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The Solution to Child Poverty And Abuse Already Exists

Opinion Piece February 2014

The Solution to Child Poverty And Abuse Already Exists

By Kevin Christie, Founder And CEO, Footsteps

The Salvation Army’s State of the Nation report, released in the past week, proves that when it comes to our children, we are more interested in defining vulnerability than addressing it. Some will point to the uptick in early childhood education (ECE), which earned an A- rating in part because of the growth in Māori and Pasifika enrolment, as a positive. However, when that translates to a lamentable C+ in educational achievement, we must confront the fact that most of those working in ECE are very good at ticking the boxes, and less accomplished at ensuring excellent outcomes for children.

The plain fact is that every child born today will become either an asset or a liability, will contribute to our society or cost it. Their children and grandchildren will follow the same path. The only way to interrupt a familial pattern of liability, as bolstered by decades of local and global research, is early intervention.

The Salvation Army report indicated that apart from a decrease in teen pregnancy and infant mortality, there is little cheering news for children in New Zealand. Child poverty and children and violence each scored a D, and children at risk a C-. These things all have the same systemic roots, and despite knowing that early intervention is the magic bullet – that if we reach these children early in their lives we can save them – we spend only 0.1% of GDP on preventative services.

What if I told you the answer to child poverty and its attendant factors and contributors right now? Our work is focused on the child, in the home. People talk about child abuse, but we at Footsteps ensure that everyone is trained in child protection and can do more than talk.

All our kaiako (teachers) are registered ECE teachers with training in brain development, attachment, child protection and foetal alcohol syndrome. Most people working with young children, shockingly (given our statistics), don’t know when abuse is taking place. Recognition requires specialized training, and something readily apparent like a broken arm is the tip of the iceberg, tending to come long after the child first began suffering violence.

Astonishing as it may sound, if you start with this training, and you’re working in a child’s home with a primary focus on the child, you find that everything around the child begins to change. A home-based, high quality service becomes holistic, encompasses the community, works in a collaborative and not a bureaucratic way.

As time goes on, we will bring in the dads and other contributors to help the dads learn how to relate to their children. With continued commitment, these children will grow up to be assets, people who help and contribute, and whose own children do the same. They will have resilience and social and emotional competencies that their predecessors may have lacked, but that can be instilled in any young child, with the right help.

Change is surprisingly smooth when you work with the children first. If you take an individual, not a one-size-fits-all, approach with every child, you will enable them to be their best. If you do that, they will fix themselves. It goes against much of what we think we know, but we need the courage to start at the children’s end. You can seldom change the adults directly, so the child becomes the starting point of changing the household, and then the wider family and community.

Every individual and agency is only part of the solution, and though we need to spend more than 0.1% of GDP on preventative services, money alone won’t get us there.

The most important thing about the Salvation Army report is what it doesn’t address, which is the most important thing to children – time. This is what makes children feel important, accepted, worthy of being listened to. This is how they develop and attach. Children at risk, suffering violence and hardship, don’t stand on street corners wearing signs that ask for help. They become invisible. Specific training for adults combined with a collaborative, child-centric approach to early childhood education will tip the ledger heavily in favour of assets. The proof is already there.

Footsteps Case Study
Bella* was placed with a CYF caregiver at six months of age. Bella had previously been left mainly in her cot, with little interaction, cuddling or stimulation. Footsteps began working with the pair a few days after placement.

The Footsteps teacher, Sarah, began working with Janice the caregiver to introduce tactile experiences, physical movement and emotional attachment that would facilitate bonding.

Sarah instigated a referral to Plunket for Bella, who had never had a health provider. Sarah also introduced Janice and Bella to a nearby baby gym, which gave Bella the opportunity for social interaction with other children, stimulation through movement to engage the wiring in the brain and visual stimulation to improve eye tracking.

Bella’s journey is a story of continuous learning and development, documented in the Footsteps LJ (learning journey report) filed in her Kete Ako (Learning Kit).

Janice and Sarah worked together to ensure that Bella had the love, stimulation, interaction and touch that will enable her to develop, learn and realise her future potential.

*Name changed for privacy reasons


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