Catholic agencies batting for the country’s children

NEWS Cecily McNeill31 March 2012 The government needs to put much more money into education and resources to support parents, teachers and others who are working with children, according to…


Cecily McNeill
31 March 2012

The government needs to put much more money into education and resources to support parents, teachers and others who are working with children, according to social workers at Catholic Social Services.

Cathy Agnew and Trish Heward made a submission on behalf of the agency to the Social Development Minister’s Green Paper on Vulnerable children last month.

The pair who spend part of each week working with ‘vulnerable’ children in mainly Catholic schools, are concerned that minister Paula Bennett is promoting mandatory reporting of child abuse as a panacea for New Zealand’s shocking child abuse statistics without taking account of other aspects of dealing with children and without providing the necessary resources.

Cathy says mandatory reporting has been proven to be ineffective in other countries. She is concerned that people will think of it as a fix-all.

‘Those mainly affected by it are teachers who have enough on their plates already without having to be worried in the classroom about not noticing if one of their pupils is being abused. They haven’t got the training. Where’s the money going to come from for their training? We haven’t heard about that.’

Both say that the Catholic schools in which they work regularly are actually doing something to address the issue of child abuse by calling in Catholic Social Services staff before the problem escalates.

‘We’re being asked more and more to go into state schools. So I believe the schools are trying really hard – they’re not waiting [with the ambulance] at the bottom of the cliff.’
With a large number of immigrant children in schools now, teachers and other professionals need more training in different cultural practices. What looks like a sign of abuse, may simply be a genetic factor, like a birthmark.

A third area Catholic Social Services is concerned about is that of information sharing. Cathy and Trish are keen to know whether a amendment bill to the Privacy Act will give non-government agencies more access to information about their clients.

Caritas also responded to the Green Paper before submissions closed on February 28.
Advocacy officer Lisa Beech says Caritas’ main concern is that the state share responsibility for children with their parents.

‘While families have responsibilities for their children’s wellbeing, it is the responsibility of the State to provide conditions which enable families to fulfil this potential. It is not possible under current social, economic and cultural conditions for all children and their families to thrive.’

Another concern of Caritas is about the apparent lack of connection between the development of a policy on children and other concurrent areas of policy change such as welfare, housing, family courts, health, all of which are likely to increase the vulnerability of children.

Dr Nicola Atwool of Otago University agrees, saying in a seminar in Wellington last month that the government must take responsibility ‘for ensuring that all families have access to the resources they need to fulfil parental responsibilities’.

She says early intervention is a critical component of the Green Paper. One of the paper’s strengths is a proposal that the government ‘provide leadership through an overall plan, legislation and policy changes to ensure a cross-sector response’.

The paper takes account of the research which shows the detrimental impact of poverty and that this need not result in poor outcomes. But, Dr Atwool says, families shouldn’t be ‘stigmatised for being poor’.

The paper acknowledges the importance of parents and caregivers and shows government willingness to work in partnership, but this can take place only in the context of social and economic policy that determines how income is distributed and what level of support is available.

Meanwhile the government is introducing new laws this month to work-test beneficiaries receiving a widow’s and women-alone benefit, and ensure solo parents with children over five are ready for part-time work or to work full time if their children are over 14.

Beneficiaries who have a subsequent child on a benefit will be required to be ‘work ready’ when that baby is one year old and private agencies will manage the benefits paid to some jobless youth.

Image: Trish Heward and Cathy Agnew discussing the Green Paper.