'State of Care' report timely for the Government

Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills has done the Government a huge favour with his report, ''State of Care'', this week, whether he intended to or not.

Being independently minded as well as an independent commissioner, I suspect he did not intend to.

But it dovetails perfectly with Bill English's next step in the so-called social investment approach, the highly anticipated Paula Rebstock report.

Her report will redesign the Child, Youth and Family service, possibly beyond recognition.

Dr Wills' damning report into how children in state care are treated (neglected), means her report will have a much easer ride in terms of political acceptance.

When it is released, it will not be just the plan of a trusted servant of the Government; it will be a plan to address what Dr Wills said was not only ineffective but actually harmful to children the longer they stayed in care.

Dr Wills has credibility with the groups that might be tempted to oppose new ways of social service delivery that Ms Rebstock may propose.

His efforts to highlight child poverty last term by setting up an expert advisory group to work on solutions got under the skin of the Government, and inequality and child poverty became central themes of the Labour and Green campaigns. While the Government did not say at the time he was straying from his core business into politics, they thought it.

He returned to ''core business'' with this report. It has had impact as much for what it could not tell us (why 1000 of the 17,000 children in care in 2014 were not longer in care) as for what it could (117 abused while in care).

But, damning as it was, you could almost hear the collective sigh across the country of CYF fatigue; yet another report into yet more failures.

There were also equally predictable responses about the need to resource the agency properly, to hire more social workers, to cut down the caseload of each social worker.

I have been hearing about this since 1992 when, as social welfare and housing reporter with the Herald, I covered the first review into the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act 1989.

It was a radical experiment at the time, brought in when Michael Cullen was social welfare minister. It introduced the family group conference as a key part of finding solutions to both functions of the Children and Young Persons Service: care and protection for children at risk and youth justice for young offenders, although the lines between both are often blurred.

There may have been 14 reviews into CYF, as Social Development Minister Anne Tolley claimed this week, but they have all focused on different things. Dr Wills' report stands out for it being mostly a child-centred review. Instead of just inspecting the various CYF sites, he has analysed his findings, looking for themes and trends, all from the perspective of the child in care.

It was not all bad; of the 14 sites he assessed, one was outstanding on all measures and four were outstanding in terms of leadership and directions, results that suggest workload is not an insurmountable problem.

When Paula Bennett was minister, she used a consultative process (with 10,000 submissions and plenty of horror stories) to develop the Vulnerable Children's Act, which has given rise to a slow roll-out of children's teams. Various government agencies are supposed to work with families who are in difficulty but not bad enough for CYF to intervene, but are being slowed down by their own haggling over information-sharing protocols.

Mrs Tolley took a different tack to Ms Bennett. She was not consultative. Mrs Tolley became minister last year, having been corrections minister. She earned respect in that portfolio for work on rehabilitation and skills for prisoners.

She was, however, building on the transformation of a previously dysfunctional department. She found out what it should be doing, what was stopping it from doing it and how to get it to do it.

Mrs Tolley commissioned Ms Rebstock and an expert panel to do that with CYF, and to redesign it with children's needs at the centre. She did not want social workers in there. Some saw it as a cost-cutting exercise. But the social investment approach is not about cutting costs in the short term - it is about working out where to spend money, possibly more money, to save it in the long term. And it is about spending money only on things that work.

Ms Rebstock's proposals for CYF are thought to resemble the way special education operates, where a child can have access to professional services, depending on their circumstances. Mrs Tolley has already also talked about the need for social workers to be able to access child psychologists. Dr Wills began his report in January last year, well before Mrs Tolley decided to overhaul CYF. She did not invite him to be part of the process, although he has set up a group of young people with experience in state care for the expert panel to consult.

With the publication of his report, and the commitment to make it annual, Dr Wills has forced himself into the reform process, as it should be.

- By Audrey Young, The New Zealand Herald political editor.


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