White Paper for Vulnerable Children, Launch, 11 October 2012

  • Paula Bennett
Social Development Youth Affairs


Take care of our children, take care of what they hear, take care of what they see, take care of what they feel.

For how the children grow, so will be the shape of Aotearoa.

The work I introduce today is for the broken and the neglected, for those children that need us most as parents, neighbours, practitioners, politicians, and carers and as New Zealanders.

To honour Dame Whina Cooper's words; this is a new way of caring for our most vulnerable children.

A year ago I stood in front of you at this conference and told you that these are my kids, these are your kids; that I felt a strong sense of love and responsibility for them.

We have the power to protect, let's use it.

The White Paper for Vulnerable children presents a new way of working with our most vulnerable children.

It unapologetically targets resources, interventions and support to those children who are currently being abused or seriously neglected and those who are most at risk.

These are significant changes affecting every New Zealander, from the homes in our communities to the top of the beehive.

Some of the most significant changes cross over Health, Education, Justice and Social Development.

My fellow Ministers have been hands on in developing this paper.

They are dedicating resources and are absolutely determined, as am I, to see positive change for our vulnerable children.

The barriers of division in portfolios will be broken down by legislative change.

But first I would like thank Ministers, their officials and all those that have worked so hard to develop this work.

I thank the Prime Minister for his leadership, for assisting me to break down barriers, for putting these children first.

And I thank New Zealanders for being so open to this process and so forthcoming with their passion, their ideas and their fears.

Some of the changes in this document will take time to implement, because for as much as some families suffer from intergenerational dysfunction and are entrenched in that cycle, so are some of our models of working.

In July last year, I introduced the Green Paper for Vulnerable Children. This paper was meant to make you think, to spark debate and discussion.

It succeeded.

We received 9,985 submissions from New Zealanders including over 2,000 from children and these form the backbone of today's announcements.

Your submissions were diverse, they were forthright and considered and they contradicted one another.

We also considered the work of Mel Smith and Coroner Garry Evans and looked at evidence and research both internationally and locally to inform this work.

The White Paper is presented as three separate but intertwined pieces of work.

Volume One was signed off by Cabinet and sets out a programme of change for our most vulnerable children, it is a straightforward 30-page document that is easy to read.

Volume Two is the detailed policy work, rationale and research behind the proposals detailed in the first volume.

The Children's Action Plan is the third document in this series. It is a living document that will change as proposals are implemented and new goals are set and achieved.

Feedback from the community on how we should implement changes will give life to the Children's Action Plan and it will continue to evolve as we work together.

I'm not going to go into detail on what the problems are.

Most of you know we have 152,000 notifications of concern, 61,000 of which require follow up –both have continued a trend of increasing year on year.

21,000 were found to be substantiated cases of abuse and neglect – a number that has encouragingly come down recently but there is more work to be done.

What should horrify all of us the most is the number of children who have died – often at the hands of the people who should protect them.

More than 50 children have died in the last 5 years because of extreme abuse – you know many of their names.

White Paper

There are more than 30 proposed initiatives in the White Paper.

I don't have time to go through them all in detail today but will do my best to go through the paper and will then spend the next few months travelling and talking to community groups and the public about the detail.

We're going to do things very differently, we will target the 20,000 - 30,000 of our most vulnerable children.

The first task is identifying them – knowing who they are.

Vulnerable Kid's Information system

New Zealanders up and down the country have said they want better information sharing systems so we can better protect children.

So we're doing that.

A new Vulnerable Kid's Information system, known as ViKi, will hold information on children in one place and will be accessible to relevant professionals who work with children.

For once, they will be able to build up a clear picture of what is happening with a child.

For example, this could include notifications to CYF, hospital admissions and the concerns of community providers or teachers.

It could include specific information like, issues of family violence or even frequent changes of address.

This will mean authorised professionals accessing ViKi can make better, more informed decisions and respond differently because they now have fuller information.

This is what has been missing for years – it is how children have fallen through the many gaps in multiple systems.

Government agencies and frontline professionals will be able to access the information specific to the child they are working with, when they need it.

High risk adults will also be able to be tracked and monitored through the system.

There will be a coded flagging system.

A school principal logging in might see if a child has a flag next to them and if a flag pops up, will respond accordingly.

The security of ViKi is vital.

Access will be limited to approved people only, with varying levels of access depending on the individual's role, and we will monitor who is accessing information.

Child Protect Line

Another thing New Zealanders asked for was a way of getting help and advice about what to do, from a neutral organisation.

So we're establishing a new Child Protect line that will provide a one stop contact point for anyone with concerns about any child.

This will encourage people to seek help for children without feeling they're creating trouble or bringing authorities into the home.

This will be run independently from Child, Youth and Family.

Serious reports of concern about the safety of children will still be referred to CYF of course, but less serious concerns could be triaged and referred to community groups like Barnados for example.

The Child Protect Line will provide a vital link that recognises many people want advice and support – not just to notify but to actually help.

All information will be logged into ViKi to continue building that picture I talked about earlier.

Risk Predictor Tool

We have been working with Auckland University to build new tools to help professionals identify which children are most at risk.

It is possible to develop statistical criteria to help identify children at greater risk based on information about them and their family circumstances.

This has been made possible through a risk predictor tool which is being tested and will improve our power to protect.

To address abuse and neglect we have to get in front of the problem. This tool will inform rather than replace professional judgement.

Parents, family and whanau have the first responsibility to care and protect their children.

Governments also assume a responsibility for children through Child, Youth and Family; however this should not rest with one agency alone.

But I think one of the problems has been that responsibility for abused children has just sat with CYF.

Actually, their health and education is just as important.

That's why this Government has told the Chief Executives of Social Development, Health, Education Justice, NZ Police, Housing and Te Puni Kokiri that they will work together and be jointly accountable for achieving results for vulnerable children.

This will be legislated for.

This change is significant. But there will also be changes to our response on the ground.

Regional Directors and Children's Teams

New Regional Children's Directors will be put in place.

They will be accountable for improving outcomes for vulnerable children.

They'll have the ability to make funding decisions that ensure local needs are being met, to move the money to where it is needed.

They will also bring together new Children's Teams to coordinate a response for each child.

Children's Teams will bring together professionals in a local area to assess the needs of individual vulnerable children using a common assessment framework.

Each child will then have an individual plan and be assigned a lead professional who will take responsibility for that plan.

So not only will the right people be around the table, they'll be directly involved in these children's lives, making vital decisions to protect them.

But, we won't throw out what's already working.

We will look at how services like Strengthening Families and the Family Violence Interagency Response fit with the new Children's Team.

We will remove many layers and set up a professional system that works to a clear set of common assessments.

Of course much work has already started and will continue.

Investing in Services for Outcomes will play an important part in ensuring resources are going to where they are most needed.

I can't stress enough the importance of quality assessment and evaluation and the collection of meaningful data.

Professor Gluckman and Families Commissioner Carl Davidson are currently designing the new research and evaluation unit SuPERU and they will be tasked with helping us improve outcomes for vulnerable children.

One of the first priorities I have set them is to evaluate and review the effectiveness of parenting programmes in New Zealand.

Children in Care

We have spoken before about our kids in care - those children and young people who are under the custody and protection of the state.

We were once a world leader in care and protection - it is time for us to lead again.

Four months ago I convened an experts group to help design a new care strategy for children in care.

Much of this work is thanks to that group of experts and our own Chief Social Worker.

Vulnerable children will be at the centre of child protection, legislation, policy and most importantly practice.

Government agencies will have a shared accountability for the outcomes for these children and young people.

We introduced Gateway Assessments to check what health and education issues children in care have.

You won't be surprised to know these children have multiple unmet health and education needs.

This evidence shows it's vital we intervene early and intensively to address these issues.

We'll make sure government departments all take responsibility for ensuring these children access the vital services they need.

I have been working with iwi to help identify pre-approved caregivers.

In September Ngā Puhi signed the first MoU between iwi and Child, Youth and Family to help better facilitate this process.

When a child has to be removed we would rather have them placed within their hapu.

They will go through the same approval process any other carer does.

But over time we'd like to develop a database so we don't waste precious time looking for someone to care for a child when they need it.

We all know the importance of having a permanent, safe home.

In my view it is the most vital ingredient to ensure a change in negative outcomes for these children and young people.

There are many complex and varied issues that often hinder a child from having a home for life.

Home for Life and caregivers

Our home for life initiative has provided us with important learnings that we've brought into the White Paper.

We will:

  • Contract non-government organisations to offer ongoing support to families who take in a child
  • Extend the parent child interaction therapy
  • Expand the number of specialist trained caregivers for high needs and high risk teens
  • Look at extending parental leave provisions to include families who take on a child in care permanently.

And something I have fought hard for and am determined to deliver is extra financial assistance to grandparents raising grandchildren and kin carers.

The transition to adulthood for teens who have been under the care of CYF is far from perfect.

The new Youth Services targeting 16 and 17 year olds will give particular emphasis to helping these young people transition.

A social worker will stay with them to ensure they stay safe and get the help they need.

Screening and vetting

There will be a new screening process for vetting people working with children.

It will be set out in law and remove any grey areas.

Everyone seems to run a different process, let's get this right, the new process will involve training and registration and employment and contracting relationships.

Social workers are able to register with the Social Workers Registration Board and we will encourage them to register but will not make it compulsory.

Child, Youth and Family are currently working towards a fully registered workforce in the next three years.

Where possible I encourage other professional groups of social workers to set a similar goal.

But at this time we cannot burden our non-government organisations with the cost by making it compulsory.

There will however be a tiered set of core competences and minimum quality standards for those that work with children.

We will set out the core competences and standards in guidelines but will consider a law change if necessary.

Mandatory reporting

The issue of mandatory reporting has been debated for years.

There are pros and cons depending on how you look at it.

We already have high levels of notifications in New Zealand – often the same as or higher than some Australian states that have mandatory reporting.

In the end I have decided that we will not be introducing mandatory reporting.

We will however introduce initiatives that place new requirements on agencies and help us identify who is most vulnerable.

We will introduce compulsory child abuse policies for agencies working with children.

This will be legislated and will also be supported by a code of practice that makes it clear that people have a responsibility to report suspected abuse or neglect.

We will train all frontline public sector staff, for example doctors and teachers, to detect abuse.

It astounds me that most professionals are lucky if they even come across a lecture on identifying the signs of abuse during their years of training.

More must be done.

Dealing with abusers

We are introducing a series of changes to deal with those who abuse children.

New Zealanders overwhelmingly want us to get tougher on child abusers to better protect our kids.

Child abuse prevention orders will allow judges to stop child abusers from gaining access to children, meaning high-risk adults are flagged and prevented from working with or living with children.

When a parent has already seriously abused their own child and lost the care of that child, a Child Abuse Prevention Order could include a presumption that the Court remove another baby born into that situation.

We will investigate legislation that would limit the guardianship rights of abusive parents who maintain an on-going risk to their children even after that child is removed.

The Family Court would be able to make the decision to stop parents from endangering a child's right to a safe, loving, permanent home.

Other White Paper initiatives include an independent review of Child, Youth and Family's complaints process, strengthened mentoring programmes, corporate scholarships for children in care.

The response

You will agree and disagree with my response. I know that.

I also know that you are an important part of the solution.

How we implement these measures will be vital - more important than the paper itself.

So while you may agree or disagree with some parts of it, I ask you to help me in implementing these measures.

You will not only have a say, you will have an opportunity to shape how much of this works in our communities.

Because issues of abuse and neglect are so complex and entrenched, the solutions have often seemed out of reach.

They are not.

We have the power to protect within each of us as individuals, parents, brothers and sisters, neighbours, professionals, volunteers and politicians.

By making the changes contained in the White Paper for Vulnerable Children, New Zealand can radically alter the futures of our most vulnerable.

We can prevent the harm that devastates lives, we can protect our children and we can help them thrive, belong and achieve as they should.