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Strong relationships: bedrock of Strong Families

Strong relationships: the bedrock of Strengthening Families

Steve Maharey Speech: Comments to the Strengthening Families Management Groups conference. Kingsgate Hotel, Wellington.


[Slide one]

Thank you for inviting me to join you today, at this first conference for chairs of the Strengthening Families Management Group.

I understand that this is not only your first conference. It is also the first time that all 60 Management Group chairs have gathered together. This conference is your opportunity to celebrate your successes, and identify how you can most effectively continue your outstanding work on behalf of New Zealand’s families.

I welcome this chance to talk about the successes of Strengthening Families, the Government’s next steps for the strategy, and how I see the future role of Strengthening Families Management Groups.

[Slide two]

It is remarkable to reflect on what everyone here has achieved in fostering collaborative approaches to supporting families at risk. Evaluations show that most families and whanau involved in Strengthening Families feel that they are getting better support from agencies, and that their family circumstances have improved.

This is the acid test of any strategy or initiative: what it means to the people it aims to help. And, yes, Strengthening Families is helping. Helping, in the main, because of the commitment and skill of local Management Groups.

[Slide three]

The wellbeing of New Zealand families is a high priority for this Government. We want our children and young people to be safe, loved, and secure in their homes. We want our families to be resilient: to communicate well, to function as cohesive groups. We want every member of every family to be able to achieve their potential.

Most New Zealand families and whanau are strong and resilient. Most of our children and young people grow up in safe, loving, secure homes. But all of us here know that is not true for all families. Some families need help to become strong.

Strengthening Families acknowledges that, once a child or young person requires help from a government or community agency, there is likely to be a bigger picture that needs addressing. Other agencies may need to be involved. The Chief Social Worker's and Commissioner for Children's investigations into the deaths of Saliel Aplin and Olympia Jetson are a poignant reminder of the need for agencies to work together in this way.

Strengthening Families, then, is about collaboration and co-ordination.

Fitting the pieces together

[Slide four]

Strengthening Families brings agencies and families together. It fits all the pieces of the jigsaw together. It lets everyone see the big picture.

The need for agencies to collaborate and coordinate can never be understated. Without exception, when we review cases that have gone wrong, we discover that a critical contributing factor was the failure of agencies to share information.

Strengthening Families was developed with a very clear mandate. It was to lead to better outcomes for high-risk families: families that were already being supported by government and non-government agencies.

Six years after its inception, we can see that the strategy works.

[Slide five]

In a recent Strengthening Families evaluation, most agencies reported that they were providing greater support for families through co-ordinated services. They also reported that this greater support led to improved behaviour, wellbeing, and safety of the children and young people involved.

Most families and whanau in the evaluation said that they felt as though they were listened to by agencies, and that agencies mostly understood what was important to the family. Most importantly, as I have mentioned, they felt their family or whanau was getting greater support, and that their situation had improved.

These results change lives

Behind these evaluations are real people. Real families, with real lives. Lives that are helped immeasurably by the simple act of agencies, individuals, and the family sitting down and talking. Identifying problems, solutions, and actions.

It is heartwarming, and humbling, to see what results when good people harness their time, their energy, and their sheer, practical commonsense.

[Slide six]

A young man in South Auckland sustained head injuries in a car crash that killed his father and injured his mother. Two years later, he was still experiencing behavioural difficulties, problems with concentration, and difficulties controlling his temper.

A Strengthening Families meeting between local education providers and social workers resulted in the young man enrolling at a local Centre for Riding Therapy, an alternative education programme that gets its students involved in caring for horses.

The positive intervention worked wonders. Nine months later, the young man’s confidence, behaviour, and anger management had improved beyond all expectations. He was ready to re-enrol in mainstream education. Ready to participate fully in the social and academic life of a school.

In Auckland City, a solo father was living with his five children and other family members. The whole extended family suffered from overcrowding, poverty, health problems, and care and protection and behavioural issues with the children.

Many agencies and individuals got involved with strengthening this family: Work and Income, HNZC, a public health nurse, the children’s school, a community support agency.

The father received financial help from Work and Income and the Strengthening Families discretionary fund. This paid for the clean linen and towels he needed to rid his home of scabies. The eldest son got access to counselling for behavioural issues. The children’s learning problems at school were addressed, including ongoing tests of their hearing and vision. HNZC found alternative housing for the extended family members, and Dad developed positive, ongoing relationships with his support agencies.

Thanks to Strengthening Families, a South Canterbury teenaged mother and her four-month-old baby are no longer clients of the Department of Child, Youth and Family Services. Child, Youth and Family referred the young woman to Strengthening Families because she clearly needed strong and co-ordinated support to be a strong parent.

At the first Strengthening Families meeting, Child, Youth and Family, Parents as First Teachers, a Maori Health worker, Community Mental Health worker, Parent Support Worker, the young woman, and her mother developed a positive plan of action.

The young mother received counselling and practical support, attended a hairdressing course, and is now attending Kohanga Reo with her baby. HNZC is helping her work towards her dream of a home for her and her child. She is now a confident and capable young mother, and Child, Youth and Family closed their file on her after only two Strengthening Families meetings.

These are only a few of the stories behind the successes. There are many more. In Palmerston North and Rotorua, schools for teenaged mothers have crèches attached so the young mothers’ studies aren’t compromised by lack of childcare. In Christchurch, a strategy for reducing school suspensions and exclusions is being developed to increase young people’s access to education.

The ‘big picture’, national initiatives like Family Start and Social Workers in Schools are all showing positive results.

[Slide seven]

And every Strengthening Families success has the same starting point: strong, resilient, absolutely open and co-operative relationships among the people and agencies involved.

Networks and relationships

[Slide eight]

Strong, co-operative networks and relationships are the bedrock of Strengthening Families. The development of these networks and relationships is without doubt one of the most significant achievements of the local Management Groups. Agencies and organisations are talking to each other. Sharing information, and identifying opportunities for shared work.

Government and community organisations have re-established productive relationships. Relationships that had often melted away, thanks to state sector restructuring and the disappearance of government agencies’ physical presence from many provincial towns.

This relationship-building work helped the Government immeasurably when we established the Heartland Service Centres and our regional social development strategies.

[Slide nine]

It is also helping to ensure the continuing use of the best practice case management model that the Management Groups developed.

This model, which rests on collaboration among agencies, is making a real and positive difference to many children, young people and families at risk. So are the Management Groups’ best practice guidelines for co-ordinated services, and the trained facilitators that support the Strengthening Families processes.

Finally, I want to congratulate the Management Groups for their work in developing a capacity building strategy for Pacific Island people. And for their critical role in implementing the Strengthening Families strategy for children with High and Complex needs.

The Government intends to build on the solid foundation that Strengthening Families Management Groups have laid as we move into the next stage of the strategy.

The success of Strengthening Families

[Slide ten]

We began collecting statistics about Strengthening Families in January 2000. Since then, over 4000 new cases have been initiated, involving almost 9000 children and young people.

An important criteria for entry to Strengthening Families is multi-agency involvement for the child or young person. Our statistics, then, show that we are dealing with children and young people at real risk of poor life outcomes.

The pattern of referrals to Strengthening Families has changed over recent years. Initially, most cases were referred by government agencies. Now, almost a third of all new referrals come from the community sector.

I believe that this greater community response shows that Strengthening Families has the confidence of the community. I also believe that strong community involvement provides an important check on the effectiveness of services, and the timeliness of responses, provided by mainstream government agencies.

[Slide eleven]

This Government is confident in continuing to financially support Strengthening Families. From an absolutely zero base, we have increased funding every single year since this Government took office. Ten separate government departments now contribute to the Strengthening Families budget—itself a good example of interagency collaboration.

This financial year, just over $1.5 million has been made available to assist Management Groups with salaries, administration, and training costs.

For each of the last three years we have made a discretionary fund of $200,000 available. This fund is to meet the one-off and unusual needs of families who are being helped through Strengthening Families.

What lies ahead

This conference comes at an opportune time for the Government. Over recent months, the Government has announced its intention to enhance its focus on services that provide support to families. We want to see improved leadership and co-ordination of family support services, and a broadening of the Strengthening Families strategy to take a more preventative approach.

[Slide twelve]

The Government has decided to give the Ministry of Social Development overall responsibility for leadership and co-ordination of family services. This is a new function for the Ministry, and makes good sense.

The Ministry of Social Development currently manages the Strengthening Families local collaboration programme on behalf of the health, education and social service sectors. The Ministry is also involved in a range of family support activities at the policy level.

The Ministry is establishing a national Family Services unit in Wellington, and four regional offices in Auckland, Rotorua, Wellington and Christchurch. The national unit will be supported by a national advisory body, with representatives from government and non government agencies, iwi/Maori and Pacific peoples. The advisory body will help develop family support strategies and oversee their implementation.

So, where do the Strengthening Families Management Groups fit in the new structure?

[Slide thirteen]

We expect that Management Groups will continue to co-ordinate family support services at the local level. In this sense, things will be business as usual.

We also consider, however, that Strengthening Families Management Groups provide the perfect local platform for broadening the strategy to take a more preventative approach.

[Slide fourteen]

We have identified that a worrying number of vulnerable families need support, but at present cannot access it through Strengthening Families. Sometimes their situation deteriorates to such an extent that it is then too late to turn it around.

As an illustration, a year 2000 report on services for Dunedin Children with behavioural problems suggested that three out of four were not accessing services.

The new Family Service work stream that is being put in place within the Ministry of Social Development will give a high priority to identifying these types of issues. The Ministry will also produce strategies to address these issues for Government consideration.

[Slide fifteen]

This conference provides a wonderful opportunity to identify how Strengthening Families Management Groups can contribute to these strategies. Management Groups have the hands-on, local-level knowledge and experience that the policy makers need. Your input is essential.

Over the next two days you will develop many exciting ideas about how Groups can continue to ensure the success of Strengthening Families. In particular, you will identify how you can help the strategy broaden its reach to more vulnerable families.

[Slide sixteen]

I wish you well for your conference, and for your future work.

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