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Opinion piece - Big step in helping disadvantaged children is listening to them

If Australia is the ‘Lucky Country’, then New Zealand has long held a reputation as being the best place in the world to be a child.

By Judge Andrew Becroft, New Zealand Commissioner for Children 

It is certainly the aspiration of our Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Jacinda Ardern, for the 1.1 million under 18 year olds in Aotearoa who make up nearly twenty-five per cent of the population. From my perspective as Children’s Commissioner, we currently struggle to make that aspiration a reality.

Seventy per cent of New Zealand children are doing well, but 20 per cent experience significant disadvantage and adversity, and 10 per cent do as badly as, if not worse than, children in similar situations in other OECD countries.

Many of the challenges we face in New Zealand are familiar to Western Australia: violence, abuse and neglect; persistent child poverty; mental health and youth suicide; and over-representation of indigenous children and young people in all the negative statistics.

The good news is that many of the solutions are also similar.

In New Zealand, the areas we think can make the most difference are ensuring children’s voices are heard in all policy and legislative developments, promoting children’s rights, increasing engagement in education, and promoting understanding of how to do better for our indigenous children. Progress in these areas may well also help the children of Western Australia.  

For us, it all starts with being child-centred – considering children’s best interests in all decisions and policies affecting them, and asking children for their views. Children’s voices always improve what we do – and in any case it is their right to have a say.

For example, both New Zealand and Western Australia have undertaken work collecting children’s voices and responses to the education system. The key themes were almost identical: great teachers, strong support and interest at home can make a big difference for a child’s education.

There are around 6,100 children in care and protection in New Zealand, and over 60% of them are Māori, compared with 20% of young people overall. Māori are also over-represented in youth justice, and have historically not been well-served by a system based on a European world-view. With our current resources, we can only monitor the nine youth justice or care and protection residences, covering two per cent of children and young people in the state system. But we also help the new child protection agency Oranga Tamariki to develop their systems to deliver better care, particularly for Maori children.

Despite the challenges that our children face, there are some very heartening signs in New Zealand. Legislation currently before Parliament would require the Government to set three and ten-year targets for reducing child poverty and to create a wellbeing strategy for all children. The previous government created Oranga Tamariki, which represents a radical change in delivering care and protection and youth justice services. This approach requires earlier intervention to prevent harm to children from occurring; incorporating greater understanding of the Māori world view in services for Māori children; partnership with indigenous authorities; and directing government agencies to work closely together to increase wellbeing for children. 

These steps will make a real difference. But the challenge is not just for government, it is for all of us in our different communities to work together on tackling these issues.

I will be addressing an audience of government and non-government staff working directly with WA children today as part of the Commissioner for Children and Young People’s Vulnerability Speaker Series. This is an important conversation we all need to have on how to best meet the needs of vulnerable children who desperately need our support.

Andrew Becroft was appointed as a District Court Judge from 1996 and was the Principal Youth Court Judge from 2001. Judge Becroft will be speaking at the WA Commissioner for Children and Young People’s Vulnerability Speaker Series today, supported by Rio Tinto.

*Published in The West Australian on page 43, 17 May 2018.

Vulnerability discussion paper

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