Children's Commissioner Russell Wills says number of children dying hasn't reduced video

Children's Commissioner Russell Wills believes that policies aimed at alleviating child poverty have failed to reduce ...
KENT BLECHYNDEN/FAIRFAX NZ

Children's Commissioner Russell Wills believes that policies aimed at alleviating child poverty have failed to reduce material hardship.

The Children's Commissioner has slammed the Government for not committing to a plan to reduce child poverty, and says their own data shows the number of children being hospitalised and dying is not reducing.

Russell Wills has also revealed concerns about children's care in Child Youth and Family (CYF) residences but because of budget constraints he is only able to monitor them every 18 months.

Despite raising this issue with Social Development Minister Anne Tolley, Wills said she hadn't responded.

Stuff.co.nz

Children's Commissioner Russell Wills talks about the State of Care report released by his office.

In response to Wills' comments, Tolley said the Government was undertaking a major review of CYF, which included residences.

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"We're not going to make small changes when major changes are happening," she said.

Wills, a paediatrician whose term as commissioner ends in June, told the Social Services select committee that while the Government had put some good policies in place, it wasn't enough to reduce material hardship.

"There are not fewer children being admitted to hospital or dying, those numbers have not changed."

"I cannot understand why this Government won't set a plan and targets for child poverty when it does that for other things and when child poverty is the single most important driver for poor outcomes for children, I just don't understand that."

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In response, Tolley said there was "no one measure of child poverty".

"We have already in last year's Budget addressed child hardship and we'll continue to address issues around income by making sure work is available, there's a strong economy and seeing wages lift."

Prime Minister John Key and his deputy, Bill English, both disagreed with Wills that the Government doesn't have a plan or targets.

Key said the whole point of having a commissioner was that they were independent and didn't "tow the Government line".

"Equally it's true that the Government is free to say this is the perspective we have...it's quite normal for there to be differences."

He said the Government doesn't have "one single measure of poverty" but it wasn't true to say "we don't do a great many things about child poverty".

Last year Wills and his team produced the State of Care report, which revealed CYF were failing thousands of children and Tolley conceded there was no evidence children were any better off in state care.

Wills said the most "surprising and pleasing" announcement from the Government in last year's Budget was its policy to raise the benefit by $25 a week.

"The recognition that the gap had got so wide was welcome...my own belief is that it's still not enough to change material hardship for those families."

Last year Wills told the select committee he was confident shifting visits to CYF residences from every 12 months to 18 months "would be sufficient to provide assurance on their performance".

But on Wednesday he said that wasn't the case and his experience was that things changed "substantially in a short time in an environment like a CYF residence".

Baseline funding for the Office of the Children's Commissioner hasn't changed since 2009 and consequently Wills said he had to reduce services.

This meant he only visited six of the nine CYF residences last year.

"There were two sites I was particularly concerned about."

Wills said there had been a change of leadership at the sites and children's care had suffered severely, which illustrated how quickly things could change.

Labour leader Andrew Little said if children are suffering, something had to be done now, not in 18 months or two years down the track.

"The Children's Commissioner's job is to monitor these things and if he's been starved of resources to prevent that then that's outrageous and hopeless for the minister to say she doesn't care about it and will fix it further down the track," he said.

Wills wants to see a focus on "navigators" who link families with different organisations but ultimately he said communities need to do more.

"Local partnerships have a clear important role to play here. Of course raising people's income and building houses matters but the real power is in communities."

 - Stuff

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