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Can the Ministry for Vulnerable Children succeed where CYF failed?

New Zealand’s record on child abuse and neglect is a scar on our conscience. A new agency seeks to change that. Expert Emily Keddell explains what it’s intended to, the pitfalls it could face, and that controversial ‘vulnerable children’ label.

On Saturday the government launched the Ministry for Vulnerable Children (Oranga Tamariki), replacing Child, Youth and Family. It was one of many recommendations to emerge from a major review by the Ministry of Social Development of New Zealand’s care and protection system, culminating in the 2015 Final Report of the Expert Panel on Modernising Child Youth and Family. The review explored not only the shortcomings of CYFs, but also the wider system of agencies, community groups, and non-governmental organisations responsible for caring for NZ kids.

One who has been following every step in the new agency’s emergence is Dr Emily Keddell, a registered social worker, senior lecturer at the University of Otago, and contributor to the Reimagining Social Work blog. She will also release a report on these issues next month through The Policy Observatory.

We asked her what the new agency is hoping to achieve, how “child abuse” is defined, and how it all fits into the government’s “social investment” approach.

What was wrong with Child, Youth and Family? What are the problems that the Ministry of Social Development is trying to solve with these reforms?

Emily Keddell: There were some serious longstanding issues. The 2015 and 2016 State of Care reports show very variable practice for young people in care permanently, ranging from some very good experiences of care through to really terrible experiences. There was a lack of cohesion between CYF and other branches of the child welfare sector. There was a lack of resourcing of services of all kinds, leading to conflict over thresholds and variable services for people. There was little attention to prevention of child abuse and neglect. These are serious issues that needed addressing.

What is the Ministry of Social Development trying to achieve here?

They’re aiming to establish a more coherent system, to be more systematic in their approach to both statutory and NGO services. The basic proposal is to remove the part of the Ministry of Social Development that responds to child abuse and neglect – that is, Child Youth and Family – and to create a new central agency: the Ministry for Vulnerable Children (Oranga Tamariki). This agency will have five arms: prevention, intensive intervention, care services, transition out of care, and youth justice services. Most of these broad functions, though, as I understand it, will be contracted out to NGOs, so this central management agency will oversee how NGOs deliver these services.

A still from a Ministry for Vulnerable Children video. Inset: Emily Keddell

The name, “the Ministry for Vulnerable Children” has been controversial. What is your take on it?

The term “vulnerability” is a codeword here for children who require care and protection services. Because that’s all they’re responding to. They’re not including, for example, services for adults experiencing domestic violence. It’s quite a specific population that they’re separating out.

The main challenge is that this can exclude from the ministry’s remit the services that address known causes or contributors to child abuse. By that I mean the broader social context that parenting happens within. This is really important. We know that parenting stress has persistent correlations with poverty, with poor housing, with community factors, and with access to health services for adults, particularly mental health services. But the new ministry doesn’t have the power to address any of those issues. There’s no ability to force change in those broader factors that shape the context of parenting.

One of the foundational building blocks for these reforms is the investment approach. What does social investment mean to you and how is this way of thinking shaping the way the new ministry is being structured?

The social investment approach was first coined here in the welfare reforms of 2011, where it was clearly defined as a mechanism by which we would reduce the forward liability of the state – that is, we would reduce government spending over time.

It is important to point out that this is quite different to how other nations use the term “social investment”. Other nations use the term, for example, to mean increasing benefit payments available to improve people’s long-term outcomes over time. We’re not using it that way at all. We’re saying that we’re going to spend money now as long as it saves us money later. If we only define our desirable future outcomes in terms of reduced fiscal cost, then everything else becomes secondary.

In the child welfare context, not only is this likely to conflict with what is most beneficial for families – who may require expensive services for a long time – but achieving these outcomes is equated with earlier removal of children and placement into stranger foster care. The assumption is that providing more foster care, sooner, will stop children costing the state in the future. But these expected positive outcomes are unproven, both fiscally and in terms of outcomes for the child. The outcomes of foster care are very mixed – which is one reason why many countries are working harder to support families, wherever possible, to retain the care of their children. So, in New Zealand, we should be creating a broad policy landscape that focuses on prevention alongside foster care. I’m concerned that the focus on foster care will leave little in the kitty for the prevention side of the equation.

Has there been any pushback against this approach?

Interestingly, this conflict of aims has played out in the design of the actuarial model for supporting the social investment approach. Ernst and Young was commissioned to produce a report on this, but the report’s authors quite sensibly said that the overriding aims should be social and health goals, not fiscal goals. Ernst and Young also noted that we can’t just look at long-term outcomes, because it is methodologically difficult to assign causation or even strong correlations between events that occur in someone’s early childhood with events that occur 20 years later. Other factors could be intervening. This is especially important if a programme was not aiming to affect that outcome, because an NGO’s funding might rely on it.

Accordingly, the Ernst and Young report looks at including short-term outcomes as well as longer-term outcomes. It also includes some community variables, not just variables that relate to the individual, to get a fuller picture of what is influencing outcomes over time. For example, do they have access to good education in their local community? What’s the level of provision of community-level resources or supports? What’s the economic opportunities available in their local community, beyond what the individual has control of? If these things are not included in your actuarial model, then correlations might appear to relate only to the individual, rather than a combination of individual and community-level factors.

You’ve written before about the way that how one defines the “problem” of child abuse and neglect has implications for which solutions seem appropriate. How is this playing out here?

There are several implicit assumptions within the Expert Panel Final Report. One is that the proposed prevention policies are very much focused on the individual family. Although broader social contextual issues are mentioned, the Report implies that it is families who have the problems that cause them to abuse their children; so we need to just teach them how to be better parents – or else we remove their kids. However, a broad reading of the literature of causation says that it is multiple interacting factors that contribute to child abuse and neglect – right across the family, the community, and the macro-environment. To focus only on the family is short-sighted.

Another related assumption is that child protection should be separated out from other types of harm to children, such as child poverty and access to housing and healthcare. But from a policy perspective, it’s better to view these factors as interrelated, then to treat reducing child abuse and neglect as one of a number of “coalescing goals”. The increased emphasis on working across government might help alleviate this, but the separating out of the new Ministry for Vulnerable Children could also exacerbate it.

It’s obviously too early to say how these reforms will play out, but what do you see as the risks and opportunities?

The major concern is that there will be a big increase of permanent removals of children, because there is limited attention to addressing wider contributing factors, combined with a much stronger emphasis on removing children “at the earliest opportunity”, and a diminished emphasis on whānau and kinship-care. There is very little cognisance in the whole Expert Panel report of some of the harms of removal, or the very mixed outcomes of research into foster care. Obviously this is an issue for all families, but particularly for Māori who are overrepresented in their contact with child protection system.

That’s the doom and gloom picture. On the positive side, there is a lot more cognisance of what children in the permanent care system might need to achieve better outcomes, much more emphasis on how those young people transition into adulthood without a family to help them, and a much more systematic focus on improving service coordination. Also, our rates of hospital admission for child abuse-related injury have quietly been dropping for the last ten years. It is also possible that our child death rates, while high, might be dropping too – it’s hard to tell as they vary a lot from year to year. Finally, out in the NGO sector, there is the potential for better investment in intensive preventative services – such as Triple-P and Intense Family Preservation Services, as well as partnerships with iwi – to help them do what they’ve set out do. Time will tell.


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