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 M?ori 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