OPINION: CYF renaming creates further disadvantage for children

29 July 2016

Jaws are dropping all over the education and social services sectors with the news that the Government plans to retire Child Youth and Family in April of next year and bring in the “Ministry for Vulnerable Children”. 

At a time where the sector waits in fear that child protective and residential services may be farmed out to profit-driven corporations, and educational achievement gaps continue to grow for Māori children, this news comes as a great disappointment. While there is cynicism that a name change will cost much taxpayer money, and accomplish little else, the change is disturbing on a number of other fronts.

The proposed changes to CYF herald a move towards a “child rescue” type philosophy with the predominant belief that children should be removed from “bad families” and re placed in “good ones”. This moves away from a family-focused intervention that recognises that children are usually best kept connected to their whanau and communities with additional resources and support being put in place. This philosophy presents a simplistic neoliberal view about the causes of abuse and doesn’t recognise the systemic, social and economic forces that contribute to stress and difficulties for families. It also remains unclear about where these “good families”, to put children into, are going to come from.

The Children Young Persons and their Families Act was brought into effect in 1989, and was lauded throughout the world for its forward thinking restorative approach to child protection and youth justice. While it has not been the panacea to fix child welfare concerns, many social workers believe that where it has failed, it has often been due to lack of government commitment of adequate financial support. Social workers often carry very high caseloads, and families have not been able to access all the services and resources initially promised through the Act. The renaming of CYF not only removes the focus from the important family/whanau systems that support our youth, but also creates further disadvantage through calling children ”vulnerable”.

In 1963, American sociologist Howard Becker came up with the concept of labelling theory. This theory essentially says that people grow to demonstrate the behaviours and identities of what they have been called. This is also known as the creation of a self-fulfilling prophecy and often forms the basis for stereotyping. What could be more disempowering than to be told that you are "vulnerable" from the start? This leaves little room for being anything else. People can also be treated differently based on the labels that they hold. Stigma and discrimination can result from these labels.

Teachers and social workers, who work in challenging environments that are deprived of resources and support services, are often overwhelmed by what they see in the children that they work with. More often than not, this overwhelmedness has to do with the resilience, determination and creativity that these children demonstrate. There are many adults who have grown up in poverty and endured abuse, who have made important contributions to Aotearoa. They may not have done so however, had they been told just how "vulnerable" they were. While we would never wish a child to grow up under duress, not recognising and nurturing the skills and strengths that can develop in these situations can further victimise.

Principal Youth Court Judge Andrew Becroft has been appointed the country's Children's Commissioner with the job of monitoring the upcoming changes to Child, Youth and Family. On the bench, he has seen more than most the lives and circumstances of children “in the system”. He is quoted in Stuff (28/07/16) as stating that he believes that the proposed name is "stigmatising" and "cripplingly disappointing”.  Further, in an interview on TV 1’s Breakfast show (29/07/16), he has said that in his opinion “it is an unhelpful name, an unnecessary name and we could do much better”.  It is very heartening to hear this voice of reason.

Social workers and teachers often eschew labels for children and know the power of language. If we do have to provide a label for this "new" ministry, one that builds on strengths, provides hope, and recognises resiliency must certainly be a better choice.


Barbara Staniforth

Director Social Work (Qualifying Programmes)