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How Big is this Problem?

How Big is this Problem?

New Zealanders are anxious. How big is the problem of child maltreatment and neglect? How common is the environment the Kahui twins were taken home to? What role have benefits played in this and other tragedies?

While the Prime Minister has called for an investigation into beneficiary "clusters" much is already known about those welfare-dependent families that harbour at-risk babies. Looking for clusters is diversionary.

Notifications to CYF for child abuse and neglect are predicted to exceed 70,000 next year with 73 percent requiring further action.

Of around 550,000 New Zealand families with dependent children, one in five relies on welfare. Children from welfare homes are four times more likely to come to the attention of CYF. So how many children from welfare homes are at risk of abuse, neglect, poor health and/or development problems?

Shedding some light on the answer is an evaluation of the Early Start programme for families with young children. It found around 13 percent of Christchurch families were in need of family support services. According to the report, "These referral statistics provide an indicator of the level of need for services within the community..."

The report assesses a trial which took place from 2000-03. Clients were recruited by Plunket nurses. Of 4,523 families seen over a nineteen month period, 13 percent were deemed needy. Of those, 443 agreed to participate. These clients were then randomly assigned to either the Early Start programme or a control group.

The majority, sixty four percent, were single-parent families. Approximately 90 percent of the families were dependent on welfare.

On examination of the mother's childhood it was found over half had been raised in a single-parent family; over half had witnessed inter- parental violence and over 40 percent reported being the victim of physical or sexual abuse. The mean age of first ever pregnancy was 19, 80 percent of the pregnancies were unplanned and the majority of the mothers, 63 percent, smoked during the pregnancy. One in six used cannabis.

Participants were interviewed at the start and then 12, 24 and 36 month intervals. After one year 21 percent had dropped out of the Early Start programme; after two years 35 and at three years 40 percent. There were no particular factors contributing to the losses.

When the control group was compared to the group which had received services, the Early Start programme had delivered "small but consistent benefits in a number of areas relating to child health, education, child abuse, parenting and behavioural outcomes".

But in the area of "maternal health and well-being; family stability; family violence; family material circumstances and family exposure to stress and crisis .....no differences emerged."

The report commented that welfare dependence, single parenthood and limited education, "conspired to create a situation in which such families were subject to a 'poverty trap' where welfare benefits were likely to provide a very similar level of income to that which could be obtained from full-time workforce participation. A clear challenge facing current social policy is to supplement home visitation methods such as Early Start with policies that both reduce welfare dependence and increase the earning capacity of these families."

A couple of important points about welfare dependence in New Zealand are confirmed by this report. One, it highlights the significant inter- generational component of welfare dependence and associated factors.

Two, if the statistics can be extrapolated and the authors seem happy to suggest so, it appears that as many as forty percent of welfare families are in need of extra intervention. Resources to meet this level of need are simply not available.

While the results for children were encouraging, changing the behaviour and circumstances of mothers (and fathers where they were involved) was another matter. This suggests that regular home visitation services can help the children but not their parents.

The provision of obligation-free cash to these families acts to exacerbate problems by exempting them from normal work patterns. With no requirement to exercise the self-discipline needed to hold down a job it is also easier to indulge destructive habits and behaviours.

While making a difference to just one child is invaluable, particularly if a cycle is broken, without significant policy reform at government level the work of various family support agencies will continue to be thwarted by the provision of unconditional, open-ended benefits.



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