Benefit of the doubt
''Do you have chickens?" asks the woman hanging off Social Development Minister Paula Bennett's shoulder as she tries to hustle to her next appointment. As much as you can hustle in hot-pink-heeled stilettos.
Chicken Woman has gatecrashed the Social Workers in Schools conference in Auckland to spruik a new court for homeless people. "Do you have chickens?" she gushes. "Because you're really good with ruffled feathers."
Bennett looks bemused. Her conference speech had just outlined the Children's Action Plan - a piece of work that Children's Commissioner Russell Wills calls the greatest focus on child abuse since 1989, and the piece de resistance of Bennett's tenure so far as the country's welfare kingpin.
Her appearance has both ruffled and smoothed feathers, much like her past five years in the job. She's soared: teen-solo-mum-made-good catapulted into the nation's heftiest ($23.6 billion) portfolio after just one term. Stalled: amid damaging family revelations. Bombed: with the discovery last year - the very week her beloved action plan was released - that Work and Income's public kiosks included a direct line into sensitive welfare data.
It's 9.15am and Bennett is late for her first appointment in an average day of cheery ministerial visits centred on kids at risk. Dressed in a floaty cobalt dress and a string of knotted hot-pink beads to match the shoes, Bennett strides into the hotel ballroom, unmistakable against a parade of overwhelmingly Maori and Pasifika women in sensible shoes.
"When I first came in the job seemed huge," the 44-year-old admits to the crowd as she outlines some of the 32 initiatives that aim to rein in New Zealand's appalling rate of child abuse. "It still does sometimes. There was so much need in so many areas. When I looked at the statistics for the re-abuse of children I was absolutely horrified."
This is crunch time for Bennett, who has said she will measure her political success by the positive difference she makes for the country's children.
Last year, Child, Youth and Family received 152,800 notifications, from which 21,525 abuse cases were substantiated, up from 16,290 in 2008. That's notifications, not children, Bennett points out. Each notification could cover multiple abused or neglected kids.
"What matters is accountability," Bennett says, outlining the key planks of the action plan. Among them are regional children's teams that bring together education, social services and health experts, who will design a single action plan for each at-risk child. There will also be teams of top decision-makers who'll be able to say "what do you mean that child is still in limbo because the court date didn't come up; what do you mean they haven't progressed because the social worker hasn't yet done a report, that's not good enough," Bennett explains.
"These kids need us. They need someone to be bold for them. I'm willing to do that where I can, but I equally acknowledge I'm not there on the ground living and breathing this every day."
Here, she's preaching to the converted. The Government last year funded an extra 149 social workers in schools. But with the big laughs and big personalities come big questions.
A young social worker in jeans and jandals is first up, masking nerves with an aggressive glower. "How do you think the Government's welfare reforms will affect what we do?" he challenges.
Much has been made of Bennett's progression: from rebellious teen mum, existing on the Domestic Purposes Benefit in tiny Kinloch, just out of Taupo, climbs out of benefit-dependence by working as a dishwasher, becomes activities co-ordinator at an Auckland rest home and eventually enrols in a social work degree (later social policy) at the Massey Albany campus being built across the road from her workplace.
But critics argue Bennett has used the benefit to better herself and pulled the ladder up behind her, with October's reforms of the $22m-a-day welfare system. The changes force sole parents on the DPB back into work when their youngest child turns 5. Those who have another child while on the DPB must look for part-time work as soon as the new baby turns 1.
While she acknowledges the perceived negative effects on children of forcing mums with babies back to work, she argues they're outweighed by the benefits of working - the confidence, the messages they're sending to their own children, the social interaction.
Though she concedes that she could not have progressed as she did under her own new rules, Bennett bridles at the suggestion she has pulled the ladder up behind her. "Absolutely not. I think I'm just backing people as I was backed. I find it incredibly negligent to think that you can just leave people on welfare for long periods and not back them to do more and be more. So if I get cast as the bad guy I don't care, because it's actually not about me."
Next stop is Work and Income's Manukau office. The 10 people waiting in stacker chairs by the door show no interest as Bennett breezes past. They clearly have no idea who she is. Or maybe they just have more pressing worries.
She parks up behind the reception desk and greets a woman with a baby with a cheerful "good morning". She's undeniably good with people. She seems genuinely interested and there's no supercilious talking down. And why would there be? She has been that young mum with a stroller asking about her benefit.
Raised with two brothers in a roundly middle class family, Bennett is no longer sure whether getting pregnant at 17 was a conscious choice - a continuation of the smoking, drinking, truanting, protesting rebellion that marked her teenage years. "I don't know if I got in with the wrong crowd - that seems so cliched really. Some would argue I led the wrong crowd, given half a chance," she says with a trademark cackle.
But she does remember what shook her out of a "lonely, scary, frustrating" life of welfare dependency in which a future was hard to see. It was the school holidays and she was looking after daughter Ana and a friend's children. Her two-bedroom unit was "an absolute disaster zone".
"Someone knocked at the door. It was someone I had known from school who had been away and come back and I just remember standing there in my pyjamas with this house that was an absolute bombsite and imagining how I looked through their eyes. I just went 'This is it. This is actually my reality unless I do something about it.' I do remember that being quite a moment of reflection and change."
In the middle of the Work and Income office, sheets of white A4 paper are tacked over the self-service kiosk screens: PLEASE LEAVE TURNED OFF.
Bennett came crashing down from the political high of releasing the Children's Action Plan in October, when blogger Keith Ng revealed that private welfare information could be accessed via public self-service kiosks.
The implications are much wider than just forcing the kiosks' shutdown. The privacy breach threatens the most critical initiative of the action plan - the planned Vulnerable Kids Information System that would collate and follow up concerns from all relevant sectors, from social workers, school principals and police to paediatricians and neighbours.
"When you go back over the death or serious harm of a child, there are always a multitude of people that held a piece of the puzzle, but there's nowhere for all of that to be collected in one place."
Despite the information-security fears raised by the kiosk revelations, and by other government department privacy breaches, Bennett says the vulnerable child system, steered by Sir Anand Satyanand, is still on track to launch at the end of next year, along with Child Protect, a new free phone line for the public to dob in dodgy parenting, without having to call CYFs or police.
"No-one knows better than I do that I get one shot at this. So I will be implementing it carefully, and with the right people and the right support systems in place."
In the Work and Income office's new jobs-focused area - helpfully signalled by red and yellow pages suspended like prayer flags from the ceiling spelling out J O B S ! - a clutch of would-be workers are attending a "search for work" workshop.
Bennett gives a quick job interview demo. Again, she knows more than most about job seeking, having worked as a recruitment consultant immediately prior to entering Parliament in 2005. Despite having honed her political skills as Massey Albany campus president and having worked as electorate secretary for Murray McCully until 1999, Bennett never really expected to become an MP in 2005. She had a well-paying job she loved and had her sights on completing an MBA.
Last in at number 45 on National's list, she was so marginal she didn't resign until two weeks after election day.
She guiltily admits she loved those first three years as a backbench MP. "I know you're not supposed to love it. Being brand new, I had zero expectations on me. All I could do, I reckon, was fly."
And fly she did, the out-of-nowhere appointment to John Key's first Cabinet. Though she still reckons she was the "right person in the right job at the right time" it was a hell of a christening in a new Cabinet who were "all kind of stumbling along", with unemployment going up on a weekly basis.
Bennett reckons she's always been good at arguing, debating with friends' parents since the age of 8. But for all the rigour of parliamentary question time, there's nothing quite like meeting the public for learning to parry curly questions.
"What is John Key like?" asks one of the workshop's job seekers.
"He's quite funny," Bennett explains. "I know he doesn't seem it. He teases me all the time. We were in front of a group of about 200 the other day and he said 'Paula got married a year ago, do you think she should have a baby?' He thought that was very funny."
"He sounds like a bully," counters a 20-something in the back, tattoo creeping above his T-shirt's neckline.
Bennett's marriage last year to old flame Alan Philps (barefoot at Piha; the bridesmaids wore sparkly purple Chuck Taylor shoes) isn't the only time her personal life has made the headlines.
She was criticised for compromising security when it emerged that, from September 2006 to July 2007, she gave a home to pregnant daughter Ana's partner Viliami Halaholo while he was on bail for an attack that left a man with a broken jaw and gashed head.
Bennett is quick to point out that Halaholo was only in the house for two weeks after the baby was born, so there was never any question of her granddaughter, Tiara-Lee, now 6, becoming another vulnerable child, potentially exposed to violence.
"At the end of the day my family is the most important thing to me, so I make decisions based on the information I have on what's best for them," Bennett explains. "I will never turn my back on them."
Ana was 20 when she had her baby. Wasn't that devastating for Bennett, knowing the struggle of finding your place in life as a cash-strapped young mum confined to home when mates your age are out partying?
"Like anyone I went 'Well, that's earlier than I would have liked'. But babies bring love, we're a strong family, we're all in."
Bennett won't comment on whether Halaholo, who was deported back to Tonga in 2010, is still part of the family.
Ana followed in her mother's footsteps, studying social work. And her granddaughter inherited her feisty streak, Bennett says. "The personality skipped a generation," she jokes.
Bennett now houses Philps' 12-year-old daughter. Becoming a mum again has, she says, been easy.
"It's all about your attitude, isn't it? You can go into anything saying 'This is going to be hard'. I just say to her 'I love you, I'm going to keep loving you. The best thing about having a stepmother is you don't even have to love me back'."
At the day's lunch visit, at charity Youth Horizons' Manurewa family house for the worst 5 per cent of troubled boys in CYF care, there is much discussion about how to help kids learn the most basic social skills, from following instructions, to accepting "no" for an answer, to accepting a compliment.
The charity is trialling a Canadian system whose basic roleplays reinforce just how far removed these children's lives are from a normal home where children learn boundaries and consequences as a matter of course.
Asked if her experience with Halaholo gave her any insight into what might change the minds and ways of troubled youths, Bennett points to education.
"He was like a lot of young guys I see now - an intelligent guy that, perhaps if he'd found himself in education and other opportunities, maybe there would have been different pathways and choices he might have made."
For her part, Bennett believes she might have avoided teenage motherhood had she realised that a university education wasn't just for brainy kids and rich kids, and if she hadn't sabotaged the Epsom Girls Grammar interview her parents organised for her at 14.
"I blew the interview because I was rebellious and awful. If I'd gone there in third form I think maybe that would have been a different path. Maybe."
In the car between jobs, Bennett mentions attending foul-mouthed chef Gordon Ramsay's Auckland fundraiser. She figures she was invited because she was the only minister who could say the F-word. Also the MP for Waitakere,
Bennett plays up to her westie bogan image, zipping around in a leopard-print car and never missing an opportunity to pimp her electorate.
And then there was scrap, in 2009, when Bennett broke up a brawl between 30 young people outside a Henderson shopping mall.
It's sometimes tough to divine the line between character and caricature. The passion is clearly genuine. And she certainly gets things done - between visits she's on the phone to Christchurch commandeering a house to trial supported teen flatting - but the packaging sometimes feels overly manicured.
But there's no varnishing the experiences of her next interviewees - those let down by an overloaded care and protection system.
The four teens lined up in front of Bennett at Dingwall Trust's care home in Papatoetoe are on the cusp of surviving a childhood in care, despite the non-appearance of their social workers, and foster parents they say were only in it for the money.
Looking after vulnerable children doesn't finish when they're big enough to fight for themselves. Dingwall's care to independence programme helps 17-year-olds dumped from care learn to budget, shop and cook for themselves, and helps them find somewhere to live.
The measure of the programme's success is stark: "We've had no suicides since we started in 2002," the programme director notes.
Bennett introduces herself. Andrew locks the minister's gaze with steely eyes, beneath his eyebrow piercing and bottle-blond locks. "I've heard a lot about you."
He's 16, and has been through multiple foster homes. He was in and out of care from the age of 11. He's studying to be a hairdresser, but he's not much interested in discussing whether or not Bennett's hairdresser friend should have dyed her hair red. He wants to talk about why kids are put into dodgy homes.
Bennett pleads with the four teens to wait to have kids. Andrew says he might be having a kid in a couple of months. He doesn't elaborate.
This is what happens when we get it wrong. It's awkward and heart-breaking and inescapably real.
"Poor Andrew," Bennett laments later. "They broke him."
The White Paper for Vulnerable Children has set a goal of reducing physical abuse by 5 per cent by 2017, which sounds pathetic. Bennett argues the abuse stats are climbing so quickly that just arresting the rise would be an achievement. But she does have greater ambitions for children.
Her political ambitions, however, are limited. Bennett for prime minister? "Not for anything. I hate the level of scrutiny at this level of my job, there's no way I'd handle it at that one."
The job, she admits, does take an emotional toll. And she wants another career after politics. "I'm not going to be here in my 60s. I'm committed to running in the next election. And then I think you take a breath and, as you should always, you talk to your family and decide what the next steps are from there. But I love this job."
Salvation Army social services spokeswoman, Major Pam Waugh, applauds Bennett's personal commitment and the Children's Action Plan. However, with an estimated 270,000 Kiwi children in poverty - defined as having less than 60 per cent of median disposable household income - she wants a broader focus on the roots of that hardship. She also worries that vulnerable children could be put at further risk under the welfare reforms, if appropriate work can't be found at appropriate hours and with appropriate childcare.
Over the seven months to this April, 6898 sole parent benefits were cancelled because the beneficiaries found work, 14 per cent more than the same period in 2011-2012.
But the best measure of Bennett's success will be the Andrews of tomorrow - the next generation of young Kiwis coming through CYF care. And there will be no sugar-coating failure if the action plan bombs.
''Do I get blamed for all the bad things?'' Bennett asks Andrew.''Well, you are the boss,'' Andrew says without missing a beat. ''So, yes, it does pretty much fall back on you.''