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Paula Bennett: offensive to say poverty causes child abuse

'THE NATION'
PAULA BENNETT
with JOHN HARTEVELT
hosted by RACHEL SMALLEY'

The Social Development Minister Paula Bennett says it’s offensive to say that poverty causes child abuse.

The government's new Child Action Plan will target up to 30,000 children considered most at risk of abuse and neglect.

Opposition parties and some interest groups have criticised the plan for not addressing poverty as one of the causes of child abuse.

Speaking on TV3’s The Nation this weekend, Paula Bennett rejected that criticism:
“Quite frankly I find it slightly offensive to say that poverty causes child abuse, because it doesn’t actually.”

“If I thought throwing an extra 30 or 40 dollars a week at beneficiaries would mean that those children were not abused and neglected, I'd be fighting with that with every inch that I've got. It is far more complex than that. Far more complex.”

The Children's Commissioner will release his report into child poverty later this year and Paula Bennett said she’d be looking closely at his findings:

“I've been having many discussions with him and with Jonathan Boston, with others from the group. I've read their reports, I look forward to them in December. It doesn’t mean that we're going to pick up his set menu, but it does mean that we might see what we think works. Because they are doing a lot of work and I have a huge amount of respect for what they're doing.”



She admitted she at first struggled with the idea of a database for vulnerable children.

“Since I've been Minister I have had the experts saying to me, we think we can get ahead of the problem and identify who are the children that are most likely to be abused or neglected. And I struggled with it. I just sort of went is it at that point that you identify them and start working around them? Are you stigmatising them? Are you almost being a part of the problem instead of the solution? And then I get to a stage where I say, knowing what I know, that those children are more likely to be abused than not, how can I not actually then do something with that information, and give them the right kind of services and so forth.”

“We're going to have a group of experts that walk alongside of us to make sure that we're using the information correctly, that we've got the right checks and balances in place. I've got academics that are going to help the office. The Privacy Commissioner has offered real assistance. They tell me none of these problems are insurmountable.”

She said a plan by Labour to set up a Ministry for Children was "wishy-washy".
“Let's actually get serious about what the results are for these kids. They cross education, health, justice, Police, and of course myself. I have got those five most senior ministers all standing up being accountable for this work, and what happens with kids.”

Rachel Welcome to The Nation, I'm Rachel Smalley. It's called the White Paper for Vulnerable Children, and if there's one thing that can be agreed on it's that New Zealand has too many hurt and neglected young people. The government's new Child Action Plan will target the 20 to 30,000 children considered most at risk. And in her introduction to the new policy Social Development Minister, Paula Bennett says we can and will do better. The Minister is our guest this morning and on our press panel Alex Tarrant is away, but John Hartevelt, Political Reporter for Fairfax is with us. Good morning to you both. Welcome to you too Minister, thanks for coming in this morning.

In the Green Paper you first highlighted 163,000 children at significant risk. The White Paper though is focusing on 20 to 30,000. So what happens to the other 130,000 or so.

Paula Bennett – Social Development Minister
Yeah I think we said that that 163,000 are whom we considered vulnerable at that point when we gave it that kind of definition, and then as we've worked our way through the work we've decided we're going to target those 20 to 30,000 who we see are at most risk. So who we think are most likely to be hurt or neglected, or are currently actually being maltreated. We've removed them and we're gonna do better by them.

Rachel So you’ve narrowed your focus in essence, but there are still children aren’t there on the outside of that 20 to 30,000 who are vulnerable?

Paula There always will be. I mean that’s the reality, wherever you put a line, some are gonna fall within and some are gonna fall without. I think one of the things I've seen over time is we've tried to scatter across so many that we haven’t got to those that need it most. So this paper is without a doubt focused on those children who I think need this help the most.

John Hartevelt – Fairfax Political Reporter
Minister, how did you arrive at the 20 to 30,000 figure? Who are these children?

Paula Well I'll didn’t is the good news, so that’s where we embarked on some research with Auckland University, and it was them that have gone through and said we can tell you who these sort of 30,000 children are who are most – (a) there are those that obviously right now are with Child Youth and Family. So we've removed them from their home or intensively working with them. I mean I want to get ahead of the problem cos otherwise we are just the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. So the others are ones who we say are most at risk of being seriously mistreated.

John What's the profile – a typical profile? Can you give us a typical profile?

Paula Well the profile that they have done, and they’ve used 132 factors to actually come up with what that profile looks like. But it can be obviously those that are being maltreated now. We know what that profile is. For the others you're looking at things like parental history of child abuse and neglect. Frequent change of address might come into it. The age of the parents. The fact if one of them has been in prison before, say previous notifications. It's those sorts of fairly clear cut.

John And do you think that these types of children, more of them will be removed from their homes?

Paula No. In fact I think less will be. So we're removing fewer children now than we were four years ago, and I expect that trend to continue.

Rachel Is that the right trend though?

Paula Well we'll be getting in front of the problem, and actually dealing with the issues right around them, because actually the State doesn’t have a great reputation for raising these children either.

Rachel No, but then a lot of parents don’t either, and we often look at the rights of parents and think that they're given more rights than children are. Some children do need to be removed from family environments don’t they because of the cycle of abuse. You take them away from the parent and you give them to an uncle or an aunt, and quite often that cycle continues.

Paula So that’s a constant line that we walk, that social workers walk really, on when do you remove, when don’t you, where is - with always putting the child's safety paramount in at the centre of all thinking and all decision making. I think we're getting it about right, but we have to constantly be challenging ourselves on that.

Rachel Okay, let's look at the database, because you know doctors, teachers, etc, are gonna be compelled or encouraged to put information into this database. Whose is in essence the last line of defence, who acts? What professional acts when you think okay we're getting a bit of a history here?

Paula Mm, so that’s really good. So first of all we've gotta put all the pieces together, and that hasn’t been happening, and we've seen in far too many of the serious cases, and quite frankly not so serious cases that we've seen. You know lots of different professionals held a piece of the puzzle but no one had put it all together. So that’s what the purpose of the database information sharing is. So then we get that information together it's who acts on it. Some will be immediate, yeah, so some will be this is serious, it is a Police or a Child Youth and Family intervention, let's go.

Rachel Who makes that call?

Paula We've got the new Child Protect line. We have a group of professionals that are sitting there that have real time access to all information as it's being inputted, and they make the call as to where that child is triaged to if you like. And that’s we're setting up the children's teams. It's one thing to identify them. Unless you're doing something about it and something with them then you're only actually doing a small piece of this. So then these children teams will act accordingly, that’s a group of professionals.

John Professor David Fergusson speaking about the White Paper, has raised the issue of stigmatising parents and children. Is that a concern for you?

Paula Huge. And right from the start it has been. So it's been since I've been Minister that I have had the experts saying to me, we think we can get ahead of the problem and identify who are the children that are most likely to be abused or neglected. And I struggled with it. I just sort of went oh is it at that point that you identify them and start working around them? Are you stigmatising them? Are you almost being a part of the problem instead of the solution? And then I get to a stage where I say, knowing what I know. So knowing that those children are more likely to be abused than not, how can I not actually then do something with that information, and give them the right kind of services and so forth.

John Professor Fergusson has suggested trialling that tool. Why are you charging ahead and rolling it out on the nationwide basis without a trial?

Paula Well I think we are taking it step by step. So the first thing – I mean this is not something we dreamt up last week, we've actually been working on this for years. The second part I would say is that we're going to have a group of experts that walk alongside of us to make sure that we're using the information correctly, that we've got the right checks and balances in place. I've got academics that are gonna help the office. The Privacy Commissioner has offered real assistance. I'm gonna get those with the ethics involved. They tell me none of these problems are insurmountable.

Rachel Okay you're saying also that there will be no mandatory reporting but you're compelling if you like agencies to report. Is that not mandatory reporting in some way? There will be a code won’t there?

Paula Yeah there will. There’ll be a code of practice. It will be very clear on what our expectations are of people, without taking that extra step into mandatory reporting, and with the disadvantages that can come with that. The disadvantages of I think mandatory reporting are you get too many false positives, so you are again working with children that really don’t need it, and again you’ve lowered that threshold.

Rachel If this doesn’t work, is mandatory reporting still on the table or have you closed the door on that?

Paula Look, at this point I've closed the door. I don’t really want to have that debate for the next two years. I want to get on with the very big and significant work that needs to be done in this paper. But that doesn’t mean that decisions can't be changed in the future.

John And one of the things you’ve said is that there will be a lot of training for these professionals, but there's hundreds of thousands of them isn't there.

Paula Yes.

John And is there going to be a standardised training course? Who's gonna do the training? Are we anywhere near a position of implementing training for these professionals?

Paula There's already training organisations that do it. There's Child Matters in Hamilton. There's another very good one in Christchurch, that are NGOs and they specialise in actually identifying the signs of abuse and neglect. So they’ve already been instigating – they’ve gone round Early Childhood Centres and making sure teachers and others do. So we're looking to extend that and have that kind programme done.

John So it will be the government funding a private organisation to what – go to Teachers' Colleges, and do professional development exercises? That sort of thing?

Paula Yeah, and in some cases they are going into a GP's practice and meeting with everyone after hours, and doing a course with them. They run regular courses. So we are more likely than not to actually get it from outside agencies. I don’t see the need for us to set up something ourselves if there's something very good out there already. And they're already doing it, they’ve got it in place. But it just amazes me that doctors and nurses sometimes have no more than an hour's lecture through their training on how to identify the signs. We have to pick up that.

Rachel Minister CYFS workers at times have been criticised pretty heavily for failing children. They haven’t been proactive enough in some cases. Do you have confidence in CYFS?

Paula Very much so, and I think they improve every year. We've had a particular focus on their practice of late, with all credit actually to the Minister before me, Ruth Dyson. She spent a lot of energy on effort in getting Child Youth and Family to a place where it was more responsive, whereas fiscally now I'm able to work on their practice and how they are delivering. They don’t get it right 100% of the time, but these are children and it's complex, and you know we can only keep improving, while recognising the absolute importance of the work they do.

Rachel Dame Lesley Max, she supports your changes by and large, but she's said on National Radio this week that she was concerned about the quality of some social workers, that are in some cases desensitised to abuse, because of their background. Now I'm stressing here that this is some social workers. What do you think?

Paula Well I think it's about us putting the right supervision and the right management in place, and I think with any organisation that you look at it's only as good as the people that are kind of running it. So that goes right from the Chief Executive to myself. But then I think those managers that are in the offices, and I think we've put a lot of emphasis on that of late, and are able to.

Rachel In saying that, when we look at say the North Shore, I know for example Takapuna has around seven social workers down on stress leave at the moment, CYF workers. It's a tough job, and these people are understaffed.

Paula Well Rachel, it's the hardest job. It is without a doubt the hardest job, and they're always working at the critical end. So I will say they don’t actually get a bit of nice light relief either. It's not like they can sort of do something in a day.

Rachel But how can you support those children say in Takapuna when you’ve got seven people who can't do their job because they're on long term stress leave.

Paula I've put 96 more social workers in, in the last 12 months, recognising that, and this is actually a huge part of it, because what they're doing is trying to work with too many children at the moment. I can narrow that down to them working with the most critical, and then those children's teams and those community organisations coming in for those that are not at serious risk but still need intervention, then I can lighten their workload, give them more social workers, and still get the kind of response.

John And it's not just CYFS that is going to be asked to do a lot more work here. A lot more resource is gonna have to go in across government. So far you’ve only committed $20 million, it's gonna be tight budgets for the next three or four years. Is this stuff actually realistic in terms of funding?

Paula Well I think it's absolutely something that not just myself, but other senior ministers have stood up and said we stand by this work. We see it as a priority, and I think the biggest man has, which is John Key, and we have said this is where we want to put our focus in the next three years. So you have seen the first chunk that gets us putting those systems in place, but yes it will take more money, but we can also spend what's there better.

John Right, so in a climate of zero budgets, continuing zero budget increases, that means reprioritisation of funding doesn’t it? And professionals are already concerned about this, taking money away from things that work.

Paula Yeah well if throwing money was the answer to this problem then quite frankly we would see – you know the numbers are coming down significantly through those Labour years, because they put significantly more money into these organisations, but we haven’t seen fewer children being neglected. I think we can do better with what's there, but yes it will also take some new funds.

John And the other major criticism of this report has been the lack of anything in terms of addressing poverty. Now we know that there is a connection between poverty and child abuse. So you can go through and it's not just the politicians that are saying this. Patrick Kelly from Starship, the NZEI, Unicef, the New Zealand Nurses organisation, they're all saying that you need to be doing more about this issue.

Rachel There's nothing in this about poverty.

Paula Well I agree that it is one of the causes and can be one of the causes.

Rachel The key cause…

Paula Well there's a number of key causes actually,…..

Rachel But that’s one that impacts on beneficiaries which is poverty isn't it, people living in poverty.

Paula But there's also a whole lot of other strings of work that are going on around poverty, so why would I duplicate the work of the Children's Commissioner and his expert group. Why would I duplicate the work that’s going on with the Ministerial Committee on Poverty. This is about dealing with those 20 to 30,000 children that are most at risk. We have other work that’s going on around the causes. But quite frankly I find it slightly offensive to say that poverty causes child abuse, cos it doesn’t actually.

Rachel Okay, it doesn’t make someone clench a fist and smack their child, but it puts people under extreme strain. When you look at say a relationship that’s under financial strain that’s one of the key issues that sometimes makes a relationship go bottoms up basically. Then you get a woman on her own who's under stress with children. Then another man enters the scene, and we know that in these cases, you know that can often lead to child abuse, non-biological men involved in a family environment. So financial strain and poverty does put a lot of pressure under people.

Paula Well I think you’ve just kinda hit the nail on the head, is that it's not just poverty, it's also the relationships we have, who we let into our children's lives, the protection we put over them.

Rachel Poverty triggers the breakdown so often. I mean everyone says that poverty is a key issue in pretty much every case of child abuse, poverty is a significant factor.

Paula Honestly Rachel if I thought throwing an extra 30 or 40 dollars a week at beneficiaries would mean that those children were not abused and neglected, I'd be fighting with that with every inch that I've got. It is far more complex than that. Far more complex.

Rachel Sure.

Paula So there is work that’s going on around poverty and I certainly stand by it. I welcome the Children's Commissioner's work, I want to see their report in December, there are pieces in that that we will be auctioning. But this is incredibly complex, it's intergenerational. We need to be acting now on what is happening, and to excuse it I think is just not acceptable.

John But the government I mean – the research that went into this White Paper itself found I think five out of six cases of abuse came from welfare homes, and yet there are government policies that are punishing the parents who have children, beneficiary parents.

Paula Well see I disagree fundamentally of course that it's not punishing them, it's actually giving them the opportunities to get off welfare and into a better life. And right now they are intergenerationally staying on welfare cos they don’t see any sort of future or any different thing coming.

Rachel it's cutting the children who suffer though isn't it?

Paula Well we're not cutting them and that’s – we are changing behaviours and we have to change behaviours, and at the end of that there needs to be some repercussions. We are not going to do that lightly. There is going to be processes that we work through. It is not our intention to cut the money of those that are most vulnerable, but we have to change behaviours so that we don’t see another generation growing up, hurt and maltreated and ending up on long term welfare.

Rachel The Children's Commissioner will release the final report, Solutions to Child Poverty essentially. Will you take on board what he says in that about poverty?

Paula Well of course we will. I mean I've been having many discussions with him and with Jonathan Boston, with others from the group. I've read their reports, I look forward to them in December. It doesn’t mean that we're gonna pick up his set menu, but it does mean that we might see what we think works. You know because they are doing a lot of work and I have a huge amount of respect for what they're doing.

John I think there is frustration though Minister that there's continually work going on and discussions being had, but still a reluctance to actually take action, firm action.

Paula Well I couldn’t agree with you more and that’s why you have the White Paper on Vulnerable Children. This is action orientated, this is actual things that will make a difference in those lives of those children. You know early next year the work really kicks off and I couldn’t agree with you more. I could have done another paper. I could have done something else. This is action orientated.

Rachel Among a lot of the submissions that came into this White Paper that there should be a Minister for Children. There should shouldn’t there?

Paula Why? So instead what you’ve got is joint chief executives who are actually now going to be …

Rachel There should be a Minister though.

Paula … well they're it quite frankly.

Rachel If you have a Minister for Children, you look at someone that looks at every single possible that government introduces and thinks what's the impact on children?

Paula I actually couldn’t disagree more.

Rachel How is that not a good idea?

Paula I just think actually having a Minister for Children will be…

Rachel We've got a Minister for Racing.

Paula And how is that lip service going. Let's actually get serious about what the results are for these kids. They cross education, health, justice, Police, and of course myself. I have got those five most senior ministers all standing up being accountable for this work, and what happens with kids.

Rachel So that’s a no Minister.

Paula It's far bigger and better quite frankly than the title of Minister for Children, it all seems a bit wishy washy to me.

Rachel Alright Social Development Minister, Paul Bennett, thank you for your time and appreciated.

ENDS

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