Why New Zealand is failing its kids

In the past 25 years, the number of children living in income poverty has doubled. In Newsroom’s ongoing Watchdogs series, the man charged with protecting kids' rights explains what we’re doing wrong and why it was a cop-out for our former Prime Minister to say the problem could not be measured

Shuffling a sheaf of papers in front of him, Judge Andrew Becroft begins running through the numbers.

About 10 percent of children in the general population have dyslexia, while for their counterparts caught up in the justice system it’s as high as 32 percent.

Those in trouble with the law are also about 10 times more likely to suffer from foetal alcohol syndrome.

Māori children are five times more likely to live in crowded housing, twice as likely to be living in poverty.

He could go on, but he’s aware the stats can be overwhelming.

He does not, however, believe it’s something people can ignore.

“I think New Zealanders would be horrified to know how significant the issues are.”

Children, or youth, have been on Becroft’s mind for a long time.

Starting out as a sole jury judge in Whanganui in 1996, he was five years later in charge of the Youth Court and would remain so for a decade-and-a-half.

“After 15 years in the Youth Court, it was a formative experience in understanding the way New Zealand worked. There was a pretty steady, if not daily, exposure to the harsh reality of everyday life.”

When the time came to move on it would again involve children.

From his work on the bench, Becroft witnessed the huge disparity between Māori and Pākehā.

It’s something he calls one of the most significant problems facing the country - and the chance to build fences at the top of the cliff, rather than act as an ambulance at the bottom, was attractive.

Last year he was appointed Children’s Commissioner, taking over from Dr Russell Wills.

The first nine months, Becroft says, have been confronting.

He believes we have treated - and continue to treat - our children poorly.

Our knowledge of learning difficulties and behavioural disorders is growing, but we still “see through a glass dimly” and he worries about those labelled disruptive who are really just struggling, with little help.

“I think we will have a revolution of our understanding of our young people in the next 20 to 30 years, especially from the criminal justice point of view.

“I suspect history might judge us quite harshly. We judge those in the Victorian era of having a very crude approach to child welfare … well I think a lot of what we’re doing right now might be judged as almost, putting it crudely, sending a blind person to prison because they can’t see.”

What the Children’s Commissioner does

The roles and responsibilities of Becroft’s office are broad.

These include investigating any decisions made (or not made) regarding a child, advocating for children’s interests and monitoring places where young people are detained.

Complaints are also a large part of the commission’s work, with about 800 received each year.

These vary, but can often be about school suspensions and exclusions.

Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft would like to see political parties work together to reduce child poverty. Photo: Shane Cowlishaw

Right now, for example, it’s difficult to question the decision of a school's Board of Trustees - something Becroft finds bizarre.

“It’s concerning that at the moment there’s no realistic way of challenging a Board of Trustees’ decision short of going to the High Court … I mean if Super 15 rugby players can have appeals heard within a week or two, you’d think that our kids deserve no less a service.”

He would like to see a model where a panel consisting of a lawyer, a retired principal, and a community member was available as a quick appeal committee.

Failing that, the Youth Court could also be used as a vehicle for a hearing.

While complaints are about half the work, monitoring and assessments make up the bulk of the rest.

The team is small; only 12 people work in the office including administrative staff.

Considering there are 1.12 million under 18-year-olds in New Zealand, who are largely voiceless and disenfranchised, Becroft admits more resources would be useful.

There has been no budget increase for the office since 2010, he says, and they are “quietly crossing our fingers” for some relief this year.

“We have a team here who are here because they are absolutely committed to the statutory roles and ideals of the office – they could probably all get paid more in other places … but they’re here because they want to make a difference.”

A Prime Ministerial cop-out

Not long after Becroft became commissioner, he was in the news.

Suggesting a simple system for adopting a target to reduce child poverty, he urged the Government to adopt it.

It revolved around a material deprivation index that has 17 indicators, such as not owning a rain-jacket or an individual bed, and when a child met at least six they were considered to be suffering hardship.

Then-Prime Minister John Key dismissed the idea, infamously claiming it was too “difficult” to have a single measure.

When asked about this, Becroft has strong words prepared.

“Whatever way you cut it there are 85-95,000 kids that are doing it very, very tough and frankly it’s disingenuous to say we can’t measure child poverty. We can.”

While true there was no one “holy grail” measurement, there were two or three that together clearly painted a clear picture.

Prodded about whether he thought Key’s answer was a cop-out, Becroft nods.

He has met with the current Prime Minister, Bill English, but won’t say if he committed to a target (it’s almost certain he didn’t).

There seemed to be a real willingness however, he says, on English’s part to listen to his views and they seemed to be of genuine concern.

It’s noted that after being restrained for so long from speaking his mind as a judge, Becroft appears to be relishing the opportunity to do so.

There’s a chuckle at this, before agreeing that in a way “the shackles are unleashed”.

“I don’t want to be a clanging gong and a clashing symbol of no effect but yes, you’re right, I’m free to call it as I see it.”

We’re breaching our obligations

As discussion moves to New Zealand’s international obligations to children, Becroft finds himself getting worked up.

“I think it’s a crucial area that we’ve got to do much better on in New Zealand and we’ve been surprisingly casual in our international obligations.”

Those obligations include the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Now the most ratified UN convention in history (by every country in the world except the United States) it sets out general principles that guide how children should be treated.

One of those is their right to an opinion, and for that opinion to be heard.

It’s something New Zealand is failing terribly at, Becroft believes.

Since taking the job Becroft has been surprised how some UN provisions are treated with superficial and nominal understanding, as if they are designed for countries like Somalia rather than New Zealand.

In reality, they are “not up for debate” and the commissioner will be visiting every Minister to remind them they are not just a box-ticking exercise.

He does not understand why young people are not given a chance to speak their mind about issues and legislation that affect them directly. He has already criticised the Government for not consulting with children about the Education Amendment Act that is making its way through Parliament.

He feels there’s an ingrained notion that children have nothing useful to say, that adults know better.

“Genuinely consulting with children and hearing their voices invariably produces not only better quality but also some quite surprising responses - under 18s have a lot to offer.”

Something else New Zealand is failing at, and an issue Becroft has spoken out about before, is youth being placed in deplorable solitary conditions such as police cells.

It was “unacceptable” and likely a breach of almost every child and human rights standard.

New Zealand had a good record of youth justice, but this was clearly a blind spot.

The option of placing children in remand in police cells, which was not an option in adult courts, should be removed, as it always meant solitary confinement.

Becroft recalls a memory from his early days as a judge in Whanganui.

With no coroner available, he was called to preside over an inquest of a 17-year-old who had hung himself, at 3am, in a police cell.

It was a tragedy that has stayed with him.

“Since that day I guess I have been deeply affected and concerned about how we use solitary confinement, it has an effect that is unpredictable on a young mind and I don’t understand why we aren’t more concerned about it.

“If we’re truly child focused, we’d just do it in a flash. Honestly, we play with fire when we put kids in cells.”

The Newsroom Watchdogs interviews can be found here.

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