Friday, October 11, 2013

Co-ordinated and collaborative action goes THBBPTT

Our favourite government minister, Social Development's Paula Bennett, has been shameless about mining New Zealand's abused children for political capital since the release of the Green Paper on Vulnerable Children back in 2010. It's possible the Minister really does believe her own hype about wanting every New Zealand child to 'thrive, belong, achieve'. But as numerous submitters to the Green Paper pointed out, the GP was  really concerned about shuffling resources among already stretched social services whereas the key risk factor for childhood neglect and abuse is poverty and financial stress on households. Poverty is especially associated with child neglect, which can be every bit as damaging as physical abuse.

Risk factors for child abuse also include overcrowded housing (living with non-family adults), frequent shifting (lack of connections in the community can lead to bullying by other children), patchy access to healthcare (sickness that leads to time off school), poor nutrition and neighbourhood factors such as access to alcohol. The ensuing two-volume White Paper and Children's Action Plan ignored all of these but for a few passing mentions: the scale of these problems in some children's lives was not acknowledged, and no measures were set out to tackle them.

Fast forward to 2013 and the much-awaited Vulnerable Children Bill (VCB) pops up in our inbox. It's a bit of a damp squib but that's a tale for another day. One of the issues this Bill and in fact almost all the public discussion on vulnerable children to date has ignored is the role of violence in children's lives. There is a very strong link between domestic violence and violence towards children, whereas the new Bill is largely focused on stranger danger outside the home.

Throughout the GP/WP/VCB process there has been a great deal of emphasis in making agencies work together: as the explanatory note to the VCB puts it, "shared responsibility, and co-ordinated and collaborative action across the government..." That's great. New Zealand boasts a string of reports going back to the Dark Ages about different agencies failing to pick up hideous cases of child abuse even though the information was there.

But wait! It would appear this new co-ordination and collaboration doesn't apply to the government itself. About the same time the Bill was released Tariana Turia announced the establishment of a new Expert Advisory Group on Family Violence. This group appears to run parallel to the Ministry of Social Development's Taskforce for Action on Violence Within Families . The Taskforce itself includes the heads of a number of state agencies (like the cross-departmental agency proposed in the Vulnerable Children Bill but far broader and more representative).  According to a press release the EAG:
"is being formed to provide independent strategic advice to assist Government to determine key priority actions to address family violence in New Zealand.
A whole-of-government approach to family violence is vital and means we need to identify where there may be duplication of services or gaps in addressing family violence and ensure there are linkages with other strategic priorities."
More "whole of government" rhetoric from a Minister who has been talking about it since 2002. But a closer look suggests the key strategic priority is to shuffle money around existing services ("duplication", "gaps").

And it gets worse: on this long-standing and important issue, the new EAG has been tasked to report back by the end of 2013. As part of this they are conducting a survey of community agencies through the Family Violence Clearing House (see here). The post asking for feedback to the survey was submitted at 5.30pm on the 9th October. The survey closes at 5pm on the 11th of October (although it has just been reported that the deadline has been extended to Wednesday the 16th). Notably, the survey does not request feedback from the end users of services. The report linked here also confirms the focus on costs: "Mrs Turia said she asked the advisory group to report by the end of the year on how the money going into family violence could be better spent." On other words, like the Green Paper before it, it's really about shuffling inadequate funding between the needy and the even more needy while using the language of strategy and priority as a foil. 

So agencies have a week to respond to a survey (and then only under pressure), and a report on spending priorities for a problem New Zealand has been struggling with for years is due in mere weeks. This while the government is taking submissions on a Bill that completely ignores the role of violence in making children vulnerable to abuse. Is this our best response to children facing violence in the home? 

Collaborative action goes THBBPTT
Spider and I have a better idea: why not give the so-called EAG some time to go out and talk to people both providing and using family violence services, and establish what link, if any, exists between family violence and child abuse (that is, link these two strategic priorities)? Put the cynical Vulnerable Children Bill off to one side while this is being done then incorporate the findings of the EAG, at least one of whom is a genuine expert, into the Bill. That way the EAG, the Bill and the government's stated commitment to co-operation and collaboration between departments (and between the government and the community) might have some credibility. Or is protecting children from violence in the home merely an 'aspirational' goal subject to the ongoing politics of austerity?