Speech to Fostering Kids New Zealand Conference

  • Anne Tolley
Social Development

E nga mana, e nga reo, e te iwi o te motu, tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa

I’d like to acknowledge your Chief Executive, Linda Surtees, my parliamentary colleague and your MC, Ron Mark, all of the foster carers, social workers, NGO representatives and CYF and MSD staff here today.

Good morning everyone and thank you for the invitation to speak with you and to officially open your conference. 

I want to begin by thanking you for all of the hard work, dedication and sacrifices that you make to improve the lives of vulnerable children and young people.

Can I also thank you and your Chief Executive for the valuable contribution you have made so far to the work of the independent expert panel which is developing a complete overhaul of Child, Youth and Family. A member of Fostering Kids has been made available to the secretariat. Linda, your CE, is a member of the Practice Reference Group. Your caregivers have given important insights into their experiences, and have attended co-design workshops to develop ideas and concepts on the future care system.

I have released the panel’s high level business case for change today, and I’ll talk more about that in a moment.

But before I do, I want to thank you in advance for your work with the panel over the next few months, as a comprehensive multi-year future operating model is developed for CYF, to help improve the lives and outcomes for our most at-risk young Kiwis.

These kids deserve to have happy and successful lives. But too many are being let down. The whole country – CYF, government agencies and communities need to do more to support these young people and to give them a voice.

You know better than most the trauma these young people have faced, and the challenges they face when they try to succeed.

You know better than most the vagaries of a system that prioritises administration and transactions over the needs of children.

Some of the statistics contained in the panel’s report are horrifying – and I use that word deliberately.

By the time children with a care placement who were born in the 12 months to Jun 1991 had reached the age of 21:

Almost 90 per cent were on a benefit.

Over 25 per cent were on a benefit with a child.

Almost 80 per cent did not have NCEA Level 2.

More than 30 per cent had a youth justice referral by the age of 18.

Almost 20 per cent had had a custodial sentence.

Almost 40 per cent had a community sentence.

Overall, six out of every ten children in care are Māori children.

This simply cannot be allowed to continue. These young people and their families need the same opportunities to flourish as other New Zealanders. The personal cost to them of being in care is far too high. They are in this position through no fault of their own.

It is not just someone else’s problem. We must all act to address the poor life outcomes for these young people, and the emotional trauma they suffer. At the same time, we cannot ignore the ongoing and future costs to the country – through Work and Income, Health, Police and Corrections.

We need a system that works for children. We need a system that supports CYF staff to do their job to the best of their abilities, spending time helping kids, keeping them safe and thriving, and supports caregivers and foster parents who open their homes and hearts to give these kids a better life.

The system has to change.

Since 1988, various reviews have led to 14 restructures of CYF.

But the outcomes for children haven’t improved. 

Back in April I announced a “radical overhaul” of CYF, and that an expert panel, led by Paula Rebstock, would oversee the development and implementation of a new operating model to modernise CYF, enhance its governance and assurance, and consider all aspects of CYF operations. 

Since then the panel has met with staff, young people and experienced practitioners, leaders and researchers from across the health, education, justice, social services, and care and protection fields both within and outside of New Zealand. It has also conducted site visits to youth justice and care and protection residences, and family homes. It has met and talked with foster parents and caregivers, and your organisation has been most helpful. The expert panel is supported by my Youth Advisory Panel made up of eight young people with past and current experience of state care, a Māori reference group, a practice reference group and a cross-agency secretariat.

As I said earlier, I have today released the panel’s interim report, which is available on the MSD website, and I urge you all to read it. And I thank the panel for its work to date.

The panel has found that while there are pockets of good practice, and a committed frontline workforce, the system is not delivering effectively for vulnerable children and young people. It is focused on managing immediate risk and containing short-term costs, at the expense of the prevention of re-victimisation, remediation of harm and supporting long-term outcomes for young vulnerable New Zealanders.

The report highlights that while new notifications have been falling over the last few years, demand for CYF services has increased as a result of children re-entering the system, with growing amounts of emotional abuse and neglect.

64 per cent of the 61,000 children notified to CYF in 2014 had a previous notification.

In 2013, children who had been removed from home were on average 8 years old and many of these children had been involved with the system since 2 or 3 years of age.

We must be more effective at intervening early. We need evidence-based, long-term parenting support for families, we need iwi and hapū  taking more responsibility. We need a wider, high-quality pool of caregivers with the necessary support in place so that they can provide stable and loving homes in the long-term.

Seven year-old children should not have eight different home placements.

A study of those in care in 2010 showed that 23 per cent of children who exited care and returned to their biological parents were subject to neglect or physical, emotional or sexual re-abuse within 18 months. Ten per cent of those who returned to kin or whānau were re-abused, while re-abuse rates for those who exited into non-kin and non-whānau placements was one per cent.

These findings fed into an earlier review and steps were taken to address these unacceptable outcomes, but no further evaluations have been carried out to monitor any improvements.

We need a whole new model. We need evidence of what works both for kids in CYF care, and those who leave care, and we need closer, longer monitoring to make sure it’s working.

Transformational change is required.  This will require additional investment and reprioritisation of resources into those areas which make the biggest difference for supporting children.

So there is no quick fix over days and months. I will not allow us to be rushed into taking half-measures to patch up the system. We are talking about years and years of hard work. And CYF cannot take on all of the responsibility. Government agencies will be required to work closer together and prioritise resources and communities must play their part. 

This first report – a case for change – is important as it gives us the platform to properly build for the future. And that work is already underway.

The expert panel has started work on a multi-year future operating model for the agency, which prioritises the needs of children, rather than the process and admin. This includes developing proposals for a new advocacy service to represent the voices of vulnerable children and young people.

The expert panel’s work is guided by the following principles:

  • To place the child or young person at the centre of what we do
  • To support families to care for their children
  • Use evidence-based approaches to get the best results
  • Support the connection of all children, including Māori children, to their family, cultures and communities
  • Have the same high level of aspiration for vulnerable children as we do for all other New Zealand children, and
  • Help all New Zealanders to make a difference for vulnerable children

The panel will also provide operational advice on a number of others areas including:

Early intervention, how we can better support caregivers, and how we can recruit and retain quality caregivers.

It is also looking closely at raising the age of state care. Currently, when these young people are 17, the state’s obligations end and they are left on their own. What parent would say to a seventeen year-old, “You’re on your own now, time to leave the house”? My view is that we should raise the age of care. The question is by how much? And should the state consider having some kinds of obligations for support for these young people into their 20s, as I saw on a visit to Europe earlier this year, and what should that, could that, look like?

The panel will also provide advice on the future of youth justice residences and care and protection residences. Do they provide the best environment for all of the young people who are placed there? Are there better, more effective options to deal with the trauma, mental health issues and violent and sexual abuse that many of them have suffered?

Custodial remands form 73 per cent of total admissions to youth justice residences. But 75 per cent of the young people remanded go on to receive a non-custodial sentence at Youth Court. The panel rightly says this over-use of custodial remand is unacceptable. We need alternatives.

At the same time, we need to do everything we can to keep communities safe.

The expert panel will provide a detailed business case, including costings, to me by December for a new operating model for CYF. It will also provide recommendations for legislative reform and implementation planning.

At the core of the new operating model are some very specific building blocks:

  • A child-centred system, shifting away from processes and administration, where the voices and needs of children and young people are at the forefront of everything the agency does.
  • An investment approach, where data and evidence of what works is used to target earlier intervention and use of resources to improve the life outcomes for children while also reducing future costs for taxpayers.
  • An effective professional practice framework, allowing staff to use their professional judgment and cultural competence to support children, based on clear principles rather than rules, compliance and time-driven practice.
  • Engaging New Zealanders and communities to provide loving, stable families for vulnerable children, take action to support vulnerable children and build their understanding of what care means for children and young people.

We all need to take a good hard look at ourselves. Are the current outcomes for vulnerable kids satisfactory in our country? If not, what are we all doing about it? These children belong to all of us.

You, gathered here today, have already stepped up to help. We can do more to support you, and we need more of you. How can you help facilitate that? How can we help you to do that? How can we all work together to give these kids the chance they deserve for a better life?

While the new operational model is being developed, a feasibility study of an investment approach to improving outcomes for vulnerable children is being commissioned by MSD on behalf of the panel, and the findings will inform the Panel’s December report.

The Panel has also started work engaging with the philanthropic sector to develop a new child advocacy service, to represent the voices of young people in care, and is  looking for opportunities to engage New Zealanders on how they can support and care for vulnerable children and young people, including offering their homes and families as caregivers.

As I said at the start, we need more people like you. Your organisation is playing a vital role in helping us transform the care system for our vulnerable children and young people.

We are all determined to make a difference in the decades ahead.

It won’t be easy. But it is the right thing to do.

Thank you again for inviting me, and best wishes for the remainder of your time here. It’s my pleasure to declare this conference open.