(this article is from Kete Kupu #28, September 2013. See here for a fuller analysis)

An opportunity knocked when Minister Paula Bennett made a personal commitment to reduce New Zealand’s rate of child abuse. Official statistics on substantiated child protection notifications make sombre reading. In 2012 there were – 10,883 [Emotional Abuse]; 3,108 [Physical], 4,450 [Neglect] and 1,355 [Sexual] substantiated cases, 19,796 in total. The Vulnerable Children’s Bill is now pending and the government has put child abusers both convicted and ‘probable’ on notice. The parental care of our vulnerable children is now firmly on the political landscape and there’s a Better Public Service (BPS) target least we forget. BPS Result 4: Reduce the number of assaults on children By 2017, halt the rise in children experiencing physical abuse and reduce current numbers by 5 percent.

Official silence on child poverty

Sitting around all of this is New Zealand’s equally distressing rate of child poverty but, unlike official statistics on child abuse, there is no official definition or measure of child poverty or indeed a strategy to reduce its impact on child health and wellbeing. There is no joint accountability for child poverty across Chief Executives of Social Welfare, Health and Education. No legislative ability to move vote funding to where it is needed. There is no Child Poverty Bill to set out what the state’s obligation is to children who are born into families who are simply unable to provide for the child/ren in their care. The Expert Advisor Group on Solutions to Child Poverty, commissioned by the Children’s Commissioner, attempted to address many of these gaps and in so doing identified 270,000 children living in poverty (this figure is based on household incomes after housing costs).

Public policy stands or falls by its scope

This opportunity accorded by Minister Bennett to make a difference to the lives of New Zealand’s most vulnerable children has both political will and public support [10,000 New Zealanders made submissions on the consultation (Green) paper]. What it did not have from the start was a sufficiently broad scope to cope with the complexity of child abuse and child poverty; a truly wicked policy problem to address. Public policy stands or falls by its scope, and herein lies the issue. The blueprint for the pending Vulnerable Children’s Bill (The White Paper and Children’s Action Plan) excluded child poverty, and overlooked the vast majority of struggling parents who love their kids, are doing the best they can, and just need some extra support from the state.

The focus of the Vulnerable Children’s Bill is primarily adults at a high risk of offending against children, and children’s workforce training and education of government paid employees. There is merit in all of this work, but where is the support for children who live in poverty, and for their parents and whānau who want a better life for their children? Where is the conversation about the cross-over between child abuse and poverty? CPAG recent publications “Child Abuse : What Role does Poverty Play”, and “Child Abuse : An analysis of Child Youth and Family Data” identifies substantive research over twenty-five years on the link between child abuse and poverty but concludes much of this research is ignored in favour of ‘reporting, monitoring and risk assessment’. [CPAG, 2013].

The conditions are right, so what are we waiting for?

Minister Bennett is to be credited for putting vulnerable children on the political landscape and for providing an opportunity for public sector agencies and community groups to collectively work together to make a difference to the lives of this group of children. There is no doubt that the lives of some children at the high end of the at-risk continuum may be saved. The challenge ahead is to push the door wider enough to expand our conversations to include : a definition and measure of child poverty, a set of Child Poverty Reduction Targets, Implemented as BPS targets, with Chief Executives across Social Welfare, Health and Education jointly accountable, all embedded into legislation, with cross party support. There is a lot of work to do. That said, the EAG on Solution to Child Poverty Recommendations has already prepared much of the groundwork to achieve this vision. The moral rationalé for trying to improve the living conditions of 270,000 New Zealand children is clear, the economic justification and evidence-based data is there, and public sector agencies and community groups are working collaboratively together.

Child Poverty involves material deprivation and hardship. It means for instance, a much higher chance of having insufficient nutritious food, going to school hungry, wearing worn-out shoes or going barefoot, having inadequate clothing, living in a cold, damp house and sleeping in a shared bed. It often means missing out on activities that most New Zealanders take for granted, like playing sport and having a birthday party. It can also mean much narrower horizons – such as rarely traveling far from home…. This is not the kind of country most new Zealanders expereice or know much about. But it is the harsh reality for many of our children. (EAG, 2012a, p.1)

Read the text of the bill and background papers on the MSD website.