The Government is encouraging people to dob in suspected child abusers under a raft of changes aimed at reining in our horrific child abuse rate.
Social Development Minister Paula Bennett will today launch the White Paper for Vulnerable Children - the culmination of four years' work and consultation with thousands of community groups and concerned parents.
The cornerstone of the Government's plan is raising awareness of the signs of child abuse and neglect, and urging people to report it.
Recent high-profile cases have shown vulnerable children were often known to multiple agencies but a failure to put the pieces together saw them horribly reabused and even killed.
Mrs Bennett said the plight of vulnerable children had been her driving force and the policy changes unveiled today simply had to work. "I feel like this is what I came into Parliament for."
The White Paper and accompanying Children's Action Plan were the best that could have been produced in the current environment, she said.
A Child Protect telephone line is planned for concerned neighbours, family, friends and professionals to ring when they suspect a child is being badly treated.
Comments made to the phone line, and information gathered by government and community organisations, would be entered into a Vulnerable Kids Information System to track those deemed at risk.
The system would also hold information on high-risk adults who had abused or neglected children, regardless of whether they were convicted.
Such information sharing was crucial, Mrs Bennett said.
The system would be password-protected, users would be monitored, and professionals would have restricted access to different levels of information.
Only children considered vulnerable - at risk of, or already experiencing, maltreatment - would be entered into the system. While accounts could be made inactive, it was unlikely they would ever be deleted. An expert panel would be established to nut out details of the system. "The security and the checks to be put on this information system is vital to its integrity. More than anything we're going to work to get that right."
There would be children wrongly identified as being vulnerable, Mrs Bennett said.
"If they're not becoming a child of concern then, as such, they will effectively drop out of the system."
The Child Protect line would have a role in ensuring information in the system was correct and updated. The contact service did not have to be run by the Social Development Ministry; it could be contracted out to a non-government organisation.
The Government also wants those working with children to take greater responsibility in reporting suspected neglect or abuse. Teachers and medical professionals would be among those given training to recognise the signs, and legislation would be introduced "requiring all agencies working with children to have policies and reporting systems in place to recognise and report child abuse and neglect", the White Paper says.
Mrs Bennett said that was not mandatory reporting. "We're going to really set some clear rules around it . . . making sure that they follow through and they do report; we're also not making it mandatory so they use their professional judgment better."
There were concerns that mandatory reporting would mean at-risk children dropped out of the system and services would be over-run with notifications.
Under the Children's Action Plan, there would also be controls on who could have contact with children. People who posed a continuing and serious threat to their children could have their parental rights removed by a judge.
Mrs Bennett said it was an extreme step and not one that would be taken lightly.
New civil child abuse prevention orders would give judges the power to place restrictions on people who posed a high risk to a child or future children.
Critics may claim Mrs Bennett has ignored the real threat for a number of Kiwi children - poverty.
"I was always blatantly targeting these most vulnerable, abused and neglected children in this country and that's what this piece of work was always about," Mrs Bennett said.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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