Down in Christchurch, for the last 20 years, the Family Help Trust has beavered away creating one of the best early childhood intervention programmes in the country, creating futures for families that the statistics would normally be first to write off.
They are doing God’s work. If anyone should thrive under Whanau Ora, it’s committed, innovative, independent organisations like this which have survived more in spite than because of government efforts in the same fields.
The Trust’s focus has been ruthless, which is a big part of why it’s been effective. It will help no child older than five, but it likes to get hold of them before they’re born – their mothers and fathers self-identifying for their poverty, drug or alcohol abuse, criminality, family violence, and social isolation.
They have often decided against applying for government funding when the guidelines would have required them to change what they were proving worked best.
For those first five years of the infant’s life, the Family Help Trust wraps itself around this family unit, treating the infant rather than the parents as its client, and all the influences on the infant as its job to help the parents cope with.
Its success is measured on simple, effective things like reduced rates of smoking in the home, increased involvement of neighbours and wider family members, and on the big issues like reduced family violence, addiction, and criminal recidivism.
In its latest university-backed study, the Family Help Trust was able to prove it has lowered rates of family violence from 40.5% to 6.8% among client families. High levels of reoprted “partner psychological abuse” have also plummeted. The Family First crowd mightn’t like it, but this is happening partly because Trust, among other things, gives the abused adult in a violent relationship the confidence to leave and improve their lot.
The result? Far less violence towards the children of a violent parent as well. Fewer Bailey Kurarikis out the other end. Fewer prisons too, that wasteful expense being dollied up now as a public-private partnership investment opportunity for rental property investors nervously looking for new places to park their money.
About half the Trust’s clients are Maori children, and they have Maori among their staff who have been encouraged to develop a “kaupapa Maori” approach to their services for years. They are not, however, a Maori organisation.
Recently, glacial changes in public funding have delivered a small but important stream of funds from Child, Youth and Family.
That has only come because the Trust, led by the indomitable and visionary Libby Robins, had to go out and find funding for an academically rigorous epidemiological study to prove it was doing anything right before any government agency would fund anything it did.
Ignore for a moment the fact that such a rigorous focus on actual achievements for society’s most vulnerable families has never previously been required of early intervention programmes run by government agencies themselves – amazing as that may seem.
Indeed, one of the best things about the Whanau Ora policy released this week is that – if it works properly – caring about the outcomes will be the absolute primary focus of any funding awarded.
No wonder Finance Bill English thinks Whanau Ora can be funded from current budgets rather than needing new ones. If Whanau Ora works, it should lead to a dramatic cut in wasted funds on current programmes that we know, without a university study to prove it, don’t work as well as they need to.
For English, this is an exciting opportunity. He is doing this as a National Party Minister. He knows if the policy was Labour’s, it might be deemed something like “radical communitarianism”. Under a National-led government, it risks being slagged as no more than “reform”. Such was English’s experience with similar experiments in health reform when he was a Minister in the 1990′s Bolger Government.
And that’s where the Maori Party is useful, because if there’s one thing the Nats and the Maoris jointly believe, it’s the importance of a spot of tino rangatiratanga on the home front. What greater unit of self-determination could there be than the family as a building block of society?
So the Family Help Trust, and a myriad of other, dedicated, non-government agencies living the same experience all over the country – may Maori, many not – should take heart from the intent of this week’s Whanau Ora policy announcements.
The proof, however, will be in whether they benefit, and especially whether merit rather than ethnicity will really win out where the dead hand of bureaucracy has previously been a barrier to success. And if the Family Help Trust does not benefit, how could we not say that the Maori children and families that the Family Help Trust saves have not been the subject of discrimination?