Not enough love for CYFs kids


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My home, Tikipunga is certainly one of the rougher neighbourhoods in Whangarei. It borders perhaps the poorest enclave of this depressed town, Otangarei, a suburb said to be run by gangs and where no business can operate without paying “tax.”

Two welfare homes for children are run by CYFs in Tikipunga. They’re big residential homes where caregivers come in and live. They’re usually paid poorly, but in Whangarei, jobs are hard to find. And while many caregivers approach their work with compassion and altruism, there are those who desperately need the work, despite being ill-equipped to handle their often damaged and disturbed charges. And then, of course, there are those who see these inadequately supervised jobs and as an opportunity to predate on the poor children they’re paid to care for.

Running a system that allows this to happen has meant that CYFs has been operating in a state of post traumatic stress disorder for decades. Without adequate funding to ensure the well-being of their child-prisoners, the government agency’s responses come in the form of utter neglect or massive over-reaction.

In a three year period, two such cases have emerged from these “homes” located in my suburb. The first involved a lovely, altruistic, kind and gentle woman. Her evident warmth did not influence my critical eye which knows that this is how most abusers seem. Even so, she was educated and highly employable. It seemed more likely that she was doing this work for good reasons rather than taking a pay cut so she could be violent to children.

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The allegations of physical violence against a number of children were astonishing. A child, shaken from a tree, falling and breaking her arm. Others forced to sleep outside in a treehouse, despite the frost. Beatings with bruises that were never seen despite school swimming and visits to the doctor for unrelated issues.

The next also involved allegations of violence, but included a rape. Then another complainant came forward alleging rape. The first complainant was reinterviewed and more charges emerged. His vehement denials were supported by the fact that there had been no action from CYFs, despite evident dysfunction within the facility.

Both these people went to trial and both gave evidence. The man accused of raping and beating the children wasn’t believed and was given 14 years’ jail. The woman accused of beating, bruising and breaking the children was acquitted.

As I hide in the dark, rubbing the fur off my poor cats and dog, I wonder how I can feel sorry for myself, suffering the awful task of cross-examining these poor children. Having been there, abused while in care as a youngster, there’s no doubt that this kind of work is challenging for me. Going to work in the morning, knowing that I am going to hurt children by cross-examining them and challenging their honesty, isn’t for everyone. It’s a very dark place for all who venture there.

There is no black-box to record the events and their sequence in these disasters, but poor pay and a lack of oversight are evident in them all. A lot more care and compassion is required and Minister Tolley’s statement that she doesn’t want to “fall into the trap of throwing more money” at CYFs beggars belief. Better support is clearly needed and better pay will attract higher quality caregivers.

Meanwhile, the cross-examination of children, for a change, became a pleasure in the case where the woman was acquitted. Despite the almost unimaginable bleakness of this task, these kids’ eyes still had a sparkle in them as I gently built rapport, talking about their whanau and the trip to court. Their stories, perhaps concocted out of a desperate effort to be noticed and loved were clearly dubious. One laughed when she agreed that she hadn’t been made to stay overnight in the tree hut. “And I didn’t really get shaken out of the tree and break my arm either.”

And as these words were uttered, tears fell from the eyes of a good woman who sat in the dock, a prison guard at her side. Despite her compassion for these children, there just wasn’t enough of her to go around to give them the love they not only needed but had been starved of. The love that CYFs continues to starve these kids of by inadequately funding the service.

And while there wasn’t enough to go around while she worked in the home, now there wasn’t enough left of her to go on. She cried again when I sat on the deck having a drink nearby home. She thanked me for the job, but I pointed out that bullshit stories rarely fly in court and, in the end, the process served her well. The laugh and the sob combined. She didn’t see it that way. A lack of support and shoddy investigation had all but broken her. She’d never do that kind of work again.

The children of Tikipunga were poorer in so many ways afterwards, particularly those who went on to give evidence in the trial of the caregiver who was found guilty of rape.


  1. Thank you Kelly for the real story and your understanding of how the system and the children are. Poverty is the thing that destroys people and this government has a lot to spread around

  2. Great article also exposing the dichotomy of inappropriate responses. Nothing or Overreaction – both toxic to the system.

    CYPS needs help. I remember seeing a news article on a CYPS girl who murdered her boyfriends mother by setting the house on fire.

    Apparently she was being ‘supervised’ by a worker who was babysitting her kids or something at the time and her whole care was a shambles all at some extraordinary cost of hundreds of thousands per child.

    The first things, is that any CYPS worker should be 100% qualified and also paid well. It is clearly not easy work. Paying qualified social workers properly is obviously better than unqualified people babysitting which somehow costs hundreds of thousands while the children are turning into criminals and clearly not getting the help they need.

    Secondly I was talking to someone who is fostering a child. They get some pittance for their troubles (maybe $200 per week for looking after the very difficult child), while the child has generated $500,000 in legal costs the previous year.

    So the main caregiver is given very little funds to turn the kids life around but the legal system is rolling in funding over the parents rights etc.

    Did not seem right.

  3. The picture says it all,

    “look now at the camera – snap! – we now have two smiling assassins”

  4. The organisation is CYF – Child, Youth & Family. Yes there are issues but the organisation is already implementing a range of initiatives that will address these. The biggest issues lie in transitioning young people back to the community from care when they reach the age where CYF’s responsibility legally (and that means in terms of financial support) ends. Some young people are transitioned well, but these are usually those who have been in stable longer term placements and the real issues lie with more challenging young people who, due to their sometimes extreme behaviour, end up moving through multiple placements in their time in care.

  5. It’s a crying shame isn’t it? There are no winners here.

    By the time a child gets to CYPS it’s mostly already too late. Any Minister put in charge of this mess is on a hiding to nothing. I understand Tolley’s point of view – throwing more money at this ‘ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’ isn’t going to solve anything.

    If we’re really interested in reducing this problem we need to get to grips with the root causes of it.

    Read this and tell me it’s all about poverty:

    “The woman allegedly blew more than 1000 micrograms of alcohol per litre of breath – four times the new legal limit of 250mcg.

    She was driving three of her own children, and a god-daughter, Duffy said. Police had referred the children to Child, Youth and Family welfare services.”

    Yeah, like that’s going to solve the problem!

  6. Thanks Kelly for your article, it is extraordinary to me also that the caregivers aren’t trained and supported much, or paid very well to do what is the most important job for the child/young person who is going thru a traumatic event. This issue has gone on for years, and the system spends a lot of money on legal bills and sometimes incarceration of abusers, yet the victims funding is cut short, apparently because of the first two. The victim/s should be the ones getting the most support and great treatment to help them recover and get on with the rest of their lives…surely!

  7. A good article Kelly.

    And in less than ten posts on a left wing blog we’ve already got a neolib crawling out of the woodwork.

    Yes, you really do have to wonder where all the compassion has gone…

  8. Up until recently, I always stuck up for CYF. They have an incredibly difficult job. Every decision they make is a judgement call, based on imperfect information, which in the worst case scenario could lead to a child’s death. It’s hardly surprising that sometimes they’re over-cautious, sometimes not cautious enough, I thought.

    Then some friends of mine were unfortunate enough to come to the attention of CYF, and investigated as possible child abusers. They were treated horrifically. The police investigation found no evidence to justify even pressing charges, and the case never went before the family court. When family members were able to speak to the Pediatrician, whose report was being used by CYF as justification for their involvement, it turned out she wasn’t informed about at least one accident the parents had openly described to the CYF social workers, which could explain one of the two medical observations being interpreted as evidence for abuse, and she admitted the other piece of “evidence” was just as likely to have been caused by the baby’s difficult birth as by abuse.

    Despite all this, my friends are still being treated as guilty until proven innocent, with their parenting subject to demeaning rules and invasive supervision.

    This is all thanks to new mandatory reporting rules, which mean that every little cut and bruise a child gets now has to be reported to CYF by people like Plunket Nurses. This may shake out a few cases of genuine abuse that might otherwise have gone unnoticed, but it also risks putting hundreds of normal, loving parents through the same Kafkaesque horror as my friends. Worse, however big a fleet of ambulances you park at the bottom of the cliff, it does nothing to help us understand why children are falling off the cliff, or how to prevent this. Surely this is the area where investigative resources really need to be focused?

    Further reading about the way CYF is organised reveals that their social workers are reviewed by in-house review bodies that can, and have been, fired by the manager of the office whose practice they are supposed to be reviewing. This means there is no genuinely independent oversight of CYF social work practice, including, presumably, the residential care homes Kelly describes in her piece. If I was Tolley, this would be the first thing I’d fix.

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