Speech to announce Children’s Action Plan legislation

  • Paula Bennett
Social Development

I think the most important work I will ever do as a Minister is the work contained in the Children’s Action Plan.

We are fundamentally changing the way we work with children and how we protect the most vulnerable.

I feel a deep sense of responsibility for the thousands of children who are hurt and abused in this country.

More than fifty children have died in the last five years because of extreme abuse.

Because of abuse, a child under two is hospitalised every five days.

Every year Child, Youth and Family substantiates 22,000 cases of physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect.

We’ve already introduced significant changes that are a making a difference and there’s an enormous amount of work underway for the Children’s Action Plan.

  • We have a National Children’s Director in place.
  • Two Children’s Teams; Rotorua is up and running and Whangarei is nearly there.
  • A Vulnerable Children’s Board of Chief Executives has been operating for months.

And we’re working on:

  • A care strategy for children in State care
  • The child protect line
  • Vulnerable Kid’s Information System
  • Increasing the pool of iwi caregivers
  • And much more

But there is still more to do.

The Children’s Action Plan is a ten year plan to take those next big steps forward.

Today I’m announcing proposed legislation that gives power to that plan.

I would like to thank the Prime Minister for his support for this work.

He has been 100 per cent committed from day one – as have my Ministerial colleagues.

We genuinely share responsibility for these children and together we’re taking action.

This is the most significant legislative reform in this area since 1989 when the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act was introduced.

I’ve been leading a series of interrelated changes – relating to vulnerable children, welfare reform and community services. These fit together with children at their core.

This legislation contains major and far reaching changes and also strengthens our commitment to children whose lives have already been damaged.

It will allow government to do everything possible to shore up frontline protections.

The Chief Executives of five government agencies will be accountable for vulnerable children.

There will be clear performance expectations for Chief Executives; they’ll have to report annually and answer to Ministers directly on their part, in a cross agency plan for these kids.

Do not underestimate the power of this unprecedented move.

Never before in this country have the Chief Executives of Health, Education, Police, and Justice had specific accountability together, for vulnerable children.

Now they will, alongside the Ministry of Social Development of course.

It will significantly change the way they work.

They’ll have to ensure they’re improving the wellbeing of vulnerable children, protecting them from abuse and taking a child-centred approach.

Together they’ll design a cross agency plan for vulnerable children which they’ll have to report on annually and front up to Ministers on the progress they make.

These five agencies as well as, Te Puni Kokiri and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, are all represented on the Vulnerable Children’s Board.

The Vulnerable Children’s Board is an important part in the accountability chain leading from the Children’s Teams working on the ground up to a Ministerial Oversight Group.

But I see a whole Children’s Workforce as having some level of responsibility.

That is every person who comes into contact with or works closely with children.

I’ll explain the new screening and vetting of that workforce in a moment, but first; new restrictions will keep dangerous, violent and abusive people away from children.

These workforce restrictions will apply to those who have serious convictions.

I’m talking about murder, manslaughter, sexual violation, assault on a child and sexual conduct with young people.

It’s critically important we get this list right – I’m asking the select committee to explore this and for the public to have a say.

But we simply have to protect our vulnerable children from these serious offenders.

There will be serious consequences – I’m proposing heavy fines - if organisations fail to comply with these restrictions.

On top of this measure, we’re introducing minimum standards for screening and vetting of the children’s workforce.

It will be mandatory for Government employees and agencies that contract with government and work with children and voluntary for wider community groups.

There are hundreds-of-thousands of people in that children’s workforce.

In the core workforce, we’re talking about paediatricians, teachers, Child, Youth and Family social workers and children’s counsellors, for example.

The wider workforce could include non-teaching staff, library reading group leaders and Work and Income case managers.

All up, it’s more than 370,000 people.

Minimum standards for screening and vetting will identify potential abusers.

It’ll include specific interview techniques, thorough reference and Police record checks as well as the history and behaviour of every one of those individuals.

It’ll mean checking with former employers and wider community members about any concerns relating to children.

Often, people have concerns and information about potential abusers. If only someone had asked.

If this requirement had existed, the employers of James Parker would’ve discovered people had serious concerns about the former-teacher who, as we now know, abused children.

Agencies will be required to do a thorough risk assessment with periodic reassessments every three years.

As I said - this will be mandatory for all government agencies and government-funded organisations working with children – and voluntary for community organisations.

You should know Cabinet thought long and hard about this one. The question was where to draw the line between mandatory and voluntary pick up.

We felt Government had a responsibility to lead the way and make it easy for community groups to follow.

I actually think they’ll voluntarily take up the screening and vetting measures.

We’re open to the idea of having a centralised vetting and screening system, similar to the Blue Card system in Queensland – which we are watching closely.

The community needs to be assured that we as government have done everything possible to ensure that the children’s workforce is safe.

Now I want to explain the Child Harm Prevention Orders.

There are cases where children have been abused because a dangerous individual got close enough to do so, sometimes literally by moving into their home.

I will not tolerate abusive adults having that freedom and that power over children.

New Zealanders are sick of known abusers hurting more children.    So am I

Simply, children must come first.

A High Court or District court will be able to place these new civil orders on adults with a history of serious convictions who pose a high risk of abusing children.

This could also include cases where, on the balance of probabilities, it’s believed the person was responsible for seriously abusing or killing a child.

Harassment orders are decided on this basis, so it is not legally unusual.

They could be placed on top of restraining and harassment orders.

These orders can restrict people from living with children, going to places where children often are – like parks, and working or associating with children.

An order can also restrict that person from changing their name.

There will be changes to protect children born to parents who’ve previously abused or even killed a child.

Currently, it’s only when those abusive parents have a subsequent child and come to the attention of Child, Youth and Family that the child’s safety is assessed.

If Child, Youth and Family believe the child is unsafe, it has to prove that to the Court.

We will reverse that burden of proof.

The parent will have to prove, that their child is safe in their care.

We’re talking about cases where children have previously been killed or have survived the worst examples of abuse.

We know that past behaviour is a predictor of future behaviour.

It is the unfortunate reality that some children are at risk from the day they’re born.

I’m demanding a higher level of scrutiny; all cases under this criteria will be assessed.

Through a clear process, Child, Youth and Family will provide an assessment to the Family Court, which then makes the ultimate decision.

Parents of course will have a part in that process and can always appeal decisions.

This legislation makes it possible to curtail the guardianship rights of parents whose children were taken into care and placed into a Home For Life.

We introduced Home for Life in 2010.

If a child can’t be with their parents, we aim to find them a permanent Home for Life.

We know permanency is vital– and a Home for Life family can provide the love and stability that child desperately needs.

It is a step below adoption, so birth parents retain a number of rights to maintain a connection to the child.

This is as it should be – we should always endeavour to foster those family ties.

Unfortunately, some birth parents exploit those rights and create instability and emotional turmoil for the caregiving families and children.

This happens when parents veto overseas holidays – so a week-long trip to Australia, which might be the first holiday that child has ever had, can be sabotaged.

It happens with vexatious attempts to drag out court cases, some of which can be played out over many years – leaving the child in a constant state of unease over their future.

It also happens with weekend visits from particularly aggressive or manipulative parents who seek to undermine the new family home.

These are examples of how birth parents can pull the rug out from under those children who desperately need stability.

Right now, we have only either very light or very heavy handed options to address this.

Under this new legislation, Family Court Judges will have a new tool.

It’ll mean Judges can set specific guardianship rights that are proportionate to that individual child and their new family. 

These changes might be controversial.

It’s an unfortunate reality; but they are necessary.

These changes are significant and will make a fundamental difference to protecting the most vulnerable children and allowing them to thrive.

I want to reiterate, what I’m announcing today is the legislative elements of the Children Action Plan – this is part of a large, moving body of changes that are underway.

I’ve called you here today because it’s complex, detailed and very important.

So it’s important to me that you and therefore New Zealanders, understand it fully.

This legislation is planned to be introduced this month and there will of course be a full select committee process.

We will be inviting everyone who submitted on the Green Paper two years ago to get involved and have a say on this legislation.

As always we’re listening and open to changes in the Bill – but we’re equally determined to take action and make a real difference.