OPINION: Every week, many dozens of young people in Nelson get a small but invaluable boost through volunteer help scheme Big Brothers Big Sisters. At last count, there were 140 mentor-pairings in the region. These involve carefully matched adults and kids - many of them from single-parent or at-risk families - getting together for an hour or two each week.
This level of involvement is heartening and illustrates a healthy desire among "regular" Nelsonians to contribute to the wider social development of young people who might otherwise struggle. The improvement in self-esteem among the youngsters is most often readily recognised, and the adults commonly speak of a significant feel-good factor from their voluntary contribution, too.
A step-up in involvement comes in the Child Youth and Family-based caregiver scheme, which caters for both family-based and foster and adoptive carers. There are nearly 100 approved caregivers in this region - another positive sign of a community aware of the need to care for the vulnerable.
However, there is a significant difference in the level of commitment needed to give home-based care to young people who have been through the youth justice system and need the sort of fresh start that can come from a stable family environment. Such carers must offer 24/7 care to youngsters in need of particularly careful supervision, guidance and care. As CYF's youth justice manager for this region, Sally Mottram, puts it, some "pretty special people" are needed.
It is no surprise that, despite a recruitment campaign late last year, the dropout rate has been high. Fifteen people showed initial interest, eight signed up for initial training, and it looks as if none will stick with the programme now they are aware of the reality and totality of what is involved. The less-than-$200-a-week allowance - from which pocket money and personal items for the young people must come - confirms the obvious point that such involvement is not about the money.
One point worth greater discussion is that adoption is comparatively rare in New Zealand, in part because of a huge emphasis of social policy on keeping youngsters with members of their birth family wherever possible. Would greater CYF intervention at or near birth help prevent some of the social problems we now see, or heighten them? CYF is a soft target and at times its involvement in families goes wrong. But by and large, the case workers are merely attempting to respond to problems caused within the community. Their task is not an easy one, and the level of dysfunction in some families is alarming.
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