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The Column: CYFS: The tragic failure

CYFS: The tragic failure

Weekly Column by Dr Muriel Newman

This week…

This is the final column of a series of three addressing the problem of child abuse within New Zealand society. It outlines the finding of official investigations into the involvement of the Department of Child Youth and Family with two young girls who were killed by their stepfather, and describes in more detail the shape of a modern approach to child welfare.

The Tragedy

Saliel Aplin, aged 12, and her sister Olympia aged 11, were each killed by a single knife wound on the night of 3 December 2001. According to Police, Saliel, found lying on her back surrounded by blood, would have lost consciousness within a minute and died within 10 minutes. Olympia was found leaning over her bed in “prayer position”. It could have taken anywhere between 30 minutes and two hours for her to die of blood loss. Their stepfather Bruce Howse was convicted of their murders.

The Commissioner for Children’s investigation into the culpability of the Department of Child, Youth and Family in the untimely death of these two girls began with an examination of their family history.

Saliel was born when their mother was nineteen years old and already had a three-year-old daughter. Olympia was born 20 months later to a different father. During their short lives: “Saliel and Olympia lived in ten houses; attended six different schools; lived in eight different towns or cities; lived with their grandparents for two years after being removed from their mother’s care; lived apart from their younger sister for five years; lived with their mother and two different partners, both of whom were violent; lived in a house with up to ten children intermittently for four years; were exposed to 12 recorded incidents of violence and at least 35 incidents not reported; alleged abuse on at least five different occasions; attended counselling intermittently since they were three and four years old; were psychologically assessed by court order on at least two occasions; were monitored by CYF nearly all their lives.”

The report highlights the complex nature of domestic violence and the devastating effect it can have on children. It goes on to emphasise that in spite of a history of family violence, there was a record poor practice within and between those government agencies that were involved with the family: “many opportunities for appropriate interventions were lost because no single agency had the whole picture or a complete understanding of the risks present in their lives”.

While police, social workers, education and health professionals were all involved with the family and all had a partial understanding of the risks to Saliel and Olympia, “no one agency or individual stepped back and asked, ‘What is going on here? Are these children safe?’”

The report goes on to state: “New Zealand has a fragmented approach to the well-being of children and while there is not a lead agency responsible for them, their rights, interest and well being will continue to be compromised.”

The Department of Child, Youth and Family’s Chief Social Worker reported that while the Departmental processes and policies of social work practice were fundamentally sound, these policies and procedures were not followed. Serious practice errors and flawed investigations were the result.

In particular, the event which could have been the trigger for the murders – the interception by Bruce Howse of a letter from the social worker to the children’s mother alleging “new information” – was described as “unsafe practice and unnecessary”. Sending the letter created a significant risk to the children - the social worker was aware that Bruce Howse was violent and had already been accused of sexually abusing the girls, and that he lived in the house and could have easily seen such a letter.

In fact social work protocol demands that before an investigation of abuse is undertaken – or even signalled – the safety of the child should first be secured. This was clearly not done and as a result the report concluded, “the letter, worded as it was, should not have been sent”.

The Chief Social Worker, in a verbal briefing, acknowledged the difficulties in dealing with complex cases such as this in a fragmented social work environment. Both she and the Commissioner for Children believe that a more co-ordinated approach is needed. What to do?

Essentially these two reports support the need to rebuild our child welfare agency as a one-stop community based family service with police, social workers, health and education professionals, working together as a team. Such an agency, based on the successful Puawaitahi multi-agency service centre established by the Starship National Children’s Hospital in Auckland, would take a proactive and holistic approach to targeting families with children at risk, linking them to community providers who could best offer the support services they need to stabilise the family, and ensure the well-being of their children. The goal: to reduce child abuse in their community.

In line with this approach, which strongly focuses child welfare services on the needs of children and their families, Police Child Protection Units should take over the full responsibility for investigating potential cases of child abuse. This model - used in Australia - gives police the sole responsibility for investigating child abuse crimes and bringing perpetrators to justice.

If last week’s five step plan to reduce child abuse – welfare reform, encouraging adoption, introducing Shared Parenting, opening up the Family Court, and rebuilding our child welfare agency – was adopted in New Zealand, we would be in an ideal position to realistically introduce a zero-tolerance approach to child abuse. It would offer the highest probability of abusers being prosecuted and charged with tougher sentences and finally stem what has now become a growing tide of abuse against our children.

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