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Address to CYF Decision Making Conference


Ruth Dyson

Minister for Child, Youth and Family Services

Celebrating innovation in family decision making: the family group conference

Address to Child, Youth and Family Family Decision Making Conference 'Coming home - Te hokinga mai'.

27 November 2006, Wellington Town Hall, 9.10am

Rau rangatira maa,
tenei te mihi ki a koutou i runga i te kaupapa o te ra.
Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

[Distinguished guests, greetings to you gathered here for this purpose today. Greetings once, twice, three times to you all.]

Good morning everyone. I know many of you have come a long way and I want to welcome you to New Zealand and to this conference: 'Coming home - Te hokinga mai'.

As Minister for Child, Youth and Family Services, I am delighted to have the opportunity to be at this international conference on the family group conference.

This conference is significant. Many of you have come to New Zealand to speak to us about your experiences and how you are using the family group conference or FGC.
The FGC is indigenous. Its origins are uniquely New Zealand. Yet its principles are flexible enough and sound enough to be adapted to meet the cultural and societal conditions of many other nations with representatives here today.

This conference offers all of us the opportunity to reflect on the journey which resulted, for New Zealand, in a radical change in our child welfare and youth justice systems. More importantly this is a unique opportunity to learn, to grow and to share the varied experiences and the wealth of knowledge all of you bring.

The value of conferences like this is that we can all share the experiences and learn from the developments in other countries. We all want what is best for our children and young people.

Here in New Zealand, we have been enthusiastic and delighted parents of the FGC. In our more reflective moments, like all parents, we concede that we must learn from others if we are to continue being good parents of our tamariki. Parents get tired and grumpy. Quality time away is essential. This conference offers all of us a "long weekend" away from the kids. I hope when you return to your homes it will be with fresh ideas and renewed vigour.

History of the FGC
The FGC model was introduced in this country 18 years ago as a family decision-making process to be used in the statutory child welfare and youth justice systems.

It radically altered the way decisions were made about children who were in need of care or protection and about young people who were offending. Our legislative model requires that family become partners in the decision-making process as well as the key players in the future lives of their children.

The Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act acknowledges that making any real changes for children and young people requires us to include and - wherever possible - be led by, their families in the process.

I am proud that our country passed this legislation. It is unique in many ways – in my view, the most notable being the adaptation of Mâori decision-making models and values and their application to wider New Zealand national identity concepts of fairness and justice. I'd like to take a minute to talk about the way this occurred.

Development in the 1970s and 80s
Concerns developed in the 1970s and Eighties about the effectiveness of professional social welfare systems in engaging with Maori families and communities. Institutional responses included the establishment of Maori Advisory Units in some government departments in a desire to improve responsiveness to Maori in the development of policies and services, and the recruitment of greater numbers of Maori staff.

In 1984, three major government departments – Social Welfare, Justice and Maori Affairs – collaborated with Maori communities in the development of Maatua Whangai - a programme that focussed on the return of Maori children and young people from institutional and foster care to the care of their family or extended family group. Maori practitioners began to have a significant impact on emerging models of practice that emphasised the importance of wider kinship and community connections in reaching enduring solutions about children's care or protection.

In 1985, in response to challenges that Maori experienced institutional racism in the provision of departmental services, the government established a Ministerial Advisory Committee to investigate. This committee was chaired by the late John Rangihau, and included prominent Maori leaders and the chief executives of Social Welfare, Maori Affairs and the State Services Commission. The committee was asked specifically to advise on a Maori perspective for the Department of Social Welfare – the Department then responsible for child welfare and youth justice services, amongst other things. The committee process included a major consultation with Iwi and other communities, creating a significant opportunity for the voices and experiences of ordinary people to be heard.

Puao-te-ata-tu (Daybreak)
The committee's report was named 'Puao-te-ata-tu' (Daybreak) and was released in 1986. It had a significant impact on the development of new children's law that was occurring concurrently. The report recounted the difficulties and injustices created when the dominant culture imposed decision-making processes about Maori children and families without proper recognition of, and respect for, Maori family and social systems.

Maori calls for greater levels of self-determination in matters relating to their children led to the formulation of a decision-making process known as the family group conference. The family group conference positions family groups - those wider family networks within which households are nested - to take leadership in working with the state's professionals to resolve concerns and formulate plans about children and young persons coming to notice.

CYPF Act 1989
The resulting 1989 Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act emphasises the importance of maintaining and strengthening relationships between young people and their family groups and resolving matters within the context of family systems wherever possible. The family group conference is the mechanism that gives expression to those goals.

Key drivers in developing the legislation were cultural appropriateness, due process and family empowerment, and a need to offer effective diversionary procedures as an alternative to formal criminal and civil proceedings. These remain the driving principles behind the machinery of the legislation today.

The Act states clearly that wherever possible a child or young person's family, whânau, hapû, iwi or family group should participate in decision making affecting the child or young person and that the relationship between the children and young people and their families should be maintained and strengthened. The FGC is the key mechanism to ensure that this occurs in our work.

The new youth justice system did move away from the traditional welfare model, but was intended to meet justice and 'welfare' needs by holding young offenders accountable for their actions while giving appropriate consideration to their needs. It is through the FGC process that these needs can be reconciled.

FGCs include the young offender, the victim and their families in the decision-making process to reach a group consensus on a 'just' outcome. This reflects some aspects of Mâori dispute resolution traditions. Other restorative justice ideologies are included by involving the victim in the decision making and encouraging mediation between the victim, the offender and their families.

The passing of this legislation was visionary. The FGC is its cornerstone. I am proud of my colleagues for having the courage to pass this legislation and I am very proud to be the Minister responsible for the people who make the legislation work today.

Looking back, the Act can be seen as heralding a huge philosophical shift from seeing children as chattels to nurturing and valuing them as taonga – our joy and our future.

Looking forward, this Government is committed to ensuring that social services continue to be delivered in a way which strengthens children's places in their families and their communities.

Two practical examples of this are the youth justice capability work being done in Child Youth and Family and the Differential Response Model, known as the DRM, which will further refine the way we deliver care and protection services.

A review of youth justice capability in Child Youth and Family has reaffirmed that we need to understand the young person in the wider context of their lives and that our people need to work more closely with communities and families. This will ensure that better quality information and advice is made available to FGCs. This in turn will lead to decisions that are more sustainable through a greater commitment to monitoring and concluding outcomes.

Successful completion of plans works not only for young people and their families but also sustain public confidence in the FGC model in youth justice.

The DRM is designed to provide the right service to the right child at the right time. It is one of the most significant changes to social work intake practice in the last 15 years.

The essence of the model is ensuring that responses to notifications of child abuse and neglect are proportionate and effective. It recognises that a formal investigation looking for evidence of abuse is not always best for children, and DRM explicitly introduces alternatives to investigation such as support, referral to services or engagement through assessment.

It also seeks to utilise community groups and non-government organisations much earlier in the process.
Their skills and expertise and, frankly, their different position in their communities can enlist the help of families as partners to stay committed to the wellbeing of their children. A statutory response from a government agency can sometimes do more damage than good – making use of community providers can often be a more positive alternative.

Many of you here will be familiar with Differential Response, though possibly by other names. It is an approach that is increasingly recognised internationally as best practice. Our version draws on the experience of others, and has been adapted to fit our local conditions and needs.

One of the key benefits of this system is that children will be referred appropriately and earlier to FGCs, and that the information and advice available will be more accurate and applicable to that particular family.

In a more general sense, it is time that the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act be reviewed. Our government is committed to retaining the principles of the legislation but I do want to make sure the machinery of the legislation actively promotes those principles in a practical and workable manner. In particular I wish to ensure that FGCs continue to be promoted as the primary means by which decisions are made for children and young people who offend or who are at risk or in need.

As any proud parent would, I'm going to finish by noting the international success of our baby – again. The FGC has been adopted and adapted around the world as a best practice model. As a country New Zealand can be justifiably proud of this and the great social progress we continue to make. We must also make sure that we take this opportunity to listen to the experiences of others and apply the lessons learned.

Whatever country or culture we're from, we all have specific circumstances and desires, but there are some universal needs and conditions for children and young people. Events like this conference allow us to talk about care and protection and youth justice issues and to really examine what is and isn't working around the world.

The FGC is a tool that can be adjusted to suit many different countries, but its success ultimately relies on the practical application of appropriate legislation and careful and skilled administration by social workers, co-ordinators and others working in the social services sector.

The successes we have achieved through the FGC are due almost entirely to the commitment and professionalism of care and protection co-ordinators, youth justice co-ordinators and social workers, many of whom are present here today.
A good FGC relies on a good co-coordinator. To those co-ordinators present and to your colleagues who couldn't be here, I offer you my sincerest respect and admiration for the work you do, dealing with children, young people and families day in and day out.

You can pay people to work, but you can't pay them to care - so I thank you for your commitment, your professionalism and for the fact you do care.

In return, I give you my commitment that I will do everything I can as Minister to support you and the work you do by ensuring that you have the resources and the encouragement to go in to bat for children, young people and families.

I am all too aware of the difficulties you face in your work every day but I am also confident that you are up to the challenge. You are truly kaitiaki of the FGC.

In closing, I would like to wish you every success for this conference. There are some fascinating sessions, and I hope you enjoy each other's company.

Thank you. Kia ora koutou katoa.


Ends

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