does the State wish to walk away from its responsibilities.

I am pleased to announce that the Cabinet has endorsed in principle a care strategy which identifies the number of beds and community services required to manage our most difficult children and young people which many of you are currently caring for.

This updates the Department of Social Welfare's 1996 strategy because it was clear that current beds and services are not adequate.

Now more than ever before, providing care is about more than love, stability and good old fashioned family values.

The Service now has contracts with agencies who specialise in providing treatment and care for children with severe behavioural difficulties and those who sexually abuse.

This updated strategy will enable us to provide more of these services.

Getting treatment programmes established for these children is no easy task.

Everyone wants them, they want to give children a chance, everyone is supportive of the idea of treatment programmes, but no-one wants to live next door to one.

The Not In My Back Yard syndrome is alive and thriving in our communities.

My challenge to you as a Federation is to challenge the NIMBY's living in your communities and speak out publicly against those who want to ignore the problem or pass the blame.

I want you to advocate publicly for those children and young people who do not have a voice.

The updated care strategy encompasses an increasing number of young people exhibiting sex abusing or behavioural difficulties who require community based treatment and out of family placement at a low level. Often their anti-social behaviours don't exist in isolation, so a young person may be having learning difficulties, drug and alcohol addiction, or mental health problems.

What we need are specialist services specifically designed to change their anti-social behaviour, and already in Auckland the Youth Horizons Trust is providing that specialist care for young people with great success.

Another challenge facing the care and protection sector is services for sex abusers.

In addition to the treatment unit in Christchurch which is in the final planning approval stage, children require a range of community based services if their behavioural problems are to be addressed.

Providing these services now will in many cases prevent escalation of offending and circumvent the need to provide more costly services to the same people in the future.

It will also enable the treatment needs of those children to be met so that those of you providing care are better supported.

The Government is also scrutinising its role in the social service continuum with our strengthening families strategy.

Across Health, Education and Welfare we are identifying the gaps and overlaps in delivery of service to ensure co-ordination at local levels and at national level with the sole purpose of ensuring that individual families at risk are getting the help they need to make their families stronger.

I am pleased to hear that the Federation has been able to have a meaningful role in the development of policy and practice within the Service and that they too are looking at their future role.

The Federation's Foster Care 2000 initiative has my support and the $20,000 of Government funding granted to the Federation for that initiative this year hopefully will go some way towards achieving the aims of Foster Care 2000, which are:

to develop the professional profile of the Federation,
to address the challenges for foster and kinship families,
provide a framework to train, register and accredit foster carers,
be the point of reference for government agencies on foster care/kinship care issues, and to
deliver sound advise to the community on foster care/kinship care issues.
We need to support a process whereby policy makers, service delivery agencies and practitioners continually review their own role within the sector. As I stated earlier the Government is doing this with its strengthening families strategy.

The greatest challenge in the STRIDE FORWARD theme is to find the best mix of community services which will enable all families to meet their care, control and support responsibilities.

Whether that is achieved through Government provided services, or not for profit sector provided services or a mix of the two is not something I am concerned with.

The main purpose that everyone in the care sector must have is that the principles of the Children Young Persons and Their Families Act are being achieved and that the needs of our future generation are being met.

And finally I'd like to thank you all for the invaluable support you provide to vulnerable children and young people throughout the country. I realise this is a difficult time but making progress is hard and in order to stride forward we must look back and be prepared to tackle the challenges placed in our path.

I wish you all the best for your conference.

Thank you.