• Roger Sowry
Social Services, Work and Income

Southland Campus College of Education, Invercargill

Chairman Ewan Laurenson, members of the Family and Fostercare Federation executive, Race Relations Conciliator Rajen Prasad, Associate Professor of Law Mark Henaghan, caregivers, social workers, ladies and gentlemen.

It's good to be here today on the first day of your annual conference.

Standing here today it feels like I've come full circle. I've visited a number of caregivers around the country, and met the children they care for, and I can wholeheartedly say that caregivers are a truly amazing breed of people. Now here I am at fresher end of the country to address you all.

Foster families provide a remarkable service in our communities.

You care for young people with all kinds of difficulties, and do it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, regardless of whether you are sick or tired or stressed.

You work away in our communities often unrecognised and unnoticed, but with the potential to change a child's life in very real and positive ways.

Caregivers are an invaluable resource and deserve to be treated as such.

You are expected to provide a safe and nurturing home for youngsters who, in many cases, will continue to display dysfunctional symptoms arising out of the circumstances which led to their needing care in the first place.

It's tough.

The reports come across my desk every now and again explaining for example, the difficulty a foster family is experiencing with a particular child.

One of my staff used to work for CYPFS and she attests, and often does, to the difficulties caregivers face in helping families and children with difficulties.

It takes more than love to be caregiver.

You must have the skills and intelligence and basically be prepared to work damned hard.

It is a role that most people would not think about doing. Caregiving is a truly remarkable skill.

Since the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act came into force eight years ago, the Department of Social Welfare has worked in partnership with Child and Family Support Services, Iwi Social Services and individual caregivers to help families with difficulties.

The importance of this partnership cannot be underestimated.

It is well known that successful placements arise from families being well assessed, prepared and supported.

In decisions which are being made for children, their welfare and interests must always be kept to the fore.

This is most likely to happen when there is a team work and planning approach, and where there is a commitment to provide ongoing support to the foster family.

The Federation provides a valuable voice and advocacy for agencies who provide care, individual caregivers and to young people in care.

Caregivers are a very important and valued resource. Caregiving is a challenging, highly complex task taken on by a whole family, not just the immediate foster parents.

There are both rewards and costs in this task for the whole family.

There will inevitably be times when a child displays difficult behaviour as they grow and develop.

The family must be well prepared and equipped to handle this behaviour but also know they can rely on support and input from a social worker.

There are rewards. There must be, otherwise there wouldn't be so many people gathered here today. The rewards come from seeing a child or young person responding to appropriate loving care, gaining a more positive outlook and perhaps building enough self esteem to grow and develop as all children deserve to.

It is a wonderful gift, a family opening their home and their hearts to a young person.

It is a gift which should be reflected by a similar commitment in support from the community to its foster care families.

Families who commit themselves to care for a young person for whatever period of time are truly remarkable families.

I have noted several points raised by the Federation in its position paper on permanency, which struck a chord with me.

The issues raised aren't just about permanency.

I believe they are about best practice in foster care.

Good foster care practice aims to assist a family through its difficulties using planned intervention.

The primary aim is to either return a child when things have improved to that family or a member of their wider family. If returning home is no longer an option the goal becomes providing a permanent loving home, while maintaining and developing links for the child with their own family.

In accordance with the Act, intervention in to family life should be the minimum necessary to ensure a child's safety and protection.

This means that the social work and other support given a family caring long term should be as minimal as possible, with the family being left to get on with their own life without agency intervention.

The prime intention of the Act is to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the child. This is best secured when the family concerned receives the social work support it needs, which will vary from situation to situation.

Again the partnership between agencies is vital.

Just what and how this support is given should come out of team discussion and planning so that the family knows it is not on its own.

The Children, Young Persons and their Families Service is taking a number of steps to tackle issues facing care services.

CYPFS is currently focussed on improving the service it delivers in the area of care. The Care Management project is reviewing guidelines provided to staff, particularly in relation to improving the way that needs of family caregivers are assessed.

This Project is about developing best practice for care services, including a training package for social workers, addressing the needs of kinship carers, planning for discharge and permanency.

CYPFS has also dedicated a position at National Manager level to focus on the special needs of caregivers.

The person carrying out this role is Janet Worfolk.

The Service is also aware of a number of issues concerning foster carers and caregivers. Issues such as how clothing grants are paid, indemnity insurance for caregivers, the difference between board payments and the unsupported child benefit and issues surrounding permanent placement of children.

I understand that the Department is working to address these issues and is making some progress.

Your concerns do not fall on deaf ears I can assure you.

A number of the publications have been developed to meet needs identified by caregivers like yourselves.

The Foster Care Charter for example, sets out standards for caregiving and was a joint project between the Service and the Federation. The "By and Towards" guidelines set out appropriate conduct between caregivers and the young people they care for, including how to deal with allegations of abuse.

And two significant pieces of work by the Children, Young Persons and their Families Service are the "Becoming a Caregiver" manual and the Caregiver Handbook.

There has been some discussion recently about the Department's strategic direction towards 2005.

This is not a new initiative, but was written over two years ago. The Department's strategic direction is set out in a document published in 1995, and relates to an aim to reduce the number of children in out-of-family care.

This has caused some anxiety amongst caregivers due to a resultant and reasonable belief that caregiving services will be required less in future.

The strategy sets out a vision for the Service. It is that all families are meeting their care, control and support responsibilities.

The aim is to have ninety percent of funding directed to non-residential services which support and strengthen families in dealing with their problems. I believe that this must be our aim, that ideally all children should be cared for by their immediate or wider families or whanau.

I have said before and I will say again that I do not believe the State can be a parent. The State can not offer a child the love, support and nurturing that a parent or family member can.

The State does have a role to support foster carers, however this might not necessarily be through the traditional CYPFS social worker.

CYPFS, like the whole of Social Welfare, is motivated by the "Welfare to Wellbeing" strategy. Its emphasis is on mobilising communities and strengthening the role of families and whanau in raising children and young people.

This strategy is in keeping with the care and protection principles of the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act.

The care and protection principles of the Act give guidance about care arrangements for children and young people who are separated from family, whanau or usual caregivers by interventions under the Act.

Caregiving or fostering will still be required by the year 2005 but there will be a concentrated effort towards reducing the numbers of children in care and in particular the numbers of out of family care.

The care and protection principles of the Act that guide social work practice do not eliminate the need for caregiving.

The principles do require all agencies to look first to the family or whanau for placement.

For a number of children and young people a return home or placement within the extended family may not be a viable option.

These young people will continue to be placed on specialist treatment programmes or with out-of-family caregivers in a permanent situation.

Others will require care for short periods while assessments and/or court action takes place.

Our communities know the problems they are facing. They are also often the best judges of what solutions will work in their areas.

The Government is keen to encourage this community involvement, ownership and local decision making.

We are already making some progress in this area with our Strengthening Families strategy - a constructive interagency approach to dealing with children and youth at risk.

It aims to ensure that cases don't fall down the cracks between agencies.

It is being lead by the Ministers and Chief Executives of Education, Health and Social Welfare, with support from the Treasurer and the Prime Minister.

We are slowly and quietly working our way around the country, and eventually hope to have all communities involved.

The commitment of these Chief Executives is shown through their regular meetings which purely focus on better coordination between sectors. Cooperation and coordination when dealing with children and youth at risk is not just an issue for government.

But Government agencies can lead by example. This is an issue for everyone.

Local governments, non-government organisations, and business sectors across the country are getting involved.

In order for this to work agencies and communities must 'buy' into the process.

I'd like to tell you about a local foster care initiative that is being proposed in Nelson. The Foster Care Association in Nelson is leading the way with a proposal to address the difficulties of finding suitable placements for difficult adolescents.

There is a dearth of adults, in social work, the teaching profession or among caregivers, with the necessary skills to handle difficult adolescents especially those who have been raised in abusive families.

Under the Nelson proposal the local association will work with CYPFS to recruit, approve and train foster care providers who will take only teenagers.

It is widely acknowledged that one of the most important needs for a caregiver is to know they have support. Another caregiver is the best person to understand and provide support.

One of Nelson's key proposals is a buddy system.

This means that every foster caregiver taking a teenager will have skilled support built in from the beginning and available around the clock.

I'm sure Sue Murphy from the Nelson Association will talk more about the proposal to you later in the conference.

The Nelson Association's proposal is just one example of regions taking the initiative.

It is a prime example of how once involved and mobilised, our communities can offer solutions to issues in their area. Not to necessarily take directives from central government.

Ultimately we would like to target every region in the country about Strengthening Families.

Slowly but surely we will spread the word that stronger families will lead to stronger communities and vice versa.

Once again I would like to use this opportunity to thank you for the work you do in our communities.

It is a hard job, one that many people underestimate.

It is truly remarkable.

And I thank you.