Lack of vision in child vulnerability laws


New Zealand once led the world in providing for its children and safeguarding their welfare and wellbeing. However, recently a procession of international organisations have reported on how far we have fallen behind on child poverty, on child health and safety, even on education, which had been a bright spot in an increasingly bleak picture.

Will the Vulnerable Children's Bill, currently before the social services committee, make a difference for New Zealand's children?

It certainly brings in some welcome measures to protect the most vulnerable children.

Some of the excellent components of the bill are the introduction of a rigorous framework for cross-agency collaboration, joint responsibility for children, and a transparent accountability framework for government departments.

However, in many aspects the bill pecks away at the edges making only small changes and there are important omissions.

For example, children's directors are being appointed but they are not included in the bill so their purpose and powers are not specified.

The minister is to set priorities for these directors, but she, or he, will not be required to seek independent advice or to consult with communities, iwi and hapu.

There is no statement of principles or purpose and neither the Treaty of Waitangi nor the Convention on the Rights of the Child are integrated into the bill.

Following those principles would make a concrete contribution to improving outcomes for children.

For example, one of the most clearly specified changes is the requirement that government-funded agencies vet all employees who work with children every three years. This will involve costly, time-consuming efforts and is unlikely to be the most effective approach to protect children.

The key to preventing abuse is taking children seriously, listening to them and acting on what they say. Evidence for this is that every time there is an abuse scandal, we hear about complaints from children that were not acted upon. The Convention on the Rights of the Child requires that this is embedded in professional and institutional cultures.

The vast majority of abuse actually takes place in family settings where workplace vetting will have no effect. Here the bill is focused on enhancing the response to children who have already been harmed.

We fully endorse the bill's measures in this regard but this focus highlights the most fundamental weakness with the bill - it is restricted to protecting the highly vulnerable from further harm. The bill misses an opportunity to introduce measures to protect children from ever becoming high risk by addressing the broad causes of such vulnerability and hence reducing the number who become vulnerable.

We believe the time is right for a more ambitious children's wellbeing and safety act.

There is growing cross-party agreement that real change is needed. The Children's Commissioner's Expert Advisory Group on solutions for child poverty has called for child poverty reduction targets to be set in legislation. New Zealand already has obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. An ambitious bill could start with meeting those obligations.

Broader children's wellbeing and safety legislation could mandate impact assessments to ensure that policies across the public sector support favourable living conditions and environments for children. Appropriate regulation of the alcohol, tobacco and food and beverage industries would help to protect children from harm. Employment conditions are another policy area that impacts on children. Some parents are working several jobs with irregular long hours and still they barely earn a living wage.

Improving working conditions for these parents could further protect children's wellbeing.

The Government can act to protect and promote the wellbeing of children. There are examples of effective legislation in the United Kingdom and Victoria, Australia. The excellent report out last month on improving children's health outcomes from Parliament's health committee received cross-party support. It suggests there should be leadership and accountability from the highest level.

The Vulnerable Children's Bill is an opportunity to provide that leadership and once again make New Zealand a great place for all children to grow up in.

The authors are all based in the department of public health at the University of Otago, Wellington. Dr Hera Cook is an historian and senior lecturer, Dr Amanda D'Souza is a public health physician and Health Research Council clinical research training fellow and Professor Richard Edwards is head of the department.

The Dominion Post