Stacey Kirk: Are we at the point of experimenting on the vulnerable?
OPINION: A mother, her 15-year-old daughter and 16-year-old niece prostitute themselves on the side of a New Zealand street.
Her 14-year-old son keeps guard, while he looks after the family's four-year-old toddler.
At around 4am they get takeaways for their dinner, go home to sleep, and wake the next evening to begin again.
Far North Mayor John Carter says the image of seeing that family trying to survive will never leave him. It was a few years ago that, a social worker took him to watch the tragic Kiwi scene.
"That four-year-old will be close to being an adult; imagine what he's like now."
Most New Zealanders are aware by now that, in pockets of the country, things are bad.
So bad, three high-profile mayors are openly calling for "radical experimentation" in three "demarcation zones" where poverty is so ingrained, they have little to lose.
Carter, along with Rotorua Mayor Steve Chadwick and Gisborne Mayor Meng Foon, have worked alongside the McGuiness Research Institute to put a proposal on the desk of Prime Minister Bill English that calls for the complete devolvement of social services in those areas to let the community decide what's best for itself.
"Small isolated areas are easier and cheaper to experiment in, with clearer results as to which reforms are and are not working," the report says.
The demarcated zones would be isolated and exempt from the normal Government rules that apply to social services, and the community would decide the best way to use Government funds and provide services for those families.
Under the plan, every affected family would be worked with intensively and individually, for a matter of years to ensure they had every service they need, when they need it - right down to teaching parents how to drive, how to read and how to parent, while ensuring children were getting to school, being dressed and fostering a positive relationship with police from an early age.
These goals we should be striving for in every community - they're not so much goals as they are rights.
But the experiment calls for the Government to back right off - have almost no involvement and leave the community to decide how to allot Government resources.
If it fails, then those zones may well have little to lose but things can always get worse. If that happens, it will be the Government that has to clean it up.
And scratch the surface, the plan may not be as radical as it's being billed.
The concept seems strikingly similar to the Government "place-based" initiatives, already rolled out in the Gisborne-Tairawhiti district, South Auckland, and Northland.
The one in Northland for example, is designed to support local agency leaders to provide integrated responses to 0-24 year olds who are at very high risk of poor outcomes, as well as their families.
Individual recommendations in the proposal have serious merit, and the election year may work in favour of the trio.
It calls for the removal of licenses for pokies and liquor stores in these zones, employing school bus drivers to do an extra circuit during the day to allow geographically-isolated adults to get to town and back, and a local card enabling free prescriptions.
It also calls free sanitary product dispensers in all school's female bathrooms, citing instances where girls have simply not gone to school for a week, because they could not afford pads or tampons.
Small things, that would make a massive difference in these families' lives.
Having doctors regularly visit all pre-schools in those areas, having police regularly visit schools to teach things like the road code and defensive driving as part of a programme that could also see family cars brought to schools to obtain warrants are ideas worth serious consideration.
In an election year, inequality will be a key issue - all parties are in the business of looking for promises to make.
But the Government is unlikely to ever allow itself to be perceived as turning it's back on these people.
These are our most vulnerable, and taking a step back from them would be a social experiment any Government would likely - and rightly - be a bridge too far.
- Sunday Star Times