New Zealands White Paper on Vulnerable Children

New Zealand’s Minister for Social Development, Hon. Paula Bennett released the White Paper  for Vulnerable Children on 11 October 2012. The most glaringly obvious thing about the paper/report was its failure to adequately address child poverty in NZ – a major area of concern identified by the UN Human Rights Commission in previous years. I.e. “20 per cent of New Zealand children are living in poverty – defined as a household earning 60 per cent less than the median income.”

This fact was quickly picked up on by UNICEF NZ’s National Advocacy Manager, Barbara Lambourn, who is quoted with: “the paper will improve processes for responding to child abuse, but needed to include poverty issues. Poverty is a factor in neglect, poor health and lack of opportunity – the White Paper does not offer solutions to plan better outcomes for these children.”

She was not alone in sounding the alarm. The opposition spokesperson for Social Development and Children, Jacinda Ardern said the White Paper was a “lost opportunity to make New Zealand the best country in the world to be a child… The glaring omission in this paper is the 270,000 Kiwi children living in poverty. Lifting our children out of poverty is one of the best things we can do to improve their lives. The longer we ignore child poverty, the more it will cost us. We spend roughly $6 billion a year picking up the pieces when children do not get a good start in life.”

The Green Party also pointed to the Government’s refusal to deal with poverty, stating:

“The [paper] failed to address the single most dangerous thing in a child’s life – poverty,” Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei said.

“Nothing in this paper relieves stresses on families that can’t afford decent food or warm dry homes for their kids…The phone line to protect children appears more like a dob-in line, and is a wasted opportunity to connect struggling parents with support, without fear they or their child will be labelled vulnerable.” (Source:

Others dismissed Paula Bennett’s action plan to rescue vulnerable children as “an exercise in window dressing” with almost $400,000 spent on consultants.

Almost $200,000 was paid to two recruitment consultancies and $9000 to advertisers Saatchi & Saatchi. A communications adviser got $9500 and a copywriter $16,905 for two months’ work.

However, perhaps the strongest critic of New Zealand’s approach to tackling child abuse was ex-patriot billionaire philanthropist Owen Glenn who announced in December 2012 that he was funding an independent inquiry into child abuse in New Zealand.

Glenn is quoted with, “this could have been an official royal commission of inquiry, but the Government declined.”

For Glenn, the trigger for funding the inquiry came more than 40 years ago, during a brief spell living in the largely impoverished, then predominantly state housing South Auckland suburb of Otara.(footnote)

“I saw first-hand some of the horrible things that go on, and it was what prompted me to leave the country,” he said (he has spent much of the intervening time overseas).

Although the philanthropist is reluctant to talk figures, the independent inquiry will cost a considerable part of the “up to $80 million” mark.

The findings will be delivered early in 2014, election year, and Glenn has commissioned a communications firm to sign up 500,000 people to a petition demanding all parties support the findings of his inquiry – or lose their votes. (More information on the Glenn Inquiry here)

Footnote: Since 1990, the NZ National (conservative) Government has ended universal benefits, sharply cut the level of welfare benefits and introduced means testing for health care. The entire public housing stock – “state housing” – has also been privatised. The ‘Housing Corporation’ which ran state housing  was reconstituted as ‘Housing New Zealand’, a commercially driven landlord required to make a profit, but also to maintain a social responsibility. When the businessmen recruited to run it complained that these roles were mutually exclusive, the social service aspect was dropped. The result was  state subsidised housing rents sky rocketed over a very short period of time.

People living in state housing – the poorest in the land – were, thus, hardest hit by the  reforms. Because of cuts to benefits their incomes dived at the same time their rents climbed. Crime soared, prison populations rose to among the highest in the world (second only to the U.S.), child abuse figures became on par to some of the worlds worst and third world diseases  that hadn’t been seen in New Zealand in a hundred years reappeared.

Thus, the NZ National Government’s Draconian notions of social reform resulted in Third World conditions for many of New Zealand’s poor. International news on the subject here…

Poverty and Child Abuse

A statement by the NZ OCC (Office of the Children’s Commissioner) notes:


“In 2006/07 230,000, or 22 percent, of New Zealand children were still living in poverty. That is, in households with incomes below the 60 percent median income poverty line, after taking housing costs into account. This is more than the entire population of North Shore City (205,605) or the Manawatu-Wanganui region (222,423) and means one adult and one child were living on $430 a week before housing costs.

… In New Zealand, a child growing up in a low-income household has on average a 1.4 times higher risk of dying during childhood than a child from a high-income household. Children born into poverty are more likely to be born prematurely, to have a low birthweight and to die before the age of one.

Children are more likely than adult New Zealanders to live in poor areas. Thirty-nine percent of all births in 2006 were in the three poorest areas (lowest NZ Deprivation Index decile areas). In contrast, only 7.7 percent of children were born in areas in the richest areas.

… Poverty is correlated with higher risks of the physical abuse and neglect of children. The highest rates of partner abuse tend to be found among young cohabiting adults of low socio-economic status, particularly when they have children.” 

[End Quote]

The link between poverty and child abuse and neglect has been extensively researched and documented over many years (Besharov & Laumann, 1997; Gordon, Kaestner, & Korenman, 2007; Wood, 2003). The Besharov (1997) paper includes research dating back to the 1970s that identifies the link between poverty and child abuse. It notes, “we fail to recognize the overlap between what we now label as child maltreatment and the conditions of poverty-especially among families headed by single mothers. Society should cease treating disadvantaged families as if they suffer from some form of psychological deviancy and, instead, should develop intervention strategies that better address their broader problems.”

Similarly, Wood (2003) points out, “Poverty and the culture surrounding it have a significant and pervasive impact on the health and development of children.” It is not poverty and material deprivation alone that impacts on children, it is the associated stigma and discrimination as well (Sanders-Phillips, Settles-Reaves, Walker, & Brownlow, 2009).

A number of studies have further highlighted the link between poverty and some forms of child maltreatment, especially neglect, emotional and physical abuse. While there are limited large-scale studies that specifically examine the nature of the relationship between poverty and child maltreatment, research shows that family income is strongly related to rates of abuse. U.S. research from 1996 shows children from families with annual incomes below $15,000 per year are more than 22 times more likely than children from families with annual income above $30,000 to be harmed or endangered by abuse or neglect. The research noting:

“Children from the lowest income families were 18 times more likely to be sexually abused, almost 56 times more likely to be educationally neglected, and over 22 times more likely to be seriously injured from maltreatment as defined under the Harm Standard than children from the higher income families.

A New Zealand study has also highlighted the importance of a mother’s education, income and employment for a child’s pre-natal development (Morton et al., 2012).

Morton et al (2012) report that half of the families participating in their study had been forced to buy cheaper food to meet other costs; 18% reported being cold in order to save on heating costs; 13% had used foodgrants or foodbanks and about the same percentage had gone without fresh fruit and vegetables (Morton et al., 2012). Although the participants in Morton’s study were from across the full socioeconomic spectrum, there was relative under-representation of families from deciles 7-10 (ie low-income households), and over representation of families from NZ deciles 1-6 (ie higher income households) (Morton et al., 2010). Thus the findings are likely, if anything, to underestimate the numbers in and extent of hardship among low-income families.

Similarly, research shows adults who are physically abused, sexually abused, or severely neglected as children are significantly more likely to be unemployed, living below the poverty line, and using social services than people without a history of childhood maltreatment. Having experienced more than one type of maltreatment increased these risks further. Thus, inequality/poverty (and all this entails) is transmitted across generations.

White Paper on Vulnerable Children Fails to Address the Needs of Societies Most “Vulnerable”

Just over half of the 200,000 children living below the poverty line in New Zealand are Māori or Pacific Islanders. This has high social and economic costs, and is reflected in the low well-being of many Māori and Pacific Island children. As a result Māori and Pacific Island children experience significantly higher rates of abuse, poorer health, educational, and social outcomes than other groups.

Executive Director of the Māori child advocacy organization, Anton Blank, points out:  “When it comes to New Zealand’s profile of child abuse and maltreatment, the elephant in the room in is the massive over-representation of Māori children. Half of the children killed through maltreatment in New Zealand are Māori, and our children are twice as likely as other groups to be subjected to child abuse. The White Paper fails to specifically address this issue. The government needs to develop a Māori-specific strategy in partnership with iwi, Māori leaders, and Māori experts. The strategy would need sustained and proportionate investment, over a number of decades, to transform Māori parenting and eradicate violence from Māori homes.” (Source:

Māori health researcher, Dr Fiona Cram, says reducing Māori child abuse requires tackling poverty and racial discrimination.

She adds, family poverty is “the major contributing risk factor for children”  and “Māori children are twice as likely as European children to live in poverty.” Statistics show that 52 per cent of all New Zealand children who have been taken into state care from abusive or neglectful parents are Māori – a highly disproportionate and worrying figure given only 14.6 percent of the New Zealand population is indigenous Māori, with non-Māori Pacific Islanders representing 6.9 percent of the population.

NZ Judge Carolyn Henwood, who chairs the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service, which deals with people who allege abuse or neglect during their time in state care says she’s listened to the stories of 600 New Zealanders who were in state care before 1992, and says it’s clear that poor care leads to crime and prison. She says Maori make up more than half of the 5000 children in state care.

The White Paper Whitewash – A Case of Politics Before Children

In the White Paper preamble  (“Statement from the Minister”) Hon Paula Bennett writes:


“We are deliberately targeting resources, interventions, and support to those children who need it most. Internationally, experts agree that targeted investment is crucial to greater social cohesion and to the enhanced development of the most vulnerable. This doesn’t mean we sacrifice universal services, but that we make an extra effort to wrap every support we can around those children who are in danger of neglect and abuse.

We know there are families suffering financial hardship, and that is particularly concerning when it is persistent. This Government is committed to alleviating this, and is doing so with extra financial assistance, through supporting community organisations that help families manage better, and by maintaining a focus on getting people off welfare and into work.”

[End Quote]

How the NZ National Government plans to do this is beyond me (and, indeed, any sane economist).  New Zealand currently has the highest rate of unemployment it has seen since 1999. Unemployment as of November 2012 is 7.3 per cent, up from 6.3 per cent in the June quarter, as businesses lay off full time workers in tough economic times.  What’s even more interesting is that the New Zealand Governments own statistics show, “between 2008 and 2010, people aged 18 years or over became more
likely to be receiving a supplementary benefit, Temporary Additional Support or a Special Benefit” and, “This increase  reflected the impacts of the economic recession on employment..”1 In fact, according to recent statistics, youth unemployment is at a staggering 25%. Presumably Paula Bennett has the answer to easing unemployment where no other can.  And if these figures aren’t bad enough one must also factor in that approximately 4000 ‘Kiwi’s’ are immigrating to Australia every month. Some 5,000 Kiwi’s fleeing NZ in the month of March 2012 alone – a net loss of 3,928 according to Statistics New Zealand.  These numbers are not insignificant given NZ has a population of only 4.4 million and 39,456 New Zealanders permanently immigrated ‘across the ditch’ to Australia in the year ending March 31 – representing an annual exodus of marginally less than 1 per cent.

They say “New Zealand’s greatest export is its people”, although Australia may not agree. Wikipedia notes,  “In 2001 an estimated 460,000 New Zealanders live abroad, mostly in Australia, representing nearly one-quarter of the highly-skilled worker force… Of these, 360,000, over three-quarters of the New Zealand-born population residing outside of New Zealand, live in Australia. Other communities of New Zealanders abroad are concentrated in other English-speaking countries, specifically the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada, with smaller numbers located elsewhere. Nearly one quarter of New Zealands highly-skilled workers live overseas, mostly in Australia and Britain, more than any other developed nation.”  

These figures perhaps speak volumes about New Zealand – albeit that as a onetime Kiwi (Māori /Pakeha), now Australian, my views on New Zealand are severely tainted and differ strongly from those of opposition spokesperson for Social Development and Children, Jacinda Ardern (re a “lost opportunity to make New Zealand the best country in the world to be a child”)  when I say New Zealand never was and never will be “the best country in the world to be a child.” OECD and other statistics strongly supporting my position.

And things don’t look as if they will get better any time soon. The Hon Paula Bennett is quoted with:

“Actually poverty does not cause or excuse child abuse and this work on vulnerable children was always about our most vulnerable, those that have been seriously abused and neglected and getting ahead of that for those that we can.”


However, critics of the paper say it’s an insult to those who put in submissions, that poverty isn’t included. Mike O’Brien from the Child Poverty Action Group was less than impressed and voiced his opinion with:

“It’s a very poorly thought out piece of work. It’s an insult to the people who took the time to make submissions and take up the issues and think about the issues and contribute to the green paper.”

Adding, the paper totally ignores the impact of poverty on vulnerable children and that the document comes up short.

“We know that children are vulnerable on a whole host of reasons and it’s tragic and ironic when there’s been all the focus on vulnerability and risks that there are for children living in poverty over the last months and months, that the word ‘poverty’ doesn’t even appear in the document.”

Sue Bradford, social issues advocate and former Green MP, says there’s nothing in the document that breaks new ground.

“I can’t see anything here that will put in more education and support for parents. No clarity around what the Government actually means by this term ‘vulnerable children’, I would have hoped for more, especially given the huge public interest in this.”(Source:


1) MSD Statistical Report for the Year Ending 2010

2 comments on “New Zealands White Paper on Vulnerable Children

  1. Maree Conaglen on said:

    Lets hope the Glenn Inquiry makes all political parties work together to come up with sustainable solutions to the issues surrounding child poverty and neglet. The knowledge on how to do this is already there it’s just that National doesn’t want to know. Maybe they will listen to the findings of a rich business man because they sure aren’t listening to anyone else!

    • admin_grant on said:

      Maree – let’s hope so; although, I aren’t optimistic with the likes of Paula Bennett politising child abuse. Better yet, let’s hope they (National) lose the next election as a result of failing to adequately address NZ’s horrendous child abuse problem and let’s hope the Labour party (a more socially minded party) takes a message from this.The most important thing is people make their vote count.

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