OPINION: Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples needs to decide whose side he is on. Is it vulnerable children, many of them Maori, or is it the providers of social services, who have failed them?
His advocacy on behalf of five Maori organisations that have had lucrative Family Start contracts terminated by the Social Development Ministry suggests it is the latter.
The five - Te Roopu Awhina Family Start in Porirua, Turuki Health Care in Mangere, Papakura Marae, the Waipareira Trust and Te Ha o Te Whanau Trust in Opotiki - have been told they will not be funded to provide intensive home-based support to vulnerable families after June 30.
According to Dr Sharples the providers are the victims of "funding cuts" that will reduce the likelihood of positive change in communities with high and complex needs.
The claim does not withstand scrutiny. The providers have not had their contracts terminated because of a funding cut but because, in the words of the ministry's head of Family and Community Services, Murray Edridge, they provided "inconsistent and, in some cases, unsafe social work practice to families".
Terminating the contracts of the five providers will not reduce the likelihood of positive change. It will increase it if the funding is picked up by any of the other 27 Family Start providers, who are delivering useful assistance to the 15 per cent of the population at greatest risk.
Dr Sharples has also accused the ministry of failing to communicate properly with the affected organisations. "For Maori organisations, it's about kanohi ki te kanohi (talking face to face)," he told National Radio yesterday. That claim also appears to be of questionable merit. According to Mr Edridge and Social Development Minister Paula Bennett, the ministry has bent over backwards to try to help the affected providers to come up to standard. Ms Bennett told Parliament yesterday that the Waipareira Trust alone had received 14 visits from the ministry since July last year. Mr Edridge says the failed providers could not have been in any doubt about the ministry's concerns. All had received regular feedback that they were not meeting the standards required.
In the end the ministry had to act. Its choice was between the interests of children and the interests of providers who, according to Mr Edridge, had consistently failed "to take the necessary steps to keep children safe". It chose to put the interests of children first. Dr Sharples should do likewise.
Rather than berating the ministry for being too tough on Maori organisations, he should be thanking it for looking out for those his party has pledged to represent - the most vulnerable members of society.
By doing so the ministry has acted not only to protect children but the reputation of the Whanau Ora scheme established at the behest of the Maori Party to promote Maori solutions to Maori problems.
Nothing will undermine public support for the scheme faster than evidence that money is being wasted or that ministers are turning a blind eye to non-performance.
- The Dominion Post