The Same Sad Story…

stand on the line“The outcome for children in the care of the state may be no better than if they had not been in care at all”. So says the Commissioner for Children’s report on the performance of Child, Youth & Family service.

This may have been news to the media and to those writing the report but social workers have been aware of similar disquieting research since the early 1980s. But what to do with such information? Ignore the plight of abused children and leave them in the hands of abusers?

As far back as the 1860s communities were so concerned about orphans, abandoned children and ‘troublesome’ children that they built institutions, religious and secular, to care for them. Some were good and some were harsh but many were probably no worse than boarding schools of the day. However, as government reports over the intervening years tell us, some of the people who worked in child-care institutions were as bad as the worst kind of parents.

And while many children were protected by life in institutions, they were ill-prepared for living independently. Placing children in foster homes where they could experience normal family life seemed a more caring option. For some children being placed with a caring family was a dream come true, others faced a nightmare of abuse, neglect and exploitation. Some children who were placed on farms were virtual slave labourers.

In my view the commissioner’s report is, for the most part, valid. Child Youth and Family is not adequate for the task of bettering the lives of all the children they take out of abusive homes. However the future for many of these children was in tatters before they ever met a social worker.

Children who have spent all their lives experiencing nothing but appalling patterns of family life should not be expected to develop acceptable behaviour simply because they have been rescued. Sometimes they hate being rescued.

Many children are understandably incapable of overcoming early social deformities. It should be no surprise that for them abusive behaviour, crime, and eventually imprisonment is inevitable. In the period between being removed from home and embarking on a life modelled by their parents all that can be realistically expected of substitute caregivers is care and protection.

Social workers, of course, have a duty not to be defeatist? But privately, most wish from time to time that sterilising some of the parents they have to deal with would provide the only guarantee of improvement

The Commissioner’s report expressed concern about CYFS failure to encourage “Maori cultural capability.” This conclusion was naive in my view. About thirty odd years ago when social workers became aware that all their efforts could be futile, Maori communities were pressing to have their children removed from state care. Much was made of the harm done to Maori children subjected to Pakeha institutional care and thus deprived of the positive influence of their own people. Deprived in fact, of their Maori identity.

Many of these concerns were valid. So much so that in 1989 the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act came into being. This revolutionary legislation introduced a new cultural awareness and practices.

Maori families and their tribal elders were brought into decision-making about the placement of Maori children. That practice continues. Yet, despite considerable efforts of CYFS the current report repeats the original criticism as if nothing changed. It also make the same mistake made by crusading Maori people all those years ago.

The mistake was in believing that once Maori children were taken out of institutions and placed with relatives they would become functioning members of society again. The rates for Maori prison inmates would drop, as would figures for abused and neglected Maori children. But instead Just the opposite happened. More young Maori people in prison. More Maori children abused, by their own people.

There are Maori foster parents whose love and concern for the children in their care is effective and heart-warming. But that has always been the case, with or without instructions in powhiri, karakia, kapa haka, carving and weaving. Developing pride in one’s cultural identity is encouraging but no remedy for long-term damage inflicted by abusive parents.

The Commissioner’s job was to report on CYFS, not abusive parents. Unfortunately official and unofficial groups concerned about abused children tend to be timid about confronting these appalling parents. It is as if they have to kill a child before society feels permitted to voice its outrage.

  • Photo: This boy has to stand ‘on line’ in the quad of the Epuni Boys Home in Lower Hutt as punishment for bad behaviour. This type of punishment was also seen as giving the offender a chance to calm down and reflect on his behaviour. (Source: Te Ara).
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Chris Horan

Chris is a former social worker, probation officer and Family Court counsellor, living in Hawea in the South Island.