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A resistance to measurement
Last month the Minister of Social Development Anne Tolley announced a decrease in New Zealand's child abuse rates of 12%. This was based on Child, Youth and Family figures, which showed that during the year to June 2014, 16,289 children had 19,623 findings of abuse substantiated compared to 18,595 children with 22,984 findings of abuse in the previous year. In an interview with Radio New Zealand, Children's Commissioner Russell Wills went on to explain that the reason the figures appear to represent a decrease in child abuse, could be partially explained by new Police referral procedures. Rather than reporting low-level cases to Child, Youth and Family, Police will refer these families to community agencies.
Measuring national child abuse rates is notoriously difficult. We know, for example, to expect a spike in reporting whenever there has been any public education about child abuse. The increase in numbers then becomes a good thing evidencing greater public awareness, and preparedness to report. Conversely, the rates reduce when the publicity quietens down. Child, Youth and Family processes also play a role, because the criteria they apply when they decide whether or not to investigate cases is in a constant state of flux. The most reliable indicator we currently have is child mortality data. If the number of children dying through maltreatment reduces, we can assume that overall, rates of child abuse are also coming down.
Other areas of public health are subject to more stringent measurement. Smoking for example, a significant public health issue with attendant government resourcing, is regularly tracked. We know that Maori smoking rates, previously the highest in the world, have reduced hugely over the last 30 years and now track well below 50%. You will find similar data about road traffic fatalities, another priority issue for government, with serious government money invested in public education about road traffic safety. Measurement is central to evaluating the value of the government's investment.
The question then is how come we don't have a more sophisticated measurement of child abuse? There's a host of data that shows New Zealand's investment in children, compared to other developed countries, is poor, and the paucity of decent and local data about kids is yet another symptom of the problem. After all the publicity in recent years about child abuse, you would think we'd have developed some measures so we can track progress over time.
Along with Otago University, and the J R McKenzie Trust, the Children's Commissioner Russell Wills has shown considerable leadership in the measurement space by publishing the annual Child Poverty Monitor. The Monitor, which provides an annual overview of our rates of child poverty, is essentially a communications exercise, raising awareness of our unacceptably high rates of child poverty, and keeping the issue on the agenda of public debate. What should be measured and how has been debated and carefully and thought through by teams of experts. It is a clever model because the apparatus sits outside government; it isn't subject to political influence. In a detached, objective way it provides commentary on public policy – simply by presenting the numbers. If we are serious about addressing our appallingly high rates of child abuse, developing a similar tool to track rates of child maltreatment would be a good thing.