At a Parliamentary event organised by UNICEF just before Christmas, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told the audience that she loved children (!). I really believe in this stuff, she said, that's what motivates me in politics. UNICEF's advocacy manager Prudence Stone floated the idea of an event to celebrate New Zealand's network of child advocates with the PM's office immediately after the election and Ardern had jumped at the opportunity.
I love kids! said the Prime Minister
UNICEF's Executive Director Vivien Maidaborn introduced the evening's speakers – women who have contributed to the child rights movement over the last decade. Deborah Morris-Travers gave an overview of the movement. I can think back to a conference in 2009 where Morris-Travers talked about building a movement for children.
Vivien Maidaborn lead the charge.
It was also the year of the referendum on smacking, conservatives tried to overturn New Zealand's 2007 parenting laws, which effectively outlawed the physical punishment of children. The referendum galvanised a network of advocates who developed a highly organised and creative campaign which would provide a template for future advocacy around child poverty.
I could have listened to Dr Cindy Kiro for hours ...
Dr Cindy Kiro was the Children's Commissioner and a key player in the anti-smacking legislation in 2007. My memory of the period is that it was incredibly challenging for Kiro, bearing the wrath of New Zealanders who wanted to retain the right to hit their children. At the December event she talked about the need to support Māori and Pasifika children. I like most, this part from her speech, and I could have listened to her for hours.
Most Māori children grow up in single parent homes and a disproportionate number have males who have been imprisoned (as fathers). We don't want that. We don't want the continual criminalisation of the poor or the mentally ill. We want compassion but also a constructive pathway out for families who have struggled with multiple social ills. This is not just those who are the poorest. We may be prepared to accept the financial costs, but the lost opportunity for their contributions to our society as entrepreneurs, artists, intellectuals, that loss is a much greater cross to bear.
Ardern closed the proceedings by announcing the government's families package which will see families with babies born after 1 July 2018 receiving $60.00 a week for the child's first year – and for the subsequent two years if they earn $79,000 or less. It's a universal approach, rewarding all families with children, putting children at the centre of policy.
Enough is enough
Also on the government's agenda for its first 100 days is an inquiry into the historical abuse of children in care. I can recount some horror stories from my time as a a social worker with Child, Youth and Family, now more than two decades ago. There was a foster mother who set fire to a teenager because she thought he had a devil inside him, a teenager who attacked his foreskin with a knife to get away from caregivers on Great Barrier Island, a Christian youth worker who sexually abused a slew of young people in his care.
Invited to give feedback on the inquiry in December, I leapt at the opportunity. I think that the inquiry presents the opportunity to look at the issue of Māori kids in care very broadly. 73% of teenagers in youth justice facilities are Māori – that's right 73%! Why is that Māori are more likely to be taken into care in the first place? Oranga Tamariki's staff are now 30% Māori. So obviously increasing the number of Māori staff over the last 30 years hasn't solved the problem, neither has all the Treaty of Waitangi and tikanga Māori training staff have had.
The critical issue is what is happening when social workers interface with Māori families? No-one has ever really picked this apart. The same investigation needs to happen in health, education and justice because we see the same patterns for Māori. The Police lead the pack when it comes to recognising the root of the problem. In 2015, Police Commissioner Mike Bush admitted that his department had an unconscious bias towards Māori. This profound admission paves the way for change and the development of solutions.
My new short story collection Global Roaming will be published next week. Global Roaming explores love, intimacy and the inter-connectedness of the global village. Set in New Zealand, Asia and Europe the stories ponder identities in crisis and the complex external forces that shape who we are. It has had a long gestation and of all my achievements, it is one that brings a lot of satisfaction. When it comes to creative writing I procrastinate and this affects me at a subconscious level. Because I am disconnected from my higher purpose.
A memory of my father
My father Pius was a headmaster in Ponsonby during the 1970s. He spoke out against Police harrassment of Pasifika children, only to be censured but the Education Department.
A picture of him emerged out of the recesses of my memory over the holidays. Pius was a jazz buff and when jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli played at the Aotea Centre in 1990, we went together. Even during his prime Pius was a small man, 5ft7, never more than 60 kilos. As he grew older and retreated from public life, he shrunk until he was sparrow-like.
When Grappelli played, I knew I was in the presence of greatness, his playing was just so beautiful. I looked at Pius next to me, and he was leaning forward in his seat so he could see the stage, and he was crying. Our roles had changed. I was now the child-parent caring for the adult-child and I felt physically and emotionally very protective of him.