The Modernising Child Youth and Family Expert Panel’s Interim Report: The Good, the Bad and the Potentially Ugly

This two-part guest blog is by Iain Matheson. Dr Matheson is the inaugural director of a soon-to-be-launched not-for-profit research centre for residential and foster care. He is a social sector management consultant, researcher and evaluator, with a background in statutory child welfare management in both New Zealand and Scotland; he started his post-qualifying social work career in residential care. His recent doctoral research was on the experiences of New Zealand university students who were formerly in state care. (Disclosure: Between 2002 and 2004 Iain was the CYF national manager for residential and foster care, and has since undertaken work for CYF and MSD).


Introduction

As we know, government reviews of statutory child welfare in New Zealand are carried out with great regularity. While the Modernising Child Youth and Family (CYF) interim report (Modernising Child, Youth and Family Expert Panel, 2015) traces these back to 1988 (and also states that there have also been 14 restructures since 1998), older readers and students of history will know that such reviews (and restructuring exercises) were also a regular occurrence over the period between 1972 and 1988; i.e. from when the (then) Department of Education’s Child Welfare Division merged with the Department of Social Security to create the Department of Social Welfare (Dalley, 1998; Garlick, 2012). Statutory child welfare in New Zealand has been in varying degrees of crisis for much, most, or even all of the last 40 years.

At the time of course, every review is critically important. However, while media and political attention may initially be intense, as the interim report highlights, significant and meaningfully positive change has to date been rare. Political priorities also change, whether that be changes in ministers or government, or changes in national policy settings. Furthermore, the cost and quality priorities of the three central agencies (State Services Commission, Treasury, and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet) may also be different to those of individual government ministries and departments. And of course, the background, knowledge, skills, values, role, function, independence and methods of reviewers, and review scope, will also have some impact upon the extent to which even accepted review report recommendations are able to be utilised as originally intended.

The Modernising Child, Youth and Family (CYF) Expert Panel’s report may of course go the same way as most of those before it. However, this particular review certainly has the potential to be the most important government review of statutory child welfare in New Zealand since Puao-Te-Ata-Tu (Day Break), (Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Māori Perspective for the Department of Social Welfare, 1986). We may be looking at a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

So, what should we make of the Modernising CYF Expert Panel’s interim report? I would encourage everyone to look beyond the initial media coverage and read as much of the whole 148 page report as they can, discuss it here and with others, and make up their own minds. What follows is my personal perspective on the report; one that I hope is reasonably informed, but also reasonably independent.

The Good

  1. The interim report clearly recognises that any overhaul of Child, Youth and Family’s operating model is a major undertaking, needs to be wide-ranging and will require legislative change. There is a clear stated commitment to the protection of children and the well-being of those in the care of the state. The report is also passionate about the need to do better; in fact, much better. In general, the panel’s six principles appear to offer a coherent framework for their work.
  2. A number of international social work child welfare experts are, if sparingly, cited in the interim report; for example the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Neil Gilbert, Ilan Katz, Emily R. Munro, Aron Shlonsky and Nigel Parton. In particular, the report clearly articulates the importance of evidence and outcomes, and engages with ideas emerging predominantly from North America, Israel and Australia on evidence-based practice/evidence-informed practice and implementation science, (Shlonsky & Benbenishty, 2014). While these ideas, and their applicability to New Zealand, do need to be critically assessed, they do offer a relatively broad and integrated perspective on what evidence is in child welfare, and its role in both practice and management.
  3. The interim report discussion on resourcing, and in particular the very clear (personal) statement from the six panel members in the Foreword that “our upfront investment in New Zealand’s most vulnerable children is insufficient” (p. 4) is very encouraging. Similarly, while I do have some concerns about the investment model and the actuarial approach, at a broader level, the prospect of a major long-term shift of funding from other government agencies, such as the Department of Corrections and Work and Income, to fund additional statutory child welfare provision, is of course also to be welcomed. For example, our rates of adult imprisonment are, by OECD standards, exceptionally high, and few if any in our country would disagree that a greater investment in children could and should lead to fewer of them ending up in prison as young adults. Indeed, on the face of it, the interim report appears to mark a departure from the politics of Rogernomics and Ruthanasia (i.e. small government, low public expenditure and deregulation) that so clearly underpinned the development of much of the ’89 Act and its initial implementation.
  4. The panel (and/or the secretariat) is to be particularly commended for commissioning the qualitative interviews with 19 young people (and young adults, given that one of those quoted was aged 24). While a slightly more comprehensive and nuanced presentation of the findings, and some comment on the methodology (or reference for more information) would have been helpful, the interim report clearly reflects a willingness to listen to those with experience of the care and protection system, and engage with their experiences. Hopefully similar research is underway with children under 14, and those in the youth justice system. Similarly, establishment of a Youth Advisory Panel comprised of young people with experience of CYF services (p.125) as part of the collaborative design process is also a welcome development.
  5. The interim report appears to demonstrate a clear and coherent understanding of what being in care, and particularly longer term foster care, can be like for children and young people in New Zealand. In listening to young people about their expressed experiences, and others who work in the care system, the interim report has a particularly strong focus upon children in care throughout. While there have been numerous reports on various aspects of care over the years, this is the first CYF-wide report that I can recall, in which care has featured so prominently and such a significant shake-up of the care system has been signalled. The interim report indicates support for a wide range of measures including enabling social workers to spend more time engaged (and presumably also do more work) with children in care, a continuum of care that better meets the needs of children, greater stability of care placements, support for extending the care leaving age beyond 16, national standards, a strengthening of foster carer recruitment and support, more limited use of secure residences and the development of more localised youth justice remand provision. The interim report also calls for the establishment of an advocacy organisation for children in care; most comparable jurisdictions have had such services in place for years if not decades (for example, the CREATE Foundation in Australia was established in 1993, whereas Who Cares Scotland was founded in 1978). I would support all of these measures, although we do need to look beyond playing ‘catch-up’, and ensure that the CYF operating model as a whole, pays sufficient attention to residential and foster care, and vice versa.
  6. The interim report also contains several nuggets of statistical information from outside of CYF that I have not seen before. While a footnote with a definition and year etc. is always helpful and would enable comparisons to be made at a later date on a similar basis, these add some additional richness to the report. For example, while most of us probably knew that a lot of CYF caregivers are on low incomes, it was interesting to see the statistic that 42% were receiving a Work & Income benefit.
  7. The interim report calls for a comprehensive programme of evaluation (research), which I would wholeheartedly support; while there are numerous examples of child welfare evaluation research that have been undertaken in New Zealand, all too often these have been project-specific, rather than system-wide. Importantly, the groundwork also needs to be laid now for the monitoring and evaluation of the new operating model.
  8. The interim report indicates that the panel will take a “leading practice collaborative approach to many of the design work programmes” (p. 125). While there have been criticisms from many in the sector that the process to date has been more secretive rather than collaborative, I look forward to seeing their proposals on this co-design approach and, given the importance and implications of the design of the new CYF operating model, the arrangements for their consultation, or that of the Minister, with the broader sector.

Part two of this guest blog will be published on Thursday 22nd October 2015.

References

Dalley, B. (1998). Family matters: Child welfare in the twentieth-century New Zealand. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University.

Garlick, T. (2012). Social developments: An organisational history of the Ministry of Social Development and its predecessors, 1860–2011. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Social Development.

Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Māori Perspective for the Department of Social Welfare. (1986). Puao-Te-Ata-Tu (Day Break). Report of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Māori Perspective for the Department of Social Welfare. Wellington, New Zealand: Department of Social Welfare.

Modernising Child, Youth and Family Expert Panel. (2015). Modernising Child, Youth and Family interim report. Retrieved from https://www.msd.govt.nz/documents/about-msd-and-our-work/work-programmes/cyf-modernisation/interim-report-expert-panel.pdf

Shlonsky, A., & Benbenishty, R. (2014). From evidence to outcomes in child welfare: An international reader. NY: Oxford University.

4 thoughts on “The Modernising Child Youth and Family Expert Panel’s Interim Report: The Good, the Bad and the Potentially Ugly

  1. thanks for your blog Iain and the way you have been able to pull out some potential value from the interim report. The best case scenario would be one where resources are front loaded for children and families, and for long term care solutions. I also hope that the government could make this child welfare project a bipartisan initiative and remove it from party politics, much in the way mental health policy and service development has had cross party support since the Mason reports of 1988 and 1996. This has benefited the development of positive broad based policy and services.

    1. Thanks for your comment David. I agree that a bipartisan approach as you describe would have been better, and may be something that the Minister will still consider. That said, I don’t believe that either of the main political parties have served statutory child welfare particularly well over the last 26 years, and while I am sensing a more distinguishable National Party ‘position’ is beginning to emerge, beyond not wanting to contract with SERCO, I am not clear where Labour is sitting in relation to this important topic; the very limited political and wider media debate to date has also been disappointing – again. A more partisan approach in relation to the professional and organisational politics would also of course have been better; starting with the composition of the Modernising Child, Youth and Family Expert Panel.

      While I do discuss “the bad and the potentially ugly” in the second part of the blog article which will be released on Thursday, in relation to some of the high level discussion, as you suggest who could argue for example with more front loading of resources for children and families, and the need for better permanency arrangements for children in care? Many of the high level ideas in the report, particularly in relation to foster care, are on the face of it eminently sensible. The issue of course, will be how those ideas are fleshed out, prioritised, linked and developed into a coherent CYF operating model, with (unintended) negative consequences also being sufficiently mitigated.

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