More Bureaucracy = Less Community

Four years ago the Government produced the Green Paper for Vulnerable Children. Nearly 10,000 submissions were made on the Green Paper and in response, the Government released the White Paper for Vulnerable Children with the Children’s Action Plan in October 2012.

I helped write a submission on the Green Paper and was pleased to see some of the suggestions we made got a nod in the White Paper – particularly around focusing on villages and neighbourhoods as the most significant sites to invest in for child protection. The big disappointment was that – despite all the evidence on why focusing on the community is the best approach to keep kids safe – few of these ideas made it into the White Paper and only one initiative (working with a handful of existing providers of volunteer-based mentoring programmes) seems to have any resourcing in the Action Plan.

Communities have a role to play in stepping up to support children, their families and wha-nau, so they can succeed and look after themselves.

Research shows us that a strong community around a child, family or wha-nau plays a critical means of building resilience and supporting vulnerable families earlier. Some of our most vulnerable communities are well known, such as refugee and migrant groups, and some specific rural and urban neighbourhoods.

There are good examples of promising community initiatives where communities generate solutions to better connect and support vulnerable children, families, wha-nau, hapu- and iwi to succeed. However, many communities still need more leadership, information and guidance to play their role in better supporting vulnerable children, and their families and wha-nau.

Stronger communities can also be achieved through local government providing strategic leadership to support communities coming up with solutions for their most vulnerable children, and their families and whanau.

(source: Green Paper for Vulnerable Children, 2011)

What did make it into the Action Plan and has been funded is business as usual responses – more professionals, more administrators, more agency-centric approaches to issues that can’t be solved by paying more people to look harder for children at risk and work with families to prepare safety plans and run more checks on other professionals.

Still from the campaign video produced by Gisborne film-maker Josh O'Neill

Still from the campaign video produced by Gisborne film-maker Josh O’Neill

I just received a response to my Official Information Act request asking how much has been spent on the new Children’s Teams – a new iteration of Strengthening Families, only families are less involved in the decision-making. It turns out nearly $5 million has been spent to date so that “trained people in the community refer children to local professionals who work with families/whanau to help and support the child.”

The rhetoric is lovely, but looking behind the warm, fluffy titles, the reality is more bureaucracy and a less caring community. ‘Children at the centre of what we do’ sounds great, but it really means families are less empowered, professional ‘carers’ are given more powers and responsibilities, more ‘systems’ are required to manage the professionals and more administrators paid to administer the systems. Paying people to support social development is fine, but the emphasis and focus is all wrong. When you read what the government means by ‘child centred’ it turns out to be all about more people being paid to manage problems – they even call the people writing plans for ‘vulnerable’ children the ‘Lead Professionals’.

‘Working Together, Sharing Responsibility’ sounds interesting, but turns out to be about professionals being organised by a new level of bureaucracy under the Children’s Teams banner and a national hotline for people with concerns about children (in other words, rebranding the 0508 FAMILY phone line that CYF has used for more than 15 years).

Since the 1980s the emphasis for government-funded social development in New Zealand has been on ‘professionalising the (social work) workforce’, and commercialising community organisations so they run more like businesses – with strategic plans full of mission statements, business plans and a ‘customer’ or ‘client’ focus. Ironically the Puao-Te-Ata-Tu inspired 1989 Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act had a strong focus on community, whānau, hapū and iwi leadership in the care and protection of children – instead the trend has been consistently toward increasing the role of agents of the state, whether they are Child Youth & Family staff or ‘community’ organisations carrying out the work that the Ministry of Social Development or more recently Whānau Ora Commissioning agencies want them to do on behalf of the state.

The other major plank of the Action Plan is legislation requiring anyone who works with children to undergo Police-vetting, yet another exercise in over-regulation and bureaucracy – especially when you consider who does the abusing of children – recent studies have suggested the figures for those who reported having been victimised sexually before the age of 15 years are something like: 11% is by a stranger, 30% by a male relative (other than child’s father or stepfather), 16% by a neighbour or acquaintance, 13% by the father or stepfather and 15% by another known person – a proportion of these will be the paid or volunteer adults in a childcare, school, sports, community or youth work context. So, I’ve asked for information on how much government money is being spent on establishing and implementing this new regulation – that won’t include all the extra time required by all the agencies and organisations that now have to get their workers checked.

So from my perspective, some of the initiatives being rolled out through the Action Plan are totally the wrong way to go, others may have some merit but the main point is that nothing of significance is being put into helping shift the culture of our neighbourhoods and villages where families and children live, work and play everyday.

Investment needs to be at the street level, not at a city or regional level that trusting relationships are nurtured and the forces against that are great – from the increasing individualism of consumer culture to the disempowering reliance on paid professionals to solve problems that must be addressed by families and neighbourhoods if they are to have any chance of enduring change.

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