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Family lawyers say last minute intervention by some social workers doing further harm to children

24 February 2017

Nelson lawyer and chair of the New Zealand Law Society’s Family Law Section, Michelle Duggan says it appears the threshold for Child, Youth and Family intervention has risen, driven most likely by a lack of resources.

“By threshold I mean the number of incidents that have to be reported and what the concerns are before something is done. It always depends on what is being alleged. If it is violence between partners it might be determined that it’s at a low level and there could be a referral to another social agency, it’s called a partnered response. But if it is a serious concern where charges have been laid by the police then that would get more action rather than several reports about lower level violence,” she says.

Not all complaints are justified

Ms Duggan says in Nelson for example it’s common for separating parents who are having a dispute about their parenting arrangement to make complaints to CYFs about each other.

“One dobs the other one in or tries to. That sort of behaviour should really be taken to the Family Court. It’s not a care and protection issue. Sometimes it can come from a justified concern but the bigger picture is the separating couples need to sort out their parenting arrangements,” she says.

But she says getting time in the Family Court for many people is also a challenge.

She says another big concern and increasingly a common situation is when grandparents become involved in the custody of children.

“They’re on the ground, they’re understandably worried about perhaps the mother of the children who is using drugs such as meth, is being assaulted by the father of the children who is also physically disciplining them too. It’s really hard on the grandparents because they end up approaching CYFs who then send them to the Family Court to get a parenting order. It’s happening more and more and CYFs will say there’s no longer any Care and Protection issues because the grandparents have now got the children through a parenting order issued by the Family Court,” she says.

Ms Duggan says it’s a way for CYFs not to actually do any work and it also puts the grandparents in a terrible bind.

“Not just financially. Ask yourself how (hypothetically) their daughter feels about having her children taken from her. It’s not going to set you up for cooperative parenting is it when a daughter now won’t speak to her mother because of this action. These are the sorts of situations CYFs should be getting involved with, but they’re not because they don’t have the resources,” she says.

Two years ago an internal review made sweeping recommendations to address a shortage in Child Youth and Family social workers including;

a) Increase the number of frontline care and protection social workers in line with current needs, achievable demand management and the delivery of quality social work standards.

b) Develop a new model for systematically monitoring, reviewing and then projecting the number of social workers Child, Youth and Family will need over time, based on patterns of demand, volumes and complexity, procedural requirements, and local factors such as geography.

c) Review the national distribution of social work capacity in line with the new model.

d) Ensure all new policy and practice standards for social workers include an evaluation of the resources and capacity to deliver the changes.

The Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers says social workers came off the skill shortage list in 2015.

It says there are 17 social work schools in New Zealand delivering programmes from 39 sites.

Wales which has a similar population and rural urban mix has six social work schools by comparison.

Social workers generally earn between 45 and $70 thousand dollars with the average annual salary at just over $59 thousand dollars.

Masterton has similar issues to Nelson

Another family lawyer, Masterton-based Belinda Inglis says retaining CYFs social workers in the town has been a problem.

But she understands that over the past week five new CYFs employees from outside the region have arrived to fill the void left by 10 staff that specialised in Care and Protection who left the region over the past six months.

“What I see quite frequently is ineffective intervention by CYFs until a very late stage. It has to hit absolute crisis point until anything substantive is done. It appears to have to get to a very bad point in a child’s life before they move on it.

Ms inglis’s observation is based on reading CYFs records relating to cases she works on in the Family Court.

“If children are left in really dire circumstances for long periods, they may develop, attachment and other behavioural issues and they’ll be harder to place with caregivers if they do need to be up lifted and placed with foster families,” she says.

The Government plans to address many of the problems both family lawyers have alluded to by opening the Ministry for Vulnerable Children from 1 April.

It is part of major state care reforms and signals a complete overhaul of Child, Youth and Family to improve the long-term life outcomes for New Zealand’s most vulnerable population.

It will focus on five core services – prevention, intensive intervention, care support services, transition support and a youth justice service aimed at preventing offending and reoffending.

Last updated on the 16th September 2019