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Muriel Newman’s The Column

Muriel Newman’s The Column October 29th

“Unstable” Organisation deals with NZ’s Most Vulnerable Children

Last week the government released the results of their first principles baseline review of the Department of Child, Youth and Family (CYF), the government agency that is responsible for the welfare of at-risk children. Established in October 1999 CYF has a chequered history of high profile scandals and tragedies – not to mention cost over-runs. So in December 2002, Cabinet ordered this review to be carried out jointly by Treasury, State Services Commission, Ministry of Social Development and CYF.

The review is a damming indictment on the Labour government’s failure to run a child welfare agency that can adequately deal with the country’s most vulnerable children. It described CYF as an “unstable” organisation plagued by “deep and systemic problems” with a “lack of sound data”. This problem is of such monumental proportions that the department cannot even identify exactly how many children are in its care!

Social workers are described as being “stretched too thinly to do quality work”, resulting in “less effective interventions” and “higher rates of notifications”. This has led to an astonishing 50% of care and protection notifications that concern children CYF has previously dealt with.

The length of time that children remained in the care of CYF has increased dramatically, rising from 163 days in 1999 to 433 days today. This is of enormous concern to those families whose children have been separated from them for unacceptably long periods of time; the department has failed to deal adequately with their cases.

Front line social workers expressed strong views, perceiving the department had a growing obsession with risk aversion strategies rather than encouraging high levels of professionalism in social work practice.

No wonder there is an exceptionally high rate of staff turnover. According to estimates, the average length of experience of front-line social workers is now no more than one to two years. Morale was found to be extremely low with social workers seeing themselves as “undervalued” and “unsupported”.

All in all, criticisms raised in the baseline review of CYF would have to be some of the worst examples of the performance of a government agency in public service history. The report totally vindicated the very many serious concerns raised over the years by families caught up in the web of CYF interventions.

Don’t forget, the Labour government is responsible for this litany of failures under the stewardship of the Minister of Social Services, Steve Maharey. Interestingly, once it was discovered how damning the report was, Labour moved the portfolio away from Steve Maharey - to avoid opposition calls for his resignation.

The government, desperate to avoid an on-going CYF scandal, has now introduced changes to CYF operations that make it virtually impossible for it to be held to account: four Ministers will now be assigned joint responsibility for the Department – Michael Cullen (Treasury), Trevor Mallard (State Services), Steve Maharey (Ministry of Social Development) and Ruth Dyson (CYF) – so when concerns are raised, the government’s hardest hitters will be there to deflect criticism.

Further, a new family service providing support to disadvantaged families whose children are involved with CYF is to be set up within the Ministry of Social Development, instead of CYF itself.

This strategy, while providing worthwhile assistance for families struggling to cope, is in effect spreading responsibility for those families to yet another government department - more duplication of effort, increased bureaucracy, and lack of clear lines of accountability. I suspect this is what the Government wants.

Next week – ACT’s solution to the welfare crisis.

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