The 50 plus children who have died as a result of abuse in the last years provide more than 50 strong reasons for action to keep vulnerable children safe.
Here’s another one:
Something has to change and Social Development Minister Paula Bennett is introducing legislation which with sweeping changes to protect vulnerable children and help them thrive.
She describes the work in the plan as the most important work she will ever do as a Minister:
We are fundamentally changing the way we work with children and how we protect the most vulnerable.
I feel a deep sense of responsibility for the thousands of children who are hurt and abused in this country.
More than fifty children have died in the last five years because of extreme abuse.
Because of abuse, a child under two is hospitalised every five days.
Every year Child, Youth and Family substantiates 22,000 cases of physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect. . .
These are horrific figures and an indictment on the people who commit the crime and a system which doesn’t do enough to protect the children.
This legislation contains major and far reaching changes and also strengthens our commitment to children whose lives have already been damaged.
It will allow government to do everything possible to shore up frontline protections.
The Chief Executives of five government agencies will be accountable for vulnerable children.
There will be clear performance expectations for Chief Executives; they’ll have to report annually and answer to Ministers directly on their part, in a cross agency plan for these kids.
Do not underestimate the power of this unprecedented move.
Never before in this country have the Chief Executives of Health, Education, Police, and Justice had specific accountability together, for vulnerable children.
Now they will, alongside the Ministry of Social Development of course.
It will significantly change the way they work.
They’ll have to ensure they’re improving the wellbeing of vulnerable children, protecting them from abuse and taking a child-centred approach.
Together they’ll design a cross agency plan for vulnerable children which they’ll have to report on annually and front up to Ministers on the progress they make.
These five agencies as well as, Te Puni Kokiri and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, are all represented on the Vulnerable Children’s Board.
The Vulnerable Children’s Board is an important part in the accountability chain leading from the Children’s Teams working on the ground up to a Ministerial Oversight Group.
But I see a whole Children’s Workforce as having some level of responsibility.
That is every person who comes into contact with or works closely with children. . .
New restrictions will apply to people with serious convictions.
I’m talking about murder, manslaughter, sexual violation, assault on a child and sexual conduct with young people.
It’s critically important we get this list right – I’m asking the select committee to explore this and for the public to have a say.
But we simply have to protect our vulnerable children from these serious offenders.
There will be serious consequences – I’m proposing heavy fines – if organisations fail to comply with these restrictions.
On top of this measure, we’re introducing minimum standards for screening and vetting of the children’s workforce. . .
Other measures include Child Harm Prevention Orders:
There are cases where children have been abused because a dangerous individual got close enough to do so, sometimes literally by moving into their home.
I will not tolerate abusive adults having that freedom and that power over children. . .
Simply, children must come first.
A High Court or District court will be able to place these new civil orders on adults with a history of serious convictions who pose a high risk of abusing children.
This could also include cases where, on the balance of probabilities, it’s believed the person was responsible for seriously abusing or killing a child.
Harassment orders are decided on this basis, so it is not legally unusual.
They could be placed on top of restraining and harassment orders. . .
Changes will protect children born to parents who’ve previously abused or killed a child.
Currently, it’s only when those abusive parents have a subsequent child and come to the attention of Child, Youth and Family that the child’s safety is assessed.
If Child, Youth and Family believe the child is unsafe, it has to prove that to the Court.
We will reverse that burden of proof.
The parent will have to prove, that their child is safe in their care. . .
This legislation makes it possible to curtail the guardianship rights of parents whose children were taken into care and placed into a Home For Life.
We introduced Home for Life in 2010.
If a child can’t be with their parents, we aim to find them a permanent Home for Life.
We know permanency is vital– and a Home for Life family can provide the love and stability that child desperately needs.
It is a step below adoption, so birth parents retain a number of rights to maintain a connection to the child.
This is as it should be – we should always endeavour to foster those family ties.
Unfortunately, some birth parents exploit those rights and create instability and emotional turmoil for the caregiving families and children.
This happens when parents veto overseas holidays – so a week-long trip to Australia, which might be the first holiday that child has ever had, can be sabotaged.
It happens with vexatious attempts to drag out court cases, some of which can be played out over many years – leaving the child in a constant state of unease over their future.
It also happens with weekend visits from particularly aggressive or manipulative parents who seek to undermine the new family home.
These are examples of how birth parents can pull the rug out from under those children who desperately need stability.
Right now, we have only either very light or very heavy handed options to address this.
Under this new legislation, Family Court Judges will have a new tool.
It’ll mean Judges can set specific guardianship rights that are proportionate to that individual child and their new family. . .
This is a very tough stance but one which has the support of the Children’s Commissioner:
The Children’s Commissioner, Dr Russell Wills, says the announcement of legislative changes to protect vulnerable children reflects an important shift in the balance between respecting a parent’s rights and ensuring a child’s right to be safe.
“Minister Bennett’s announcement reflects an elevation of the rights and needs of children, and signals a very welcome change in social norms in New Zealand by clearly focusing on the behaviour of adults to help keep children safe.
“I’m sure there will be strong interest in initiatives such as the introduction of Child Harm Prevention Orders and some may say they go too far. Many more New Zealanders will welcome the protection they offer to our most vulnerable children.
“The orders, and other changes such as requiring some parents to prove they are safe to parent, will give those working with these children additional tools to help keep them safe.
“The changes around guardianship will create more stable care by stopping parents putting unreasonable limits on a child and their Home for Life carer, for example by refusing to let the child go on holiday or school camp, or be immunised.
“Joint accountability for a cross agency plan will give extra weight to the needs of vulnerable children. As a paediatrician, I have experienced challenges around getting access for children to services such as education or behavioural support. Those of us working with vulnerable children will now be able to count on the support of all agencies to deliver an effective response for them.
“I would encourage the Minister to consider whether independent oversight or evaluation of the implement of the plan and the outcomes it delivers would strengthen it further.
“While there is still work to be done to develop the details around some initiatives, the Minister’s announcement provides a sensible and welcome package of measures to enhance the wellbeing of our most vulnerable children.”
Every Child Counts has welcomed the moves:
. . . “The announcements made today demonstrate a strong government commitment to ensuring the right systems are in place to help protect children from abuse,” says Every Child Counts manager Deborah Morris-Travers.
“We welcome the leadership that will be required of State agencies and the requirement for them to have child protection policies in place. Leadership is central to building a society and culture that protects children and policies that ensure appropriate screening of people working with children are fundamental.
“The proposed Child Harm Prevention Orders, designed to constrain the movements of anyone who poses a risk to children, signal clearly that involvement in the lives of children is a privilege and our nation will not tolerate child abuse. However, we are mindful that this proposal is yet to be assessed for Bill of Rights implications and it is likely there will need to be a high standard of evidence before such orders can be imposed.
“Any effort to protect children from abuse and neglect has to be welcomed. These systemic changes are all important steps in the effort to create a society that values and nurtures its children. We welcome today’s announcements and encourage the government to continue working to improve life for every child in Aotearoa NZ,” says Every Child Counts manager, Deborah Morris-Travers.
Barnardos has welcomed the announcement too:
. . . “We believe these are positive steps that demonstrate a strong commitment by government towards ensuring the right of all children in Aotearoa/New Zealand to be safe from abuse,” says Barnardos Chief Executive Jeff Sanders.
“Continued implementation of the Children’s Action Plan through these legislative changes gives a clear signal that child abuse is not acceptable and will not be tolerated in our communities.” . . .
Governments have no place in most families, the ones where children are safe and well cared for and where their parents or caregivers are willing and able to look after them in the way every child deserves.
But we have too many children where loving care isn’t normal and the rights of these children to protection trump the rights of adults who are a danger to them.