Grandparents are unrecognised victims of the P crisis – we need to support them

by The Listener / 25 May, 2017

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To say we have a P epidemic seriously understates our methamphetamine situation. It’s the ultimate time bomb, with an ability to reach backwards as well as forwards in ruining the lives of three generations at once.

That’s because those addicted to this pernicious drug very often have children, who very often fall into the care of their grandparents – ready or not.

Methamphetamine is not the only cause of this social dislocation, but it’s been the fastest-growing and most acutely disruptive one.

This has largely been a hidden problem, as grandparents have tended to struggle on in silence out of love and duty. Finally, thanks in large measure to campaigning senior carer Diane Vivian, officials are recognising the need for help. That 17,000 children and nearly 10,000 grandparents are affected at any given time shows there’s chronic social dislocation.

It’s now the norm, rather than a begrudged dispensation by Work and Income, that grandparent carers receive the Unsupported Child’s Benefit for each child and associated lump-sum grants for schooling, bedding and the like. But the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Trust, which Vivian founded, says many grandparents are still arbitrarily denied any assistance by ignorant or obstructive local Winz officials. And what should surely be a vital accompanying free social support, that of counselling for the children – and possibly the grandparents – is rarely provided at all.

By definition, this is practically always an emergency situation, and generally the children have already suffered some trauma by the time the grandparents take them in. If it’s not P addiction, it’s alcohol, crime or severe ill health that has rendered a parent or parents incapable of raising their children.

Such children are surely the very definition of vulnerable and should automatically trigger a Family Group Conference process to tailor counselling and health and developmental checks. This hardly ever happens, yet of those caregivers surveyed in a Grandparents Raising Grandchildren’s study survey released last year, 41% said their grandchildren had exhibited attachment disorder, violent behaviour or other serious emotional problems.

On compassionate grounds alone, wraparound services for such children should be automatic. On financial cost grounds, it’s a no-brainer. Untreated trauma sets children up for grim, impoverished futures.

There’s also the toll on grandparents. Statistically likely to suffer poor health and be on modest fixed incomes, many are ill-equipped to take on troubled children. Yet for years they’ve been treated appallingly, the welfare system all but deaf to their needs.

Now 70% are receiving the Unsupported Child’s Benefit, but it’s a lingering iniquity that Winz first requires proof that the parent-child relationship has broken down irretrievably and that the grandparents will have to care for the children for at least a year. Both can be hard to document, especially if the family has not already come to the notice of social workers or agencies. The state’s response should surely be to support the grandparent carers for as long as they have custody.

As for methamphetamine addiction, enlightenment may be dawning in some official circles, if not all. From mid-year, police in Northland will prioritise treatment over arrest and prosecution – in partnership with health officials, who are gearing up treatment services accordingly. Together they have put $3 million into extra police numbers and addiction facilities.

Police are unequivocal that P addiction is central to the district’s out-of-kilter crime rate. Health services see the effects, too, in violent and irrational patients. They’ve decided punishment for possessing and pushing the drug needs to take second place to getting those addicted off it.

The idyll of eradicating P supply has proved an illusion. With the drug selling for $700,000 and more a kilogram, it’s been worthwhile for rival gangs to team up to retrieve seagoing floating bags dispatched from China complete with navigational apparatus. The bonanza is now ironically rebounding, with gang leaders recently asking the Government for help in getting addiction treatment for their members. This request was bounced tartly by Police Minister Paula Bennett, who said she’d consider it once the gangs stopped making money from P.

But Far North police area commander Riki Whiu says his staff are enthusiastic about any community-led initiative to get people off the drug, adding, “We can’t afford to take our foot off this ngangara [demon].”

This article was first published in the June 3, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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