Removing babies a last resort

Taking a child from his or her parents is something that is never done lightly, writes Children's Commissioner Russell Wills.

Rosemary McLeod asks "who is CYF accountable to and who challenges their decisions?" (CYF taking babies from mums an awkward practice, Feb 20). The Children's Commissioner Act makes me responsible for oversight of Child, Youth and Family generally.

My monitoring team regularly visits sites and residences, examines practice and makes recommendations for improvement.

Family Court judges review every individual case of a child being removed.

In fact, the scrutiny of decisions to remove children is very close. As I'm working clinically in child protection and severe behaviour in Hawke's Bay I get to see that practice first hand.

Ms McLeod's comments follow a report showing a significant increase in the number of babies under six months removed from their mothers' care in the last five years (Child abuse 'culture shift', Feb 15).

My own practice and our monitoring of CYF leads me to the following explanations for this:

Public attitudinal change. Repeal of section 59 of the Crimes Act, the It's Not OK campaign and hard work by organisations like Plunket and the Brainwave Trust have made us all more aware of the vulnerability of very young children to their parents' violence and drug and alcohol abuse. Families, friends and neighbours are still the most common group notifying children to CYF. My view is that this reflects increased awareness of the harms of abuse and neglect to children, and trust that CYF will keep children safe.

Better practice. Health professionals, police and social workers now routinely share cases collaboratively, pooling resources and knowledge to form a comprehensive view of the risks and strengths in a family and with a common plan to keep vulnerable family members safe.

We don't know if child abuse has become more common. Admissions to hospital for severe inflicted injuries are down and deathrates vary from year to year.

Overall, my experience suggests we are identifying mothers and babies at risk and putting supports in place much earlier.

The usual outcome of involving CYF in pregnancy or very early infancy is that babies remain with their mothers, issues like mental illness and addictions are treated, violence is addressed and families are strengthened.

Removal of babies is rare and only done when the risk is extreme and there is no other option to keep an infant safe.

Removing babies from their mothers should make us uncomfortable. The best place for the vast majority of babies to be is with their mother. But, for some babies, the risk of remaining with their mother is too high.

The vast majority of these babies are placed with family; only a very few are placed outside family, where there is no-one suitable.

In the end, there is one criterion that outweighs all others; the best interests of the child.

Long may it be so.

The Dominion Post