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Bennett: Vulnerable Children Bill - Third Reading

Paula Bennett

19 JUNE, 2014

Vulnerable Children Bill - Third Reading Bill

Mr Speaker, I move that the Vulnerable Children Bill, the Children, Young Persons and Their Families (Vulnerable Children) Amendment Bill, and the KiwiSaver (Vulnerable Children) Amendment Bill be now read a third time.

In this country, from the moment a child is born the Government is there to provide support – for them, their parents, and their wider family.

We have free education, and our schools are the envy of many countries.

Good healthcare is available and affordable – currently our under-6s can go to the doctor for free and from next year that will include every child under 13.

On a broader level, our kids can play pretty much any sport or musical instrument they choose.

They can aspire to the highest levels of Government or business or anything they want - no matter their gender, sexuality, ethnicity or background.

We seem to have all the right settings for our children to grow into happy, healthy adults who aspire to achieve great things.

However we have problems in this country which despite decades of attention and funding – have not yet changed for the better.

In our country, child abuse is a shameful problem that every New Zealander has a stake in.

On average around eight children each year die as a result of abuse, neglect, or assault.

Many more are found by Child, Youth and Family to have been abused or neglected, with nearly 23,000 substantiated abuse findings in the last financial year.

There are also a significant number of children in circumstances that put them at serious risk of harm.

The costs to the country are significant; the costs to children are simply unacceptable.

I have been Minister of Social Development since 2008 – and every single day the needs of vulnerable children have been at the forefront of my mind.

The faces of the children and adults I have met, who have shared their shocking, sickening and horrific stories, are with me every day.

I remember a 6 year old girl proudly showing me her bed at a temporary care facility and telling me that bed “is a safe place now”.

Where were we when she was being abused?

I remember the wonderful, eccentric man at the Wellington City Mission who took me through his life story.

After half an hour of talking, I could trace his lifetime of pain and suffering back to the horrendous abuse he suffered as a child.

Where were we then?

In 2012, I launched the White Paper for Vulnerable Children and Children’s Action Plan, which set out an extensive package of reforms to address child abuse and neglect in New Zealand.

The reforms would be nothing without the close to 10,000 submissions from New Zealanders at every corner of the country, on the Green Paper for Vulnerable Children.

This Bill is a critical step in giving effect to changes in the Children’s Action Plan.

These include ensuring joint accountability across Justice, Health, Education, Police and Social Development, for the wellbeing of vulnerable children.

They also include the new requirements for the screening and vetting of Government workers and contractors who work with children.

All up these new requirements will cover around 182,000 New Zealanders.

There are also new workforce restrictions to prevent those with serious convictions, who pose a danger to children, from coming into contact with them.

The legislation will also switch the onus on parents who have killed, or severely abused or neglected a child, and they will now have to prove they are safe to parent subsequent children.

But let me be very clear, the legislation contained in this Bill is a small part of work already underway.

We can pass laws to improve screening and vetting.

We can pass laws that place restrictions on dangerous people where there currently are none.

But we cannot pass laws that stop children being beaten, neglected, or sexually and emotionally abused.

We cannot pass laws that stop children being killed, by those who should love and protect them.

We cannot expect that throwing more money at this problem - without changing how we work - will actually fix anything.

Accepting that this is as good as it gets will not cut it.

This is where the Children’s Action Plan, of which the Vulnerable Children Bill is just one part, will make a difference.

It is multi-dimensional, cross agency and community driven.

It has more than 30 interwoven initiatives and it will:

• bring the right people together in communities around our vulnerable kids.

• give us a whole lot more options to respond to the different needs of children.

Firstly, we want to support vulnerable children and work alongside their families to keep them safe so that they never reach the point where they need the involvement of Child, Youth and Family.

That’s where our new Children’s Teams come in, along with the Hub and the Vulnerable Kids Information System, or ViKI.

Children’s Teams bring together frontline professionals from health, education, welfare and other agencies to wrap services around children and their families.

They work with children and young people who are vulnerable, but are best helped outside Child, Youth and Family’s statutory service.

As well as doctors, teachers and social workers there is Plunket, Family Start, Whanau Ora, parenting services, and budgeting services to name a few.

But too often vulnerable children are at the back of the queue for these services.

They have parents or caregivers who don’t know enough, or simply don’t care enough, to prioritise and advocate for their needs.

These children need to be at the front and centre of the queue,

What I have had to consider is whether these vulnerable children should get to jump the queue, and get in front of other children whose needs may be as pressing, but who have parents or caregivers fighting in their corner.

I am unapologetic in saying that yes they should, because it is they who are most at risk.

Children’s Teams will understand the unique needs of each child they deal with, and pull together a team who can make the most difference to get alongside the child and family.

They will be able to fast track access to services, and carve a clear path for vulnerable children to the support they need.

Our two pilot teams in Rotorua and Whangarei have worked with over 110 children so far and we are hearing about:

• better attendance at health appointments

• better parenting

• re-enrolments at early childhood and school

• better access to welfare support

• happier children

• better behaviour

• and reduced offending.

There’s been a lot of learning, and some hurdles along the way, but it’s clear that the mix of services and the early support is making a difference to children’s lives.

And by the middle of next year we will have eight new Children’s Teams in action.

Alongside this we’re developing a Vulnerable Kids Information System where frontline professionals like doctors and teachers can go online to register concerns about a child.

ViKI will help us join those dots into a picture about what is going on for a child.

We’re also setting up a Hub where people can report their concerns about a child quickly and easily, or get help and advice.

Depending on what’s happening for each child, the Hub will triage them to the level of support they need.

The initiatives contained in the Children’s Action Plan are all connected to each other and firmly place vulnerable children at the front and centre.

These are the children who have no one to speak up for them.

If they are not the core work and priority for police, paediatricians, social workers and community workers, then who is?

I would like to thank the Social Services Committee and all the New Zealanders that made submissions for their valuable contribution to this bill.

This legislation goes beyond this House, and beyond politics.

It goes into the home of every New Zealander whether they have children or not, because the wellbeing of our vulnerable is the measure of the heart of this country.

As proud as I am of the opportunities and support available for most of us, there are too many left out and too many let down.

As I said, there are 23,000 cases of substantiated abuse each year.

There are eight children killed by the people who should hold them, love them, and care for them.

As Minister, I expect the results of our work with vulnerable children to be that by which I am judged, and I am investing everything I have into this.

It is crucial we get it right – not in a few years, or ‘in the future,’ but now.

This legislation is a crucial step underpinning a much wider piece of work that will fundamentally change the way we work with vulnerable children and their families in New Zealand.

It will make a difference.

Mr Speaker, I commend this Bill to the House.


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