I am responding to this Treasury request for information because I believe the service delivery discourse in relation to children and families who are at present doing badly is bankrupt. To make progress requires a framing that begins with the need and develops a system that meets that need and is judged on that result.
Treasury have sent around a request for information (not the usual Request for Proposal) with the above heading. The deadline for a response is 5pm, 4 December, 2014. The explanatory paper that accompanies the request has a list of factors that place children and families at risk as follows:
Who do we want to focus on?
We want to focus on how to get better results for children and their families at most risk of poor education, criminal justice and employment outcomes. They will probably have multiple risk factors, including being:
- children vulnerable to abuse or neglect
- unsupported/vulnerable teen parents
- children and young people with conduct problems
- children needing a range of services to succeed in school
- people not in safe, secure housing
- children in families with gang connections
- children in families with prison connections
- violent families, including victims and perpetrators.
Having been critical of the Government’s approach in the Green and White papers and the Vulnerable Children Act here is an opportunity that I mustn’t pass up to put my view positively. So, here is my contribution:
… what are successful ways to find and engage the most hard to reach children and families?
One thing the categories of people included in the bullet points above have in common is their fear and/or mistrust of the State. The most hard-to-reach are likely to have had during their lives unwelcome force exerted on them by authority. It is because of their vulnerability through offending, drug and alcohol issues, social inadequacy, mental illness and impairment of one kind and another that they will very likely have drawn the attention of authority in the form of State agencies or civil society including responsible people within their families. Even if they have never had such attention they will fear it.
This leads them to be unwilling to engage further with agencies of the State.
For engagement to occur there must be a measure of trust or at least a sense of agency within a system whose extent and purpose they can grasp. This means a smaller, local, non-state agency, service or group with a clearly defined and prominent helping and inclusive, case-finding ideology which they feel belongs to them, i.e. they have a part in running and supporting.
To reconcile such services with the State’s obligation to be transparent, thrifty and accountable presents difficulties but is not impossible. I believe agencies such as City Missions, the Salvation Army, Whanau ora and others can fit this description but more especially community development projects such as the Victory School project in Nelson.
Vision and ideology are crucially important. They must be sufficiently compelling to reach and influence the behaviour of the outlying groups and individuals as have been described in your bullet points and paradoxically this requires authority but not State authority. For some, even anti-State authority may be the necessarily powerful force.
There is another paradox, and that is that the most successful community development projects arise within communities and are, by definition sporadically occurring and local. There have though, in the past in New Zealand, been instances where such projects have given rise to a movement that has reproduced the required conditions throughout the country. Plunket is an example.
For such a system to be effective it must, of course be sufficiently resourced with people who understand what they are doing and are appropriately motivated so that people who have, warily invested their trust are not left high and dry and betrayed as they have come to expect. Again such esprit-de-corps among workers in such a system is dependent on a powerful ideology of service, identity and sense of autonomy.
There must be a visible and plausible separation from the actual or perceived coercive power of the State. The Police, Child, Youth and Family, WINZ and similar agencies should not be involved. Media publicity continues to present an image of harassment of clients of these agencies.
To be credible and viable long term such a system must adopt a policy of proportionate universalism.
…. what would need to change to improve the effectiveness of services for the most at-risk groups?
The problem of ineffectiveness is at this point in New Zealand’s development essentially not one of the services but of the system.
what existing models used in New Zealand or internationally could be used in your area?
how can services respond to the complexity and diversity of family circumstances?
how can the government better target and measure results for at-risk children and their families? (eg, through outcomes-based contracts).
This inquiry is a good beginning although it has been insufficiently advertised and there has been insufficient time allowed. It should be extended into an ongoing inquiry around the country coupled with a movement to build a new system that takes as first among its terms of reference, reaching all New Zealanders with the help they need.
I am responding to this Treasury request because I believe the service delivery discourse in relation to children and families who are at present doing badly is bankrupt. To make progress requires a framing that begins with the need and develops a system that meets that need and is judged on that result.