On Wednesday, Children’s Commissioner Dr Russell Wills (until his recent appointment, Head of Paediatrics at the Hawke’s Bay DHB, where he still practices part-time) made a sobering presentation to the DHB Board regarding the critical importance of positive interventions in the first five years of each child’s life.

However measured — long term physical and mental health, pro-social behavior, academic achievement — the evidence Dr Wills cited is stark and compelling. If children are poorly looked after in those super-critical first five years, their well-being will be seriously impaired as they progress through life … in extreme cases, irreversibly. And on many of the relevant measures, Hawke’s Bay sits among the worst five region’s in New Zealand.

He gave the example of a bottom-decile school here in Hawke’s Bay where fully one-third of the youngest children are already hearing-impaired to the point where they can’t even hear their teachers speaking in normal conversational tone … let alone learn from them.

Yet as strong as the evidence is, New Zealand (like other OECD countries) makes the least financial investment in child welfare during those first five years, as compared to later developmental periods.

But Government money isn’t the only issue. Everything from being raised in fundamentally dysfunctional ‘family’ environments to counter-productive privacy regulations conspire against the most vulnerable children.

Dr Wills was echoing themes presented in the Green Paper for Vulnerable Children, a discussion paper also released yesterday, by Social Development Minister Paula Bennett. I urge you to read it, think about it, discuss it with others, and make your views known. Hopefully it represents more than election year posturing.

The aspirational theme of the Green Paper is: Every child thrives, belongs, achieves.


However, achieving that goal will be a supreme challenge for a nation that gets its knickers in a knot over anti-smacking legislation and can’t face up to its drinking problems (at least not until after the Rugby World Cup).

The simple fact is, vulnerable children don’t deserve the incompetent, addicted, abusive parents too many of them are stuck with. But prudent intervention in private ‘family’ life carries perhaps insuperable ‘nanny state’ political taboo … unhappily for the victims, and ultimately at enormous cost — economic and social — to society at large.

Tom Belford

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