Vulnerable Children Bill introduced to Parliament

SPEECH BY MINISTER PAULA BENNETT

The Vulnerable Children omnibus Bill proposes two new Acts: the Vulnerable Children Act, and the Child Harm Prevention Orders Act.

It also amends the Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act 1989 and the KiwiSaver Act 2006 and makes consequential amendments to a number of other Acts.

This Bill is about protecting vulnerable children, and putting that priority ahead of the needs of adults.

These changes are bold and by their nature, controversial.

This work has been driven not just by my own and this Government’s passion to better protect children, but also the determination of the New Zealand public to address this country’s horrific record of child abuse.

I hope Opposition parties will at least support this Bill to Select Committee.

I can hand on heart say I have not played politics with this work, it is above politics.

Every year Child, Youth and Family substantiates 22,000 cases of physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect.

We’ve already introduced significant changes that are making a difference and there’s an enormous amount of work underway for the Children’s Action Plan.

·         We have a National Children’s Director in place.

·         Two Children’s Teams; Rotorua is up and running and Whangarei is nearly there.

·         A Vulnerable Children’s Board of Chief Executives has been operating for months.

And we’re working on:

·         A care strategy for children in State care

·         The child protect line

·         Vulnerable Kid’s Information System

·         Increasing the pool of iwi caregivers

For me personally, the most important work I will ever do as a Minister is contained in the Children’s Action Plan.

Vulnerable Children Bill

The Vulnerable Children Bill aims to make government agencies jointly accountable to a responsible Minister for producing, reviewing and reporting on a vulnerable children’s plan.

This measure, combined with clear child protection policies, will help ensure frontline staff take responsibility for keeping children safe from abuse and neglect.

The Bill also introduces measures to protect children from adults who may harm them.

Finally, it addresses how we can better respond to those children who have already been harmed and are in the care of the State.

The legislative programme will ensure changes are enduring.

Joint accountability

The Bill introduces a new requirement for certain Chief Executives to collectively develop, and report on a vulnerable children’s plan.

That plan must set out how these agencies will work together towards collectively achieving the Government’s priorities for vulnerable children.

Chief Executives will have to report annually on the plan and answer to the responsible Minister on whether, or the extent to which each agency has implemented the plan for these kids.

The plan will be made public.

Do not underestimate the power of this unprecedented move.

Never before in this country have the Chief Executives of Health, Education, Police, and Justice had this specific accountability for vulnerable children.

Now they will, alongside the Ministry of Social Development of course.

It will significantly change the way they work.

These five agencies as well as, Te Puni Kokiri and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, are all represented on the Vulnerable Children’s Board.

That Board is an important part in the accountability chain leading from the Children’s Teams working on the ground up to a Ministerial Oversight Group.

Child protection policies

To support better identification and reporting of child abuse and neglect, this Bill requires clear child protection policies to be introduced.

Specified government organisations including District Health Boards, boards of trustees of State and State-integrated schools and sponsors of partnership schools must have child protection policies.

The Bill also requires these agencies providing children’s services, as well as those they contract or fund, to adopt policies on identifying and reporting child abuse and neglect.

Too often individuals and organisations know of abuse but do not take the required action – there will no longer be justifiable excuses.

I now turn to the screening and vetting of what we call the children’s workforce

Screening and Vetting

Although many organisations have checks in place to ensure that unsuitable people do not work with children, there is no consistent approach and there are a number of gaps.

The Bill will introduce a rigorous approach to vetting and screening with new standard safety checks of the children’s workforce in New Zealand.

This approach will reduce the risk of children being harmed by those who are entrusted to look after them or work around them.

The legislative scope of the standard safety check regime focuses first on paid employees within the Government sector and the services they fund.

Beyond that it provides voluntary guidance for all other organisations to encourage sound practices in safety checking.

The Bill will specify the minimum checks that must be conducted and further detail will be outlined in regulations and guidelines.

A workforce restriction will be based on a list of qualifying offences to prevent known child abusers and offenders from having control of, or working alone with children.

The workforce restriction will apply to the same category of organisations as the requirement to conduct standard safety checks.

Child Harm Prevention Orders

There are cases where children have been abused because a dangerous individual got close enough to do so, sometimes literally by moving into their home.

We will not tolerate abusive adults having that freedom and that power over children.

New Zealanders are sick of known abusers hurting more children.

It’s time to put children first.

So this Bill introduces civil orders to be made against those who pose a high risk of abusing or neglecting children in the future.

These orders will be called Child Harm Prevention Orders.

These orders will apply where a person has been convicted of, or found on the balance of probabilities to have committed, a qualifying offence.

Only three individuals can make an application for a Child Harm Prevention Order to be imposed – the Chief Executives of  Corrections, Ministry of Social Development or the Police Commissioner.

The High Court or District Court must be satisfied that the person poses a high risk of causing serious harm to a child or children in the future in order to place restrictions.

Those restrictions will be proportionate with the level of risk they pose.

Restrictions may apply to a specific child, or to loitering in parks and other areas where children may be.

The duration of the order will be for the period necessary to provide the required degree of protection to children up to a maximum of ten years.

Because these orders are new, we’ve put new checks in place.

They will be reviewed once every twelve months by a panel, to determine the continuing justification for the order, and the terms imposed.

The Chief Executive of the monitoring agency, and the person subject to the order, can apply for a review at any time and the Court must also review the order every three years.

Child Harm Prevention Orders will better protect our children from abusers.

Cabinet thought long and hard about these orders, cognisant of the trade-off between individual freedoms and preventing potential abuse of children.

We have come down on the side of protecting children.

Care and protection of vulnerable children

To improve the lives of our most vulnerable children who’ve suffered abuse or neglect, this Bill includes amendments to the Children Young Persons and Their Families Act to:

·         clarify the intention of principle 13(a), that children and young persons must be protected from harm, their rights upheld, and their welfare promoted.

·         strengthen Family Group Conferences and court plans so parental obligations include steps to be taken before a child placed out of the home, can be returned to a parent’s care, as well as definite decision timeframes about a child’s future.

·         allow external FGC co-ordinators to be appointed.

·         include new guardianship provisions to increase stability for children with Home for Life caregivers

·         include an obligation on the Chief Executive of the Ministry of Social Development to provide specific types of financial assistance to the permanent caregiver of a child or young person.

·         establish a Family Court review and appeal process for permanent caregivers who consider the Chief Executive of the Ministry of Social Development has wrongly or unreasonably declined the financial assistance they requested.

·         provide more support for 15 to 20 year olds leaving care to live independently.

To give children in care the same financial opportunities as others, this Bill also amends the KiwiSaver Act to allow the Chief Executive of the Ministry of Social Development to enrol them in KiwiSaver, without needing the agreement of the child’s other guardians.

That financial backing will help these young people when they leave care and sends a message,  that their future matters.

Clarifying principle 13(a) of the Act is also important.

This principle says children and young persons must be protected from harm, their rights upheld and their welfare promoted.

Mel Smith noted in his 2010 report that in practise, section 5 (which says where possible, the relationship to family should be maintained), too often takes precedence over section 13.

Safety of subsequent children

There are significant risks to children born into the care of parents who have already had children permanently removed from, or die in, their care due to abuse or neglect.

Currently, when those abusive parents have a subsequent child and come to the attention of Child, Youth and Family, the child’s safety is assessed.

If Child, Youth and Family believe the child is unsafe, it must prove that to the Court.

We will reverse that burden of proof.

The Bill will establish a legal onus on the parent to demonstrate they are able to provide a safe environment, in order to retain custody of a subsequent child.

We’re talking about cases where children have previously been killed or have survived the worst examples of abuse.

It will apply where a parent has previously had a child permanently removed from their care due to abuse or neglect or has previously been convicted of the murder, manslaughter, or infanticide of a child in his or her care.

We know that past behaviour is a predictor of future behaviour.

And it is the unfortunate reality that some children are at risk from the day they’re born.

When Child, Youth and Family gets a notification of a subsequent child, it will assess whether the parent has demonstrated they can provide a safe environment.

Depending on the outcome, Child, Youth and Family would either apply to Court for a declaration the child needs care and protection, or ask to review a previous safety decision.

These changes will provide greater rigour, Court oversight and transparency.

Conclusion

It is an unfortunate reality that these changes are necessary.

But this legislation will make a fundamental difference to protecting the most vulnerable children and allowing them to thrive.

We’re doing everything we can for New Zealand’s most vulnerable children.

And these changes complement the work already underway in the wider Children’s Action Plan.

I commend this Bill to the House.