Potential to make a difference

It is difficult to over-emphasise the significance of the Government's child protection changes.

The changes are being billed (and not just by the Government) as "visionary'', "ground-breaking'', "world-leading'', "radical reform'' and "transformational change'', containing as they do a complete overhaul of Child, Youth and Family and associated services.

There are new models for state care, intervention and harm prevention, as well as youth justice, health and education.

A "child-centred'' approach will include establishing a youth advocacy service and ensuring greater accountability.

The age of state care will rise from 17 to 18, and provisions for further support may be made for those up to 25.

The scale of the changes is sizeable - and the Government's acknowledgement of the system's failings surprising.

It is not every day you hear a minister admit, as Social Development Minister Anne Tolley did in her speech announcing the reforms this week: that children have not been at the centre of the system designed for their care and protection ("We say it happens at the moment, but in reality it doesn't''), and that children in state care are effectively re-traumatised by each new placement (many have had up to seven or eight care placements by the time they are the same age).

Ms Tolley said CYF was reactive not proactive and focused on crisis management, that funding, services and strategies were complex and fragmented, and the system lacked accountability.

It appears she has really listened: to children, who have shared their harrowing experiences of state care, to parents, caregivers and social workers, and the Modernising Child Youth and Family Expert Panel (led by Dame Paula Rebstock and including Dunedin professor Richie Poulton), which made 81 recommendations for change in its final report last year.

Now she has made good on her commitment to implement what appears to be much of that advice.

Finally - after far too many years of reports, reviews and expert panels - words are translating into action.

Of course, the changes will not happen overnight.

Ms Tolley says it will take at least five years to fully implement the new system, although it is hoped a significant amount will be in place by next March.

That does seems speedy, given the previous lack of progress, although there are those who still believe it is too slow.

The devil will be in the detail, too, and concerns have been expressed over aspects of the reform.

One area is what is referred to as the "direct purchasing'' of services - the likes of health, education and counselling.

Some believe there are advantages to contracting out services, and much more can be provided to children, but there are fears that responsibility will effectively be outsourced.

The funding is also controversial, as much of the extra cost for the new system will be taken from existing budgets across various sectors.

And the changes have put some CYF workers offside, as their future is uncertain, and the inferred criticism of their work upsetting.

However, it does not appear that there has been blame laid on individuals; rather, an acknowledgement the fault was in an unwieldy system that required too much time and money to be spent on processes over frontline care and support.

With such major change it would be surprising if there were not some concerns, particularly as the detail is worked through.

But there does seem to be overall support for the new direction.

For the first time in a very long time there is the real potential to make a difference.

If the implementation of these reforms means some of New Zealand's most vulnerable children have a chance to thrive, not just survive, and receive real affection and security while growing up in state care, this will be a significant legacy for the Government.

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