Children, family and the state – monitoring legislation well

New Zealand has experienced a nearly constant level of births every decade since 1950, averaging some 600,000 births per decade. This is projected to continue until around 2050. Among the OECD countries New Zealand has a tremendous demographic advantage through the continued fertility of New Zealand families. To benefit from this, we need to take full advantage of the options we could draw on to provide a consistent level of health care and education access to all these babies.

For a far larger share of each new generation of babies to have good health and educational outcomes, they need better protection than we have given earlier generations. To help protect these children and support them to maximise their potential, legislation has just passed its first reading in Parliament. This is a very important time for everyone in New Zealand to enrich our way of thinking about the role of the state in protecting children. It also goes beyond that to looking at the way families function and how we protect the heritage of New Zealand’s children.

Protecting vulnerable children is possibly one of the hardest jobs the government can take on for its citizens – to act in lieu of the family, to provide care and protection, to aim for all children to flourish. Regardless of the difficulty of the task, the child protection system has to be able to own up to its own limitations more boldly than it has previously.

Unlike an ordinary family, the state is not currently held accountable as a family would be for how those in its care fare. Government needs to be held to account in a way which reflects the significance of its actions on the future potential of the child, and the knowledge we have about how we can avoid doing this badly. Because the state is responsible for providing the very means by which it is held to account, without good, independent oversight we can only speculate whether we are doing as well as we can, and whether what is done is better than any alternative.

Much of this kind of oversight is simple and essential for continuous improvement, and effective monitoring could begin immediately. Reviews have a place, a very important place, in making the government accountable, but the real test is in whether legislation can improve outcomes for vulnerable children and their families. Without independent monitoring, thinking about where we are going with the next generation of children and the impact on families becomes primarily a matter of speculation.

There has already been some good research into young people who go through the youth justice system, but not nearly enough on children in the care and protection sector. We need to know what the child protection system can normally achieve, and how it is able to learn from its past experiences – and not only about failures in the system when there is tragedy. We don’t yet know enough about what is working or not working. We don’t yet know about the placement of children in care, their movement through the system, where their siblings are or the impact on their families.

As the new legislation is refined and implemented, it is critical that the role of monitoring and evaluation is strengthened. Getting it right accidentally is not good enough especially during the stage of life when the options children have are influenced by the aspirations of our society, by those who care for them, and by the aspirations of children themselves.

The Expert Panel Final Report Investing in New Zealand’s Children and their Families noted in December 2015 that any “future service must be responsive to the child’s needs and aspirations”. The word ‘responsive’ is key here. The research evidence to shape any change in policy and legislation in inevitably incomplete, and the evidence from monitoring the experiences of children must help us respond to the situation and continually improve our care and protection services. If nothing else, the government must do this better than before.

Families are the building blocks of our society, and children sit at the heart of this. Any statutory intervention that has an impact on a child also has an impact on its family and whānau. We want to know when we are getting it right.