It’s now nearly twelve months since I started the role as Children’s Commissioner so it’s timely to reflect on the first year.

I made the conscious choice to hang on to my clinical tenths early on and I am pleased I did. I expected to find Wellington daunting, but was pleasantly surprised to find it full of smart people who cared about children. Both the public servants and the politicians from both sides understand that poverty, lack of opportunity, crowding and smoking all contribute to the terrible health outcomes I see in my clinical practice.

I tried to ‘breathe through my nose’ in the first four months and learn how Wellington worked. My term started in July with the Green Paper on Vulnerable Children. We worked hard to get as many submissions to the Green Paper as possible because I thought this was the best opportunity we’d see in years to influence social policy for children. In the end there was no shortage of good ideas and 9,000 people responded, including 2,000 children. Staff from my office were responsible for four submissions, including from children in state care, which made me very proud.

If you have the time and want to be inspired, see the Green Paper Rap at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGyL0e7Zcps.

I am lucky to have an office of 15 exceptionally talented people and I think there are four areas where we can make a difference as an office for the remainder of my five-year term.

Dr Russell Wills, paediatrician and Children’s Commissioner

Firstly, in children’s health there are large disparities in the way services for children and young people are delivered by District Health Boards that can’t be explained by different demographics. I am hoping to partner with the Health Quality and Safety Commission and the Paediatric Society of New Zealand to write a ‘scorecard’ of DHB Child and Youth Health Services.

The scorecard would be clinician-led and share best practice in child health service delivery between DHBs.

Secondly, I commissioned an Expert Advisory Group of thirteen eminent New Zealanders to give me advice about solutions to child poverty. The group includes experts on housing, primary health care, economics, business, social services and education. I employed a secretariat of five analysts to support the EAG and between them the work they have produced is extraordinary. I am looking forward to releasing a draft report from the project in August.

Thirdly, we will look at participation of Mãori and Pacific children in early childhood education. Mãori and Pacific children probably benefit most from quality ECE but are less likely to attend. I’m sure we can apply the lessons from how successful health services connect with families and children to improve attendance at ECE for all children.

Finally, the office will continue its work monitoring Child, Youth and Family and I will continue my work on how health and CYF work together for the most vulnerable children. We monitor all nine CYF residences and up to 12 CYF sites a year and report our findings to Minister Paula Bennett. I have been pleased to see the high standard of care and protection in social work across New Zealand and the extraordinary goodwill from communities towards CYF. There is work to do to improve practice, but by and large I am confident that the children who are in trouble get a good service from CYF.

Challenges ahead

As a society we have some major issues to deal with. We continue to tolerate violence towards women and children to a shocking degree. The It’s Not OK campaign and the Repeal of Section 59 (the smacking law) have certainly helped. There are many more parents self-referring to parenting programmes and men self-referring to domestic violence programmes. However, we each need to take personal responsibility and not condone violence towards women and children of any kind.

There is no question that there are children going hungry in NZ in 2012. Often these children also lack warm clothing, wet weather gear and school books. Good parents who love their children and spend their pennies wisely still struggle to put three meals on the table per day and to provide the basics. We need to find better ways to meet the needs of these children and families.

And finally, our education system fails many Mãori and Pacific children. They arrive at school more likely to have not attended early childhood education and are more likely to fail in school. While there are some exceptional schools who get amazing results for Mãori and Pacific children, too many leave school with no qualifications. Now that the furore over class sizes has settled, I hope that we can have an honest conversation about how schools engage with these children and share the brilliant innovations that exist in some schools.

Recently in clinic I saw a family of children who had been taken in by their grandparents after their parents failed them. There are thousands of grandparents, other family and caregivers raising such children in New Zealand. They do this for love, not money, and do a terrific job. The children have often arrived in care profoundly damaged and heal with the love and attention these amazing people provide. How the school, child mental health and social services work together to support these children and their caregivers will be key to whether the children thrive.

There are nearly 5,000 children in state care in NZ at any one time and if I have a hope at the end of my first year in this role, it is that all children in state care would have the love and support they need, and an intelligent and joined-up response from the professionals who should be supporting the caregivers of children in care.

So, the first eleven months have been a steep learning curve and a thoroughly enjoyable one. I am looking forward to the next four years.

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