Q+A: Greg Boyed interviews Paula Bennett
Q+A: Greg Boyed interviews Paula
Minister says it’s not about the money: “an extra 50 bucks a week” into the homes of child abusers wouldn’t save lives and more than the extra $20 million budgeted to fight child abuse would not get abuse rates down.
“I don’t think it needs more money… What it takes is a concerted plan…”
Extra $20m will be spent on new child-protect line, two pilot children’s teams, the 30,000 child database and “risk-predator tool”, which will all be up and running by July next year.
Hints at more staff for CYFs, but says her priority is “better training, better supervision…” and focusing CYFs on worst cases. Says “other people” could intervene earlier.
Acknowledges a link between poverty and child abuse, but says poverty was worse after World War II, yet family violence wasn’t as common, so “too simplistic” to blame poverty.
“…we have an underlying current of violence towards our children that is, quite frankly, unfathomable”. Lists causes such as lack of self-esteem and [mothers in relationships with] “non-blood men”.
“I do see the children of some fairly wealthy people that are sadistic and actually treat their children appallingly.”
The 30,000 children targeted by National’s Action Plan “are at risk of death, to put it quite bluntly”.
Minister promises “significantly more” money for skills training and connecting people to work in next Budget.
“will pick up” some of the recommendations made by the
Children Commissioner’s expert group.
It will be 10 to 15 years before we will know if these reforms have succeeded or failed.
“There is no quick solution,” but, “I won’t be scared to say what doesn’t work and change it.”
“Sick to death” of finger-pointing after the death of a child – “I think you will see clearer lines of accountability”.
Says she specifically rejected a universal child database – “I could easily have gone and scattered more money around and hoped that I actually got it to the children that needed it most. I am point-blankedly targeting.”
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Q + A
GREG BOYED INTERVIEWS PAULA BENNETT
PAUL And so on to our special look at children this morning. We all know the rates of child abuse in New Zealand are a national disgrace. Listen to these numbers. To the end of June this year, more than 150,000 cases went to Child, Youth and Family. Of these, nearly 5000 cases of neglect were found, over 3000 cases of physical abuse. They found – this is a 12-month period – 1400 cases of sexual abuse. Up to 10 children are killed in this country each year, and every time they’re killed by the ones who are supposed to love them the most. And so when it all happens, we say never again and the carnage continues. However, the Social Development Minister, Paula Bennett, has come up with a new plan, her White Paper on vulnerable children. Greg Boyed spoke earlier to Paula Bennett and began by asking why she’s targeted this particular 30,000 at-risk children and how she defines ‘at risk’.
PAULA BENNETT – Social Development Minister
Well, we have defined at-risk. It is those that are currently being maltreated, so we know are being abused or seriously neglected, and then those who we predict will be. And we can do a number of factors that means that we know which children we need to focus on. But it’s pretty horrific when you’ve got Auckland University researchers turning around and saying they think 5% of our children’s population are at risk of serious maltreatment. We have to do something.
GREG UNICEF, Barnardos and a number of other groups have said the number’s too small. 30,000 is too small; it needs to be a universal number – all kids under a certain age as is in the Netherlands. Why have you not gone down that road?
PAULA Well, we do a lot of work for all children, as we should. So we have a whole lot of universal initiatives, programmes that are going in. I find it horrific we’ve got 30,000 children that are potentially living lives of hell. We have to focus on them. It’s unpalatable. We all like to think it’s not happening; it is. They are at risk of death, to put it quite bluntly. We have to do something for those that really need it.
GREG Okay, it’s 30,000. This is going to sound facetious and it’s not not meant to be – what about 30,001, 30,002, 30,010? Where do you draw the line?
PAULA I hear you, you know, and that’s what we’ve debated up and down this country through the Green Paper process and also, you know, amongst ourselves as we were writing it – where do you draw that line? Look, it doesn’t mean that if you’re 30,001 you’re not going to get services, because there’s a whole lot of other pieces of work that are going on across other children. But I am—
GREG But it goes back to the universal thing, doesn’t it, just spreading the net wider than saying 30,000?
PAULA I could easily have gone and scattered more money around and hoped that I actually got it to the children that needed it most. I am point-blankedly targeting, and these are the children that I’m targeting. And we can debate where that line should be, and that’s fair enough. I’ve drawn one. Those 30,000 children need it most.
GREG Okay, the money we’re talking about is $20 million.
PAULA To start with, but that’s just new money that goes in so I can set things up, but there’s other programmes that’ll be integrated into it. There’ll be other money coming in through future budgets. It’s not just me either. I’ve got Health on board. I’ve got Education. I’ve got the New Zealand Police. I’ve got the top ministers all sitting round and saying, ‘We will prioritise these children,’ and I think that’s pretty outstanding.
GREG $20 million when you look at the size of the problem and even 30,001 or 30,010 or 40,000 – it doesn’t sound a lot of money.
PAULA Because a lot of money’s already going in. Actually, Labour threw a lot more money at it.
PAULA It just didn’t make a difference.
GREG But it’s clearly not working,…
GREG …so what difference is 20 million going to make, and when’s there going to be more?
PAULA So— Well, I don’t think it needs more money. If throwing more money at the problem was the solution, then, quite frankly, we would have seen fewer children being abused and neglected by the end of Labour’s term. We didn’t. We saw more. What it takes is a concerted plan that puts the right identification across these children and then an individualised plan that sees to them having better outcomes, and that’s what this plan does.
GREG Are you saying, though, that a family in South Auckland who’s really struggling now, the 30, 40, 50 bucks a week isn’t going to make a difference? Because a lot of people would say that would – that would make quite a difference.
PAULA We’re talking about two different things, so at one stage I thought you were talking about more money for those organisations that are working with them.
GREG We are. We’re talking about where the money’s going to go.
PAULA Now you’ve switched to individual money. Of course not, you know, and, quite frankly, the best thing we know we can do for them is get them off welfare and into work. We have seen too much evidence that tells us, actually, that two families on the same income – one’s on a benefit, one’s a working family – it is that working family that will have completely different and better outcomes for their children across all of the kind of dimensions, whether that be education or health-wise and everything else. So our focus is connecting those people better into work, making sure they have the skills, putting— We put in $287 million new money into them at the last Budget, and you’ll see significantly more going in at the next one.
GREG Okay, $20 million – exactly what’s it going to be spent on, and when can we see that money making a difference and those numbers falling?
PAULA Yeah, so we’re going to spend that 20 million on setting up the new child-protect line. That will make a significant difference. So that’s where calls go in to and how they’re triaged. We’re going to set up two pilot children’s teams. I’ve announced one in Rotorua. We have the setting up of the information system and that database and then the risk-predictor tool. So that money goes pretty quickly, to be honest, because that’s how it does, but you will see us setting them up as of, quite frankly, they’re working on it today. And that will be set up – we’ve got timelines through the Children’s Action Plan. But by July next year, you will see people on the ground with the right sort of information and systems, and it’ll be thanks to that money.
GREG Those are the systems. When do you hope to realistically see a change in the stats – see a drop in those numbers?
PAULA Well, the good news is we already are, so what we have been doing is working some more. We just need to up that momentum to another whole level, so in Rotorua, for example, yesterday— in 2010 they had 879 substantiated cases of abuse and neglect. This year they’ve had 529. So we are seeing a drop. I just want that to be better. 529 is too many in my book.
GREG Let’s talk about cause. What do you say is the major cause of child abuse?
PAULA I think it’s incredibly complex. I think it’s intergenerational. I think we have an underlying current of violence towards our children that is, quite frankly, unfathomable. I think that poverty does— is one of the causes. I think it’s a relationship. I think it’s a lack of self-esteem, particularly with some of our young women and the partners that they’re choosing, because we see it as non-blood men that actually hurt these children more often than not. I can give you a list of a hundred different factors. It is complex is what I would say to you.
GREG Poverty – let’s talk about that. Much has been made of that. You said on Thursday if I can quote you here, “Poverty doesn’t cause child abuse”, yet there’s a report here from your own department. I’ve got it right here. It’s saying that one of the main risk factors for child abuse is “poor housing”, “financial deprivation” and “unemployment”. It is a key part of it. Why is that not being addressed a lot harder in this report?
PAULA Because we’re addressing it through a whole lot of other means, and why would I duplicate the work that’s going on with the Children’s Commissioner and his experts group? Why would I duplicate the work that’s going on with the ministers’ committee on poverty? This is a separate piece of work that doesn’t undermine what is going on with those, and we’ll take them into consideration, but we are focusing on those 30,000 children that are most— most definitely need us. I don’t deny poverty as being a part of or having some part to play, but, quite frankly, I know a whole lot of poor people that do not abuse and neglect their kids, and I really get angry when it’s used as an excuse.
GREG Okay, let’s talk about some specific examples, some of these terrible stories, and we know these names so well, the James Whakarurus, the Hinewaoriki Karaitiana-Matiahas in the past. Had they been the kids of affluent or at least comfortable families, would those cases have happened? Would there have been abuse? Would there have been deaths?
PAULA Well, I don’t know. I don’t have a crystal ball. I can’t go back in time and make that—
GREG Well, the answer is probably no, isn’t it?
PAULA Well, unfortunately, I do see the children of some fairly wealthy people that are sadistic and actually treat their children appallingly, so I’m not saying— But would you really turn around and say if they had an extra 50 bucks a week, those kids wouldn’t be dead? I think that’s a bit too simplistic as well.
GREG A lot of people would say that, though.
PAULA Wow, would they?
GREG Yeah, they would, and they have been this week.
GREG You’ve heard the figures about 270,000 kids in poverty, and these kids are, in your critics’ opinion, being ignored. Not all of those can be changed with 50 bucks a week, obviously.
PAULA But then you turn around, Greg, and reading the paper today, and it says, ‘Here’s the child that didn’t have breakfast that morning,’ and then they interviewed them at the dairy and they’re spending 20 bucks on Coke and pies. So really was it that they didn’t have the $20, or did someone just not make their breakfast for them that morning? So, I mean, it is just such a simplistic argument to what is an incredibly complex problem, and I think this paper deals with those complexities. And to turn around and say that it is just an argument of poverty, says, what, those that are post-war that, crikey, had real— I’d show you poverty, they didn’t go around beating their kids like we do today.
GREG So do you acknowledge there is a link, but it’s not the link?
PAULA Yeah, I do acknowledge there is a link, without a doubt, and I say that in the paper. And I really am looking forward to the recommendations that are going to come from the Children’s Commissioner and his expert work— his expert group, and we will pick up some of that work. I have absolutely no doubt. Look, I want kids thriving, achieving, growing in this country. I will do whatever I can. But right now I lose sleep over those kids that are being, quite frankly, beaten, and one dies every five weeks in this country at the hands of someone that’s supposed to love them. I’ve got to intervene more.
GREG How do you do that from your point of view, from where you are in the system? I mean, I’ve no doubt at all – you’ve said right at the beginning this is your main cause for getting into the gig.
GREG How do you say, ‘Well, it’s worked, or I’ve failed’?
PAULA Yeah, probably not for about 10, 15 years, and I won’t be a minister then.
GREG 10, 15 years, though, is going to be, you know, at the numbers we’re looking at is far too long for a lot of those kids—
PAULA But that’s when I will know—
GREG They’re not going to exist in 10, 15 years.
PAULA Let’s be honest. But that’s when we will know, because they will be young adults that are having families of their own, have got successful careers and are moving ahead. I will know in the next few years because we will be really evaluating and looking at the work. I won’t be scared to say what doesn’t work and change it, so that’s how I will know. But, I don’t know, when I think about this, I think it will be in years’ time when I see those children that are thriving and are having a successful life as adults that we’ll really know. This is not a quick answer. You know, there is no quick solution. It shouldn’t be in my parliamentary term. It won’t be three years that works it. It has to— I hope other parties get on board and see the merits of this very big concerted piece of work.
GREG We hear these things with a kid, ‘Oh, there was warning signs, and this person heard and this person.’ No one’s held accountable at the end. If everyone else in a job kept making mistakes that resulted in— whatever mistake, let alone the death of a child, someone would be held accountable. Not sharing information, things like that. When is somebody going to say, ‘Well, you didn’t do your job. Out the door’?
PAULA Oh, I’m sick to death of it. I’m sick to death of, you know, the face of some beautiful child turning up that’s dead, and then we turn around and say all of these people intervened and everyone sits there and points fingers at each other.
GREG So when’s that going to happen? When is that going to happen?
PAULA You will see a far— We will know whether they’ve put the information into the system, whether or not they’ve been part of the solution or part of the problem, and I think you will see far clearer lines of accountability. We will also have a lead professional that is responsible for the outcomes for that young child. And that will be a huge difference.
GREG A lot of front-line staff, though, are saying it’s not information; they know this stuff. They haven’t got the staff to go and do anything about it. They need more people on the ground. When are we going to see that?
PAULA Well, they haven’t put all the pieces together. You know, that’s the reality of it. You know, the social worker here holds a bit, the teacher there holds a little, the GP holds a bit there, you know, the others – community groups working. So once we put it all together, we have one plan for that child, we have a team of lead professionals and one person responsible for following it through, then we will see different outcomes. And I think what we’ve got is a whole lot of very very good people spreading themselves too thin and not having a clear individualised plan. This will have accountability and also be easier for them.
GREG So, but you would agree that there needs to be more people on the ground who get the information, they know the kids that are at risk and can get out there and can do something? There’s going to be more of that?
PAULA I think it’s the people that are there need better training, better supervision and better help, but, yes—
GREG So no more staff?
PAULA I do see more moving into that area. Well, I’ve already put 96 more social workers into Child, Youth and Family. I’m not saying there won’t be more, but we will just look carefully at who we’ve got, what we need and how we move forward.
GREG 20,000 kids a year since National’s been in power abused – 96 seems a drop in the ocean in that scenario.
PAULA Yeah, but we have got— What we’ve got is I think Child, Youth and Family are being spread too thin, so they’re working with too many children, and that’s part of this plan of the White Paper is that we get them better concentrated on those children that need a statutory response. It’s a big thing having Child, Youth and Family in your home, you know, and in your lives, so they should be dealing with those kids that are really at the serious end. And then that’s what this is about is that underneath that there is a really big piece of work that needs to go on and community responses and other professionals being involved in these children’s lives. So in some respects we could lighten the workload of Child, Youth and Family social workers and have other people intervening earlier so they don’t need that big response.