The State is a Bad Parent. Literally.

Jess Berentson-ShawTax and Welfare

Last week the Children’s Commissioner Dr Russell Wills made the rather startling statement that “it is doubtful children are better off in state care”.  

In the first report investigating the service Child Youth and Family (CYFs) provides to our most vulnerable children, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (OCC) conclusion is:

[quote]”We don’t know if children are any better off as a result of state intervention, but the indications are not good”.[/quote]

WOW. So the state can

  1. Identify children at risk effectively. Well sort of because the 8 children a year (on average) who are killed by their families have clearly slipped through the gaps.
  2. Can remove children from that risk but,
  3. Can do nothing to make the outcomes for those kids better.

As parents the state could well be just as destructive a force as parents who are deemed unfit. This is a pretty damning indictment of a system, and let’s be clear it is a system not individual’s that we need to focus on.

It Is Not Individuals Working In The System That Is The Cause Of The Problem, But They Have Ended Up Becoming Part Of It.

The OCC report is pretty clear that most of those people working in the state system are dedicated and committed people, who at least start out with intentions to really help kids living in some pretty grim circumstances.  Sadly the quality of practice delivered is very inconsistent and often due to insufficient training and skill. In addition, where pockets of high quality practice exist the structures of the system overload them and fail to support those individuals doing high quality work.

Overall the system is not designed with the evidence about what we know would best improve the lives of these vulnerable kids front and center. Outcomes for children are hardly even measured (so even if best practice was being delivered we would have no idea what difference it was having for kids).

What is really out of kilter is the finding that CYFS does not always act with best interests of the child as its first and paramount consideration. The question remains whose interests are coming first if not these vulnerable children’s?

Who ARE these Kids in Care in NZ that we Fail?

In New Zealand at any one time there are around 5000 or so children under the care of Chief Executive of CYFS. This means that legal custody has been formally removed from families and given to the state due to care and protection concerns. It does not always mean the child is physically removed from a family’s care, but most often they are. They may be placed with other family members, or in foster arrangements and occasionally in residential care facilities. They are disproportionately Maori children, and they are more often than not poor.

150401kids living in care

If you want to know about the complex legal arrangements surrounding ‘looked after children’ you can read more here.

And what are their lives like? To quote the Commissioner for Children

[quote]Many have come from homes where violence, abuse and neglect are a feature of day to day life, where parents have failed to keep them safe, secure and well nurtured[/quote]

Lets not beat around the bush, these are kids who have multiple issues and can be incredibly challenging to deal with. However, like all children with the most challenging of behaviors they need MORE care, MORE love, MORE attention than other kids. Not less, if we want them to have the same chances as other kids in NZ. The question that has consistently been raised is ‘Are they getting more & better care?’ Last year the Government ordered a review of Child, Youth and Family because of ongoing indications that the answer might be no, however, the OCC beat them to a result and says there is no ‘might’ about it.

So What Is Happening To These ‘Looked After Kids’? Turns Out Nothing Good, But CYFS Would Not Really Know That Anyway

Kids in state care might not be at risk of abuse from their parents anymore but more often than not they are at risk of pretty much everything else. Research tells us that internationally and in New Zealand, children in care are more likely to have poor outcomes as adults compared to other kids. They are more likely to be homeless, involved in the criminal justice system, have drug and alcohol problems and experience poor mental health and unemployment. Judge Andrew Becroft the principal Youth Court Judge has spent years highlighting what he calls the “staggering and profoundly concerning link between children who have been in care and crime”.

This staggering link between care and poor outcomes for children is demonstrated by data from the UK below.

Source: NICE, UK

Unfortunately as the OCC noted ‘CYF’s systems are not currently set up to measure and aggregate the information that matters.’ So CFY’s does not actually have systems in place for us to understand what is happening to children in care in NZ, as we do internationally.

What we do know from the little bit of data we have is not good. Children who enter CYFs care are eligible to have what is called a “Gateway Assessment”, which looks at the health and educational needs of that child and puts in place a plan to address these needs. Only 71% of children are getting that assessment.

The most common health needs identified by Gateway Assessments were:

  • Emotional and behavioural (34 percent);
  • Dental (21 percent);
  • Incomplete immunisations (13 percent);
  • Mental health (12 percent);
  • Hearing (12 percent);
  • Vision (12 percent);
  • Skin problems (9 percent)

While the most common educational needs of children entering the care system were:

  • Below peers in maths (24 percent);
  • Below peers in reading (24 percent);
  • Social skills affecting learning (9 percent); and
  • Disrupted schooling (7.5 percent).

However, NONE of these children are being followed up with a formal monitoring system to record if there are any improvements from the interventions that are put in place as a result of the Gateway Assessment.

It is an Expensive Business So Lets make it Worth It

It is a costly business removing kids from their family, so ensuring that CYFs has a very clear and well-articulated focus on improving outcomes for kids makes sound investment sense.

Research carried out at Massey in 2011, attempted to cost out the care of children by the state. They had this to say:

‘In terms of actual government spending and again noting challenges in calculations, government appropriations to deal with child protection issues for 2009/2010 were for approximately $570,000,000. The not for profit sector contributed 2.6% to New Zealand’s gross domestic product in 2009, and a conservative estimate of the voluntary contribution of just ten major social service organisations was estimated at $126 million.

Quite expensive then.

Would these Kids Experience Worse Outcomes if They Stayed with Their Families?

The one thing we have to consider is whether these children may have had even worse outcomes if they stayed with their families. It certainly is possible – these kids were removed because the risk of severe physical and mental trauma was very real. However, there is no way to confirm whether they are worse off or not without doing a series of pretty unethical experiments; which would involve leaving some kids at risk of serious harm with their families and comparing them with a group who were removed into care.

This is beside the point really, because it is not good enough to just stop children being abused. If we are going to go to the extreme measure of removing children from family care, we should be able to offer them a fair chance to experience positive outcomes in life. Not simply an absence of parental abuse.  

What Makes Life Worse for Kids in State Care?

Along with the systems issues that the OCC identified that make CYFs care below par, there are individual factors at play for each child.

The factors that make things worse for kids in care are having unstable placements (lots of different carers), being removed from parents at an older age, a history of abuse or trauma, behavioural difficulties, being in a residential care facility, placements made in a rush, and/or other kids the same age in the home

Recently we heard that the government currently stops taking responsibility for kids in care kids the minute they turn 17. This can fall in the middle of a school year sometimes, leaving already unsupported children having to overnight find somewhere to live, to pay for their own school fees, living expenses etc all while trying to manage their final years at school. It is not what a good parent would do.

What would a good state parent do then, for what are very vulnerable children, to give them the chance to experience the same outcomes as those kids who grow up in safe and nurturing families?

What Does Work for Kids in Care?

Given these kids are incredibly vulnerable at the time they were removed from their family many do need significant additional support to have a fair go at life. They need more than just standard parenting. Research indicates that intensive types of care for the kids who are most vulnerable is required. This means much higher investment in staff training and in foster parent training, greater remuneration to those foster/interim parents dealing with the most vulnerable and challenging kids, and a full team of skilled and capable support staff available to the foster parents – this includes social workers, psychologists, paediatricians, and other behaviour specialists.  

These are some of the many things that are currently missing from the CYFs system according to the OCC.

We all, especially these children, have the right to better outcomes than what we are currently getting from the system. We clearly know what resources, skills, and investments are missing. For the children in care however something very simple is lacking. In the words of a child who has lived the experience of CFYs care in NZ

“We felt in our experience that love was one of the main things that was missing a lot of the time”.

The State is a Bad Parent. Literally. was last modified: October 13th, 2016 by Jess Berentson-Shaw
About the Author

Jess Berentson-Shaw

Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw is a science researcher working for the Morgan Foundation. Jess holds a PhD in Health Psychology from Victoria University. Jess has over 10 years’ experience working on applying science and evidence to public policy. She worked on improving the use of science in public health practice in NZ, before working as a Research Fellow at University College in London, where she researched how doctors and clinicians translate scientific evidence into their clinical practice. While in the UK she also developed a national data collection system, which was used to determine what factors contribute to poor outcomes for women and babies during pregnancy and birth. On her return to New Zealand she directed a research group that specialised in the independent evaluation and application of research and science to health policy and practice. Jess loves science and what it can do to make the world a fairer place.