7 Jul 2018

Judge Andrew Becroft - Children's Commissioner marks two years in the role

From Saturday Morning, 8:09 am on 7 July 2018

With Child Youth and Family becoming Oranga Tamariki, and with child poverty looming as a political football of growing concern, Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft hopes to stay on in the job with expanded powers following a review.

Judge Andrew Becroft

Judge Andrew Becroft Photo: supplied

He tells Saturday Morning's Kim Hill the review is looking into the complaints investigation and monitoring system, and he thinks it will lead to the role of the office being reworked.

"There are 1.1 million under-18-year-olds in New Zealand - that's the group that we advocate, watch over for, and analyse the welfare and interests of - that's 24 percent of the population.

"It's a massive group, and in fact the legal mandate that's set out for the office is equally massive. We have to prioritise and focus and that's the way forward."

He's been in the role for two years now, and says the office has nowhere near the resources it needs to fulfil its mandate.

"You could take British Columbia. Same sort of law, same population, we get $3 million, they get $10m, [they get] 70 staff, we get 20 staff.

"Half of our statutory role is monitoring Oranga Tamariki, particularly children in Oranga Tam care. That's a huge group of children, about 6200. We monitor particularly those in residential custodial lock-and-key care."

He says the ministry does monitor the children, but he thinks there needs to be an independent watchdog.

"... that goes in and calls it as they see it and reports to the government and the community, most other countries do that."

Child poverty

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Photo: 123rf

Judge Becroft says the passage of the child poverty reduction bill, and faithful adherence to it, could have enormous benefits for New Zealand.

"Better health, better attendance at school, better performance at school, less involvement with the criminal justice system. The downstream effects ought to be - untested but ought to be - enormous."

He says there now are measures for child poverty, and that's a step forward.

"We largely know who and where they are, we just have to make sure we make sure that we lift them out of that position.

"There are two types of measurements, one's to do with the income in the family where the child resides, one's to do with actual lack of agreed necessities of life. There are measurements in both those areas."

He's optimistic too about the prospects of a political solution to a problem the country has been facing for 30 years.

"[It happened] pretty quickly, hasn't changed much, we dropped the ball. Within 10 years or so we could halve the problem.

"Who would have thought 18 months ago that we'd have child poverty reduction legislation, that we'd have measurements in place and that we'd have targets.

"I think it could be truly cross-party, we've got two new generational leaders. They have it in their power to forge a non-political agreement that could put the platform in place for lifting children's conditions significantly for the next 20 years or so.

Defying the naysayers

A mattress in the back of a station wagon at night to illustrate people sleeping in cars or vans.

Photo: 123RF

He says he knows the difference between child poverty and child neglect, and New Zealand is affected by child poverty.

"When I visit, as I did recently, an organisation in South Auckland, met a mum by herself who lived on the back of her dad's property in a hastily constructed shed with no lining, with her two kids aged five and three, with condensation on the inside, 11 or 12 degrees at night temperature, her five-year-old boy regularly to the doctor.

"It may not be the abject poverty of the Ganges delta, let's say, but in New Zealand terms it's real and it's significant and it genuinely affects children."

He says he's regularly spoken to children as part of his role, and children know the basic things they need.

"If you ask them [children] what wellbeing is, they immediately say 'a good warm home, parents that love us and put us first, good friends, knowing our own culture, identity and language."

"They find that - as Māori or Pasifika children - [it's] tough at school because before they even walk in the door just about, they're being seen as a statistic that might fail.

"They used the word when we asked them: Racism. They said that was an issue for them at school."

He says child poverty is not a matter of parents making bad decisions, either.

"I think we need to accept that when people are stretched and in crisis and really struggling, decision making is tough, and difficult, and at times bad decisions are made.

"The bottom line is children: children aren't the reason that has happened, they're not the cause of it.

"Our vision is that every child has equity of opportunity and flourishes and thrives. Simply throwing stones from a position of comfort ... isn't going to advance the debate at all.

"If we're not going to use stats and that won't prove to people, and we're not going to use anecdotes and that won't convince people, well, getting involved in our local communities and being involved in the solution I think would.

"There are community groups all over New Zealand in those communities that would bust a gut to get those people who are criticising to say, 'come in and help and assist'."

 In 2010 Judge Becroft was the recipient of a Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Auckland.

As Principal Youth Court Judge he was strongly committed to a specialist approach to dealing with youth and child offenders, and brings to the Commissioners' role a particular focus on teenagers and adolescent development generally.

Judge Becroft's brief is to be the advocate for New Zealand's 1.12 million under 18-year-olds.