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Supporting New Zealand families - Steve Maharey

Hon. Steve Maharey

26 June 2003 Speech Notes

Supporting New Zealand families

Address to the 5th Child and Family Policy Conference. University of Otago, Dunedin.


"The magi, as you know, were wise men--wonderfully wise men--who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger... And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days, let it be said that of all who give gifts, these two were the wisest¡K They were the magi."

From The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry

Kia ora ladies and gentleman.

What treasure can we, together, gift the children of New Zealand? The children - the tamariki - of today and of tomorrow.

Will it be a gift that, in retrospect, proves wise?

I'm very pleased to be here today - thank you Anne Smith for your invitation.

This government has a keen interest in the well being of children. Though perhaps a trite saying, children are indeed our future. For they are the citizens, the leaders, the stewards and the innovators of tomorrow.

Maybe a sobering thought: in but just a few decades, it is we who will be dependent on them.

It's along these lines that American comedienne Phyllis Diller recommends being nice to your children - because "it is they who will pick your rest home."

Retirement complexes aside, what we achieve in building for the children of New Zealand now, will indeed be visited on us in the future.

Family - society's building block

The most significant influence in a child's life is without question his or her family.

The family unit is the essential building block of society; it provides the fundamental role of raising children, and offers personal care and emotional support for its members.

The family unit is also the "institution' that interacts with the state, the community and the market, dealing in the currency of well being.

To achieve that well being for all New Zealanders we need to foster healthy families. This is the imperative indicated by a number of immediate and long-term outcomes measured by various agencies.

From Ministry of Social Development research we have identified a number of characteristics of the families who can best cope with life's ups and downs.

We know the families that cope are cohesive - they stick together.

They are flexible and adaptable, and they are good at communicating with one another.

We know that they are effective problem solvers with a good knowledge of available external resources.

Children in these families receive care that is high on warmth and high on control.

These "successful' families also have the foundation of a strong belief system and sense of family values.

The New Zealand family today

In order to support families to be successful, we need to know their circumstances.

So, what is the state of the New Zealand family early in the third millennium?

When we consider "the family' and what it means today, our thinking needs to stretch more broadly than perhaps 50 years ago. A family is, somewhat loosely, a committed relationship of some form that provides an identity, a sense of place and, tangible and intangible benefits for its "members'.

The kinship may be biological; it may be social.

In terms of characteristics, we're seeing a much greater equality of roles in today's family. The continuing growth in the number of women with children participating in the workforce is translating into more sharing of roles at home and a shifting of the power base between the sexes.

Anthony Giddens, Director of the London School of Economics talks about the democratisation of families. This concept embraces the idea that the family is no longer primarily an economic unit. That it is a set of relationships based much more upon communication and, especially, emotional communication.

This sees parental roles less clearly defined: "who does what' is much more open to negotiation. If you like, a quieter sexual revolution has been taking place, where society is becoming more egalitarian in the relationship between the sexes.

Certainly the "house husband' is less of an oddity today than, say, 15 years ago.

However, we're also seeing that parent relationships are less stable - this country's divorce rate mirrors the upward trend of other western countries.

And generally, relationships are less formalised. In 2001, 59% of New Zealand households had two married parents compared with 1981 when that figure was 83%.

Many children today are growing up in households with only one parent - some 29% of households are single parent families.

The increase in separation and divorce has placed pressure on the enduring role of fathers. Some treat separation from the mother of their children as a separation from the parenting role. "Absentee fathers' has become a term de jour.

An increased number of children are spending time in more than one household as a result of separated or divorced parents. This often goes hand-in-hand with that other phenomenon of our times - the blended family.

And we're also seeing much greater diversity in ethnicity and culture.

Some of these evolutionary changes are very positive. Others, though, increase the stress experienced by today's family unit, compounding external pressures such as work and employment demands.

Continuation of change

The late 20th century, holds no monopoly on change for families.

Looking back over time we can see the many ways in which family structures, functions and processes have evolved.

The changes of the past 40-50 years, though, have been substantial. One consequence, is that for many children in families, changes in structure, circumstances and location are commonplace.

In looking forward, we can expect some of the characteristics I've just discussed to consolidate.

More specifically:

- We're likely to see a continuation of increasing diversity in ethnicity and culture.

- We expect the fertility rate to decline further and settle at the average of 1.9 children per family.

The number of families that stretch across two households will rise and this will see families increasingly grapple with the issues of joint care and access.

The increase in rates of dissolution and single parent families has already slowed. But the rates are still much higher than 50 years ago.

For some years we've observed the trend for women to delay childbearing. This is likely to continue. It's also likely to add to a multi-generational demand for care - where families are caring for both dependent children and young people, along with older family members.

Related to this, we expect an increase in the number of older people choosing to remain in their own homes and needing intensive support to enable them to do so.

Supporting New Zealand families

The challenge before us then, is to support the varying family configurations as they develop so that they can all operate effectively and successfully; so that our children have the best opportunities to realise their potential and participate fully.

It is a challenge for us all. Social well being does not happen in isolation. Singularly and collectively, individuals, agencies, advocates, communities and government have a role to play.

With our strong sense of independence, New Zealanders regard the personal relationships and activities of family life as quite distinctly private. Only interventions aimed at protecting individuals within families, and then only in extreme or unusual circumstances, are deemed as desirable.

The role of government in shaping family formation, structures, processes and patterns of change can therefore be a contentious area of social policy. Just how far should a government be involved? Of course, different philosophical creeds afford different views.

Less contentious, though, is recognition of the need for government to give attention to the changes occurring in families as social institutions, their economic and social position and the impacts of government policies on them.

What this government wants to achieve

Even restricted to interaction at the social institution level, government's involvement with families is multi-layered and multileveled. The role runs the gamut from law maker and policy setter to the supporter at the coal face.

Legal frameworks ensure families are enabled to fulfil their role, that children can enjoy the security of care, and that the interests of all family members are protected.

Policies touch the lives of families in different ways - sometimes as institutions, sometimes as individual members. Sometimes policies intentionally redress the balance between members. And sometimes impacts will be indirect, occurring through other areas of policy implementation.

At the closest point of contact, the service delivery end affects the very functioning of a family through financial and other support.

The reality is that inaction in this area costs this country. Every year the government is required to spend tens of billions of dollars in the social arena. Driving this requirement, in part, are the direct and indirect consequences of an apparent decline in parenting skills or the application of these skills, along with a breaking down of the family structure of support.

Consider some of the impacts of early childhood on childhood, and of childhood on adulthood:

- Unresponsive parenting in early childhood can lead to poor emotional adjustment, which may in turn lead to difficulties in peer relationships, conduct disorders and other behavioural problems.

- Such difficulties can interfere with schooling, leading to a higher risk of educational failure.

- And educational failure is further correlated with criminal offending, teen parenthood and other negative outcomes.

Responsive parenting during early childhood, by contrast, promotes the development of secure attachments, which lay the foundations for children's successful emotional development and success in later life.

Providing real support

This government has a commitment to families and to a proactive approach to assisting families.

We want to support families so that they can be cohesive, well-functioning social institutions within New Zealand society.

This involves, for example, creating legislation that sets out the legal frameworks for families, that monitors family relationships and transitions.

We want to help families to be successful in supporting their members to play full and productive roles in society.

This involves developing and implementing supportive economic policies, which implies taxation and employment, and social policies such as housing, health, education, and income support. It also implies policies that support cultural interests and rights.

We want to help family members carry out their roles within families in ways that achieve the best outcomes for the family and for family members.

Information and education about specific roles such as parenting play a key role in achievement of this objective, along with intensive support for those that require it.

We want to support families to be safe environments, and to intervene when they are not.

This means protecting children at risk of abuse and neglect, and addressing family violence.

Realising the vision

These are the government's core ideals for New Zealand families. The Ministry of Social Development is responding with four complementary strategies to provide the foundation for the shaping of policy to realise these ideals.

The first strategy involves building a sharper focus within the government sector on family issues and perspectives.

The establishment of the Families Commission will provide the main impetus for this. With a proposed start date of 1 July 2004, the Commission will promote the interests of the full range of New Zealand families. Not only will it foster a better understanding of family issues and needs within government agencies, it will do so in the wider community as well.

The second strategy seeks to maintain the momentum in finding out more about the New Zealand family. This requires further investment in research. The Ministry has already developed a research stream on families, especially families raising children and is strongly committed to supporting and building on this work in the future.

The third strategy involves providing practical support for positive parenting. Each year the government invests some $43 million on parent support and development programmes.

These include Family Start - an initiative I'll address later, Parents as First Teachers, Whanau Toko I Te Ora for whanau and tamariki Maori, and Anau Ako Pacifika for Pacific peoples families. The purpose of these programmes is to help parents be more effective and to contribute to positive outcomes for their children.

A review of parent support and development programmes in 2001/02 identified some areas where further work was required. Work is already underway on developing and modifying parent support services for highly vulnerable families.

As well, we are seeking to identify how government might better ensure a sound infrastructure that enables communities to provide information, education and skills training for parents. We need to find out what stops communities providing the support parents need. And we need to identify which communities need more help to provide support.

A further focus is on how core government programmes in health, education and other social policy areas might be better used to provide information and support to help parents.

These activities dovetails neatly with the work of the fourth strategy, which involves identifying the specific areas where we need to hone policy development. The Ministry and other government agencies have made good ground here, identifying seven areas in which to focus attention.

Work has already begun in addressing a number of these:

A sizeable project is underway to deliver significant improvements to the financial assistance available to families with dependent children. This project is part of the government's drive to address the economic position of families. As a first step, the 2003 Budget increased the income thresholds for Family Support and the Child Tax Credit. This move sees $59 million invested over four years to make this assistance available to more families. This investment is the forerunner to further improvements to benefit- and tax-based family income assistance this government intends to introduce in the next Budget.

The Department of Labour has initiated the Future of Work project, which delves into the relationship between work and family life. The EEO Trust and the Ministry of Women's Affairs are also active in this area. There are strong links here, too, with the early childhood education strategic plan.

The development and implementation of the Ministry of Social Development's Te Rito New Zealand Family Violence Prevention Strategy and the Care and Protection Blueprint is encouraging a greater focus on the incidence of violence within families. I'll address these initiatives more specifically later.

Some work has been undertaken to address the incidence of structural change within families and to reduce the risk to families. This has involved largely the updating of family law concerning family relationships, guardianship and adoption.

The Guardianship Act is being replaced by the Care of Children Bill introduced to Parliament earlier this month. This Bill ensures a stronger focus on the rights of children and recognises a wider range of family arrangements.

A key feature of the Bill is the change in language to emphasise parental "responsibilities' rather than parental "rights'. No longer will parents have custody of children; instead they will have the role of providing day-to-day care.

This area needs further investment to address how government can strengthen family relationships, and support family members as they experience change, in order to lessen the risk of poor outcomes.

The other areas identified as needing a greater focus for policy development are at earlier stages of progress.

We've identified the need for policy development to take account of the changing patterns of fertility and family formation, including single parent households and teenage births.

And more work is needed to address the role of fathers. I believe that every father has a responsibility to be emotionally, practically, and financially engaged with their parenting responsibilities - whether they live with their children or not.

This is a life-long responsibility that comes with the privilege of being a parent.

The final area of policy development responds to the aging of the population and the likely demands on the family for provision of care and support for older family members.

These areas will shape the emphasis of the Ministry's future work. I'm confident that this emphasis will see us make considerable ground towards realising our objective for the good health of New Zealand families.

Building on strong foundations

I'm also satisfied that the foundations for this momentum have been firmly laid by a number of initiatives introduced in recent times.

Referring back to Giddens view of democratised families, he rightly submits that there is no going back to a more traditional family model. Not the least because this model was dependent on a traditional relationship between the sexes and a lack of rights of the child.

This is incompatible with the current evolution of family life, which through a framework of international law and ethics, is seeing a momentum of greater emphasis on the rights of children.

In New Zealand, we've contributed to this momentum, firstly with the Agenda for Children. Launched in 2002, the Agenda promotes a vision of New Zealand as a great place for children. A place where children have security of care, economic security, identity, opportunity and participation.

The Agenda reflects a change in the way the government sector is seeking to solve the complex social issues of our time.

The Agenda centres on a "whole child' approach. It encourages us to look at the big picture, to consider all the factors that impact on a child's life. It focuses on the factors that foster healthy development right from the start of a child's life, not just when a problem arises.

It recognises that genuinely effective policies and services for children and young people need to be developed collaboratively and implemented with greater co-ordination.

This conference here today embodies exactly the approach promoted by the Agenda.

The Ministry of Social Development too is making steady progress on the work programme contained in the Agenda. And it is my pleasure to introduce a product of their labour to you today: Involving Children - A guide to engaging children in decision making. You'll find a copy in your conference pack, along with a pamphlet on the "whole child' approach.

This guide provides practical suggestions for organisations, government departments and agencies, community groups and individuals interested in engaging children up to age 18 in effective decision-making.

The Ministry of Social Development has produced this guide as a means of increasing children's participation in government and community decision-making processes. Its release is a step forward in fulfilling the aims of Action Area 2 of the Agenda.

Sitting alongside the Involving Children guide is Keepin it Real. Produced by the Ministry of Youth Affairs, Keepin it Real encourages youth participation in policy development, programmes, services and organisations.

As well as these initiatives, the Ministry is leading action expressly targeting the safety of New Zealand children. These initiatives follow the line of Anthony Giddens assertion that strong families must be built on the characteristics of democracy - equality, communication and trust. That decisions are not taken through violence.

Te Rito New Zealand Family Violence Prevention Strategy was launched in March 2002. Te Rito takes a broad, multifaceted approach to preventing, reducing and addressing family violence. It was developed by the Ministry in collaboration with a large group of government and non-government agencies.

Strongly reflecting this input, the strategy contains the government's key goals and objectives, guiding principles and a five-year implementation plan. All focus on meeting the strategy's vision of "families and whanau living free from violence.'

The relationships established to produce this strategy are key to the success of the implementation of its initiatives. And the Ministry is focused on further developing these connections.

The second initiative focused on child safety is the Care and Protection Blueprint 2003, launched earlier this year.

The Blueprint extends the entire care and protection community to provide an integrated approach for preventing and addressing child abuse and neglect. This document was seeded from Principal Youth Court Judge Mick Brown's 2000 report Care and Protection is about Adult Behaviour.

The Blueprint provides a vision and a plan of action for agencies, organisations and individuals involved in some way in addressing and preventing abuse and neglect. Its focus is to provide the means through which all those involved can work together as a whole.

Specifically, the Blueprint targets an outcomes-driven approach - where services are focused on the goals we want to achieve. It promotes shared leadership of the care and protection community and fosters co-operation between government and non-government funders and providers to provide an integrated service.

Abuse and neglect are often the staples of front-page headlines. The reality is that these are the highly accelerated end product of earlier more fundamental family problems. And this is where Family Start, another initiative enters the picture.

Operating in 16 sites around the country Family Start is an early intervention, intensive home-based support service. It is a population-based programme identifying the 15% of families in a geographically defined area who are "at risk'. These are the families who are most likely to experience poor outcomes in health education and welfare.

The programme aims to improve long-term outcomes for the children in these families. Family Start initiatives focus on improving how an individual family functions, exploring parenting practice and finding ways to help parents improve their personal circumstances.

Supported and funded by the Ministries of Health, Education and Social Development and Child, Youth and Family, the programme complements work already being carried out by groups such as Plunket and Tipu Ora.

A collaborative approach

One aspect common to all these initiatives is that they are characterised by interagency collaboration and co-ordination - across government and community sectors. Each recognises and builds on the collective strengths of all those involved.

This is an approach the government very much wants to encourage. For some time now we have been driving the adoption of a whole-of-government approach to the development of solutions as the best means of taking this country forward.

This is especially so for social policy. As I said before, it's clear that social wellbeing does not happen in isolation.

In attending this conference you too are playing a part in building linkages as you share information about effective integrated services; as you examine the opportunities for policies, services and programmes to offer connected services to children and families.

The organisers have lined up an impressive array of speakers and I'm sure you will leave from these two days encouraged and inspired.

In concluding, I'd like to lay down the challenge of my original question. As you listen and learn today and tomorrow, consider what treasure, what taonga can we gift the children of New Zealand.

In working together, we can ensure that what we gift will prove to be wise.


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