Ministry for Vulnerable Children? How about Kids with Shit Parents?

Don’t call New Zealand’s rebranded government agency the Ministry for Vulnerable Children. Don’t label our kids. It’s not helpful. Here’s why.

Like any clinical psychologist, I see daily the impact of negative childhood labels on adults. Beliefs they picked up as kids: I’m stupid; I’m fat; I’m ugly; I’m unlovable have a nasty habit of sticking around. And it becomes a huge job to shift them.

The point is, language matters. The tag you assign to someone, the way you address them, all becomes part of the feedback they take from the world. It can dictate who they become.

When I became a psychologist one of my first clients, 14-year-old “Coral” told me she had “A Low Self Esteem”. She said brightly it as though it was a body part, like a heart, not something she could change.

Her brother had given her that label (naturally, he had A High Self Esteem); he had used it to control and manipulate her.

CYF got her away from her brother but she could not shake the belief that she was unworthy.

A couple of years later she had a baby of her own; her eyes were vacant, dead. Of course, the label was not the critical factor, but I have never forgotten how she clung to it, and how helpless she was in the face of it.

Politicians who support the name change from Child, Youth and Family to the Ministry for Vulnerable Children, have the right intent. It’s good to speak the truth: New Zealand has a shameful societal problem, the fifth worst child abuse record out of 31 OECD Countries.

* On average one child is killed every five weeks.

* Most of these children are under-five and the largest group is less than a year old.

* Ninety percent of all child deaths are perpetrated by someone the child knew.

* Nearly 9000 children per year are born “at risk” (1 in every 30).

Child abuse costs New Zealand around $2 billion a year.

It’s deeply shameful. 

So our kids ARE vulnerable. They just don’t need to be told so by the well-meaning middle class who don’t  – can’t  - see life through the same lens. They don’t need to be labelled in every mail out, in every piece of correspondence, in every news story, by every social worker who turns up at the door.

They don’t need an emotional adjective slung into the name of the Ministry that serves them. Especially when it positions it in a negative, unhelpful way.

I mean, would we be okay with the Ministry of the Endangered Environment? Or the Ministry of Punitive Justice? Or the Ministry of Sickness and Disease?

Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft has said he doesn’t like the name Ministry for Vulnerable Children, instead he’ll call it by its Māori name Oranga Tamariki  – which means well-being of children, and puts a different, positive spin on the agency.

He, and many others, say it’s more about the substance of the organisation than the name, and that’s true.

A world-class statutory intervention system would be amazing, if hard to imagine from where we sit now. Let’s face it, even a decline in our abuse and violence statistics would be a start.

But let’s not kid ourselves that the organisation’s name is secondary. The name matters because it conveys the vision of the system we want to create; it raises our sights.

I’m all for it as long as they also rename the IRD to Ministry of taking your money against your will.


– Karen Nimmo, On the Couch

  • Crowgirl

    So bearing the Maori name in mind, it sounds like Ministry for the Wellbeing of Children would be a better choice. Perhaps they should revisit this decision. Regardless of what you call it, they’re still going to target the same pool of kids though.

  • Second time around

    Many government agencies work for only limited segments of our society, IRD for the rich pricks, Corrections for poorer, tertiary education for nerdy children, and so on, without feeling the need to put the expected segment in the name. The new children’s ministry will help any child that needs it, not just those children who have a statistically greater chance of coming to harm. “Wellbeing” fits the bill without prejudging the children who will be helped by the service.

  • Backdoor

    The problem with the current name is that it puts too much emphasis on the word “family”. Our learned judges appear to include parents within that term. How many times have I been in the Family Court when the social worker, and Council for Child, are advocating making permanent orders removing the children from the parents. This has been after years of intervention by the social workers. The judge will procrastinate and require the children’s lives to be put on hold for another six or twelve months, just to allow the parents to make changes in their behavior.

    In the last case I was involved in, the parents promised the judge that they would turn their laves around, then went out and got drunk again.

    • DeplorablePersonOfColor:WHITE

      If they have ended up in court surely they have demonstrated their failure already?

      • Backdoor

        Unfortunately not, in the case above the children had been “in care” for four years. That would mean at least three more times in front of the judge prior to that sitting. That does not include the original court hearing when CYFS applied for custody. And people wonder why social workers get frustrated.

        • DeplorablePersonOfColor:WHITE

          If anyone else placed these children at similar risk they would likely end up facing from the other side of the bench.

  • jaundiced

    The new name is just awful. I wouldn’t want to work for it, or approach it for help.
    A name needs to capture its purpose. The officials who came up with this will argue that of course its focus is on ‘vulnerable’ children. But its purpose is aspirational – to give all kids the best chance they have for a happy and prosperous life.
    ‘Ministry for Children’. That says all it needs to say. .

  • In Vino Veritas

    Well meaning middle class? Sorry, but the middle class don’t “label”, they know exactly what is happening and don’t sugar coat it. Its leftist lovvies who “label”, and in particular the Labour Party. And of course they do not call the dud parents “shit” parents, after all, why would they alienate their own voters?

  • LovetoTeach

    The name clearly identifies the purpose and for that reason I am happy with it.

  • Rick H

    What exactly does “vulnerable” mean?

    The word, to me, immediately gives me a picture of a motorcycle racer with no helmet or leathers.
    A Hiker out in the wintry snowy wilderness with no warm clothing.
    Both of these ideas, are the fault of the person doing the stuff. They leave themselves in a defenceless situation.

    To name innocent, needy children “vulnerable”, casts some of the fault on the children.
    Purposely annoying their drunk parents, and then receiving the “bash”; when if they acted differently, they would not be harmed.
    No, the word is definitely an unsuitable one to use for the “renaming” of CYF.

    How about something like “Child Protective Services”?
    It is pretty-much-always the children needing protection from those that should be doing the protecting.