Editorial: Ministry for Vulnerable Children is a welcome change for NZ children

Anne Tolley has talked about healing the trauma of vulnerable children.
Chris Skelton

Anne Tolley has talked about healing the trauma of vulnerable children.

In the hours after Social Development Minister Anne Tolley announced that the new Ministry for Vulnerable Children would be in operation from April 2017, the vast majority of coverage was fixated on the name.

Why not just the "Ministry for Children", some asked. Does the word "vulnerable" immediately stigmatise a group of children? Even Children's Commissioner and former Principal Youth Court Judge Andrew Becroft said that he would probably use the Maori name for the ministry, Oranga Tamariki, rather than the English language version.

Anything that puts more Te Reo into circulation is to be applauded. But the narrow focus on the name of the ministry has meant that the intention of a substantial restructure and relaunch of the troubled and repeatedly restructured Child, Youth and Family (CYF) agency has been overlooked. And that is a shame, because this is a significant and positive overhaul of CYF. 

The buzzwords are "social investment". It sounds like a bland phrase but it means a lot. It signals an important cultural shift for the Government. In the CYF example, it means that the agency will shift from a crisis model, acting as the proverbial ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, to prevention and intervention, and the earlier the better. It will have a wider brief and a significantly expanded budget.  

In other words, it is not just a rebranding but a new direction. It is based on evidence showing that negative outcomes in life can be predicted, and hopefully prevented, by paying close attention to the first few years of a child's life and sharing information between agencies. Becroft has said that as a Youth Court judge, he realised that the battle was won or lost in the first two or first five years of a child's life. He applauds the new ministry's emphasis on putting children's voices at the centre. 

Media coverage of the launch showed that Tolley has quietly become one of the more empathetic ministers in the current Government. Tolley spoke of "healing trauma" as she announced the ministry's start date and named Grainne Moss​ as its first chief executive. She described one cohort who had been children in CYF care. After 21 years, 90 per cent of the cohort were on benefits and 40 per cent had been through the justice system.

The hope is that the preventions and interventions that fall under the umbrella of "social investment" will improve these outcomes and reduce the numbers of children in care. There is a particular focus on outcomes for Maori children. Currently, 60 per cent of children in care are Maori. This is another reason why it is not such a bad thing if Becroft prefers the ministry's Maori name to its English one, as the new ministry is very obviously targeted towards the greatest need. 

This kind of thinking and language would have been unimaginable under earlier iterations of the National Party, especially under former leader Don Brash. The social investment model has been developed within a moderate arm of the party, with Tolley, Bill English and Paula Bennett as its leading exponents. English allocated $652 million over four years towards social investment in the 2016 Budget. Let's hope it works.



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