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The recent "Seminar on Children's Policy" had the central objective of launching the development of a New Zealand children's policy and research agenda. This paper outlines some of the ideas and issues that have been raised as relevant to the development of a children's research agenda and discusses some points of debate. It draws on one of the papers presented to the Seminar, as well as on comments by Seminar participants. The paper: presents a stocktake of contemporary, policy-focused, children's research in New Zealand; discusses the main aspects of the dialogue to date on future directions for children's research; and identifies key gaps in children's research in specific areas. It is intended as a resource in the ongoing debate on the future direction of children's research in New Zealand.


This paper builds on a briefing paper presented by the Ministry of Social Policy to the Seminar on Children's Policy in July 2000.

The Seminar, a Government initiative, had one of its roots in issues surrounding New Zealand's compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC). In its 1997 response to New Zealand's first report on its compliance with UNCROC, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended that New Zealand develop a comprehensive policy statement with regards to the rights of the child.

The suggestion of holding a seminar on children's policy initially emerged from the Labour Party's 1999 policy statement on a children's agenda. In this, Labour indicated plans to undertake a national conference on children's policy, and to ensure that community and sector groups were involved in ongoing policy development in relation to children. The Alliance Party's 1999 policy statement also indicated that meeting the needs of children and young people was a high priority.

Accordingly, the Seminar on Children's Policy undertook to launch the development of a New Zealand children's policy and research agenda, and to begin the process of obtaining advice and input from those working in the area. The Seminar brought together individuals and organisations concerned with children's issues, including around 30 from the government and public sector, and a further 40 from non-governmental groups and organisations. A range of government agencies presented discussion papers on their planned and present work programmes relating to children. Participants at the Seminar were asked to discuss key issues for children and ongoing implications of UNCROC.

"A Research Agenda for Children for the Next Five Years" -- the Seminar briefing paper prepared by the Ministry of Social Policy -- was produced through a process of surveying researchers and organisations known to be working on policy-relevant child research. These included: government agencies; funding bodies such as the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology and the Health Research Council of New Zealand; organisations involved in research on children's issues, such as the Children's Issues Centre of the University of Otago, the Centre for Child and Family Policy Research of the University of Auckland, and the New Zealand Council for Educational Research; and a number of individuals working in the field of research on children.

Those surveyed were asked to describe all the research in which they were involved which met the criteria of being: policy-related research; on children from birth to 17 years of age; and focused on outcomes for children and the factors that influence outcomes for children. Respondents could be undertaking the research themselves, or could be funders. All research recently completed, currently underway, or being planned, was considered within the ambit of the stocktake.

The results from this initial survey were written up into a stocktake paper. The stocktake paper was then distributed back to the respondents, as well as to policy people in relevant government agencies, and all were asked for feedback on what the gaps in research appeared to be, and what possible future directions of children's research might be or ought to be. From these two survey stages, the paper presented to the Seminar was created; it contained a stocktake of policy-focused child research, and a discussion on gaps in research and future directions.

Developing a Research Agenda for Children for the Next Five Years

The Seminar on Children's Policy was the first major step in developing an agenda for children's policy and research. The information obtained from the Seminar is one of the main inputs into the development of a draft agenda, which will become the focus of a wide consultation process. The completed agenda is expected to provide a framework for and inform policy development and research relating to children across government agencies for the next five years.

This paper aims to be a resource in the ongoing discussion around the development of a child research agenda. It does not make any definitive statements on what a research agenda should look like, or on what research priorities in the next five years should be; these matters are part of the ongoing process of consultation for developing the research agenda. Rather, this paper gives information on contemporary policy-focused child research in New Zealand, catalogues some of the ideas and issues that have been raised as relevant to the future direction of children's research, and outlines some of the points of debate. It draws on two sources: the paper presented by the Ministry of Social Policy to the Seminar on Children's Policy and discussions by Seminar participants on child research issues.

This paper has three main sections: a stocktake of contemporary policy-focused children's research in New Zealand; an outline and discussion of the main aspects of the debate to date on future directions for children's research; and details of some key gaps in research in specific subject areas.


Contemporary policy-focused child research encompasses a wide range of topics, methods and conceptualisations of the research task.

The research projects canvassed here tend to have one of two approaches to conceptualising and analysing "child outcomes". One approach, taken by many projects, is to focus on a particular milestone or indicator during childhood, with the research concern being to determine what comes "before" the milestone or indicator, i.e. what feeds into creating it. In this approach, the milestone or indicator in question is assumed a priori to be important to child development. So, for example, one might look at educational achievement at age 12, and what it is that affects the level of educational achievement at age 12. This type of analysis is used by many discrete projects within specific subject areas.

The other approach to conceptualising and analysing "child outcomes" does not focus on individual milestones and indicators, and what comes before them. Rather, it looks at a variety of milestones and indicators and how they all combine to create what comes "after" them -- the grand picture of a child's development into an adult. Such research aims to determine how various indicators and milestones operate and interact, and their relative importance, in feeding into "overall" child development. Projects taking this approach tend to be larger in scale and are by necessity multi-faceted in their scope.

Contemporary child research involves a range of methods and approaches, including quantitative analysis of existing data, the development of new data through both large-scale and small-scale surveys, qualitative analysis using data obtained from interviews and focus groups, evaluations of existing programmes and practices, and literature reviews.

Some projects place a heavy emphasis on bringing children's voices and rights to the fore in the research process. Examples of these projects include: the "Youth First: Taking kids' talk seriously" project, led by a group from Auckland University; and "Construction of Children's Participation, Health, Safety and Recreational Rights at School", a project carried out at the Children's Issues Centre. Both are sponsored by the Marsden Fund.

This stocktake of children's research does not aim to be a comprehensive bibliography of all contemporary policy-focused child research. Rather, it outlines the "lay of the land", as it were, indicating the topics around which contemporary research efforts are clustered. Generally, specific project names and details are not given, with the exception of the major large-scale and multi-faceted projects.

Multi-faceted Research on the Resources, Environments and Factors Affecting Child Outcomes

A number of current child research projects aim to understand the overall picture of child development.

Two longitudinal studies begun in the 1970s -- the "Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study" and the "Christchurch Health and Development Study" -- have tracked cohorts of babies born, respectively, in Dunedin between April 1972 and March 1973 and in Christchurch in mid-1977. The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study had an initial sample size of 1,037 children; the subjects of this study are now 27-28 years old. The Christchurch Health and Development Study had an initial sample size of 1,265 children; the subjects of this study are now 23 years old. Both these studies began with a focus on health issues for young children, and have since developed into wider-ranging studies of factors affecting child development. This is particularly so for the Christchurch study, which has a strong focus on analysing family functioning.

A more recently begun longitudinal study is "Competent Children", undertaken by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research. This study began tracking a sample of 307 children at the age of five years, in 1993/94. An initial focus of this study was the effects on child development of the quality of early childhood education; the study also includes information on family factors and their influence on child outcomes.

Also recently begun is a pilot of a two-year longitudinal study of the factors that affect child development and family functioning among Pacific newborns -- "Pacific Island Families: The First Two Years of Life". This is being undertaken at the Auckland University of Technology. The study has a strong focus on health issues, and also aims to examine the effects of family, community and cultural factors on child development.

"Family Dynamics/Family Effectiveness" is a cross-sectoral programme of work being led by the Ministry of Social Policy, which aims to understand the dynamics contributing to good child outcomes, and to identify factors which enhance the effectiveness and resilience of families in fostering good child outcomes. It builds on a range of literature reviews and empirical work assessing the evidence on factors that are hypothesised to affect child outcomes. The work will focus specifically on the effects of family resources, peers and community, and family transitions, on outcomes for children.

"Healthy Whanau/Families -- What Makes the Difference?" is a joint project between the School of Social Policy and Social Work, Massey University, and Barnardos. Its brief overlaps with the "Family Dynamics/Family Effectiveness" programme of work, but focuses more on factors such as family interactions, coping styles, internal and external stressors, and social support, as well as considering physical and structural resources and factors.

"Health Indicators for Children and Young People" is based at Massey University and funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand. This project concentrates on developing measurements of the health and well-being of children and families, which can be used to compare populations and monitor their progress over time.

Finally, "Te Hoe Nuku Roa -- Maori Profiles" is a longitudinal study of Maori individuals and families. Te Hoe Nuku Roa began interviewing in the late 1990s, with an initial sample size of 665 households. Undertaken by a research team based at Massey University, this study examines a range of social, cultural and economic factors that impact on Maori individuals, families and households.


There are a number of large-scale surveys that aim to document child health status. One example is the "National Adolescent Health and Wellbeing Survey" which focuses on the health and well-being of adolescents; this is run by the Centre for Youth Health and funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand. Another example, currently in the planning stages, is the "National Child Nutrition Survey", being run from the Public Health Directorate at the Ministry of Health, with a collaborative research team involving Auckland University, Massey University, Otago University and Auckland University of Technology.

There are also a number of projects concentrating on the development of appropriate indicators to measure child health. An example is "Te Ahuatanga o Te Waiora Tamariki -- A Picture of Child Health" which looks at indicators for Maori children.

There is a range of specific health outcomes that are a focus of smaller-scale studies:

* a number of studies are examining the issue of suicide, focusing both on determining risk factors, and on ways to build resiliency and paths to well-being for children who have attempted suicide. Some research looks specifically at Maori and Pacific children;

* several research projects look at child and adolescent risk-taking behaviour, in particular use of drugs and alcohol among children, and the effects of this. Another aspect of risk-taking behaviour being studied is sexual behaviour among adolescents;

* mental health is the focus of several studies, largely concentrating on the factors that encourage positive mental health, with some research looking specifically at Pacific children;

* a number of studies examine child safety, with most concentrating on the prevention of unintentional injury, or on the outcomes of unintentional injury;

* a few studies are looking at use of health services. The research here concentrates on factors that affect use of child health services by parents, either in particular geographic areas, or for specific illnesses; and

* there is a wide range of research on specific illnesses and health problems and how they are best dealt with. This includes research on asthma, pneumonia, meningococcal disease, neonatal health (including low birth weight), and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. There is also some research on child mortality, with a focus on causes and preventability of child death, particularly Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

A range of research in the health area consists of evaluations of specific programmes designed to address health problems. Mirroring general child health research, most programmes currently or recently evaluated deal with mental health issues, alcohol or drug use, and child safety issues.


A major research project in the education field is the "Strategic Research Initiative", a range of literature reviews commissioned by the Ministry of Education to identify key factors in fostering student achievement and learning.

Other studies in the area of education focus on specific areas of interest:

* a number of studies are engaged in comparative analysis of levels of educational achievement. Research compares current levels of educational achievement in New Zealand to past levels of achievement and to international results, with Maori and Pacific children a particular focus;

* several research projects look at factors affecting educational achievement. Factors that are a particular focus in contemporary research are the role of gender and single sex schools in educational achievement, and the effect of the resources of families, communities and schools on educational achievement;

* literacy is an area of particular interest, with research on the factors related to literacy achievement. The literacy of Maori children is often a specific focus; and

* a number of projects aim to develop and evaluate good primary and secondary educational practices, including matters of learning processes, curriculum, pedagogy and the management of schools.

A range of research has been focused on the area of early childhood education. Specifically of interest here have been: participation in early childhood education, with Maori participation a particular concern; the transition to compulsory primary education; developing and evaluating good early childhood education and care practices; and providing data on parental use of early childhood education and care (as in the 1998 Childcare Survey).

A number of research projects in the education area consist of evaluations of specific programmes. This includes programmes designed to improve the educational achievement of disadvantaged students, improve literacy, and reduce suspensions.


As outlined above, many of the multi-faceted research projects have a focus on family factors. A number of other projects also consider family factors.

Topics being researched in relation to family income include the measurement of income levels of New Zealand families and the interrelationship in New Zealand between family income, particularly within socio-economically disadvantaged families, and child resilience factors.

A few projects look at housing-related topics -- the effects on families of inadequate housing, and of relocation from urban to rural areas.

In relation to family structure, the main topics currently being researched are: the effect of lone parenthood on child outcomes; child access arrangements following parental separation; and the interrelation between labour market changes and family form and function.

Finally, parenting practices -- including the broad range of factors that contribute to the parenting role and context, and more specific points of focus such as the fathering role, and adolescent parenting skills -- are being considered by a number of research projects.

Peers and Community Factors

There is a range of peer, community and neighbourhood factors that can have either a positive or a negative effect on child outcomes. These can affect child outcomes directly, or through their effect on the family.

Aside from work being done in the multi-facted research projects outlined above, very little recent or current research explicitly focuses on these factors in tandem with child outcomes. The Children's Issues Centre, with the Geography Department at Otago University, has done some work on how young people experience their community. There have also been some evaluations of programmes that provide a resource for young people in the community, such as the "Social Workers in Schools" pilot programme.

Child Protection

Current and recent research relating to child protection largely fails under the ambit of the Department of Child, Youth, and Family (CYF) and the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act. Much of this research aims to evaluate current programmes and procedures, in particular:

* evaluations of: different models of foster care arrangements; the effect of foster care arrangements on children in terms of the retention of family placement and child well-being; and outcomes of out-of-family compared to in-family care;

* factors affecting the success of transitions from foster care to independence;

* evaluations of other CYF interventions, such as care and protection family group conferences, and CYF funded or co-funded programmes such as the Youth Horizon trust and Family Start;

* evaluation of Iwi Social Services;

* evaluations of CYF processes of notification, from both Police and other sources; and

* evaluation of programmes and procedures for dealing with children involved in family violence.

There is also some current research on the participation of children in legal processes that concern them.

Youth Justice

Current and recent research relating to youth justice largely falls within the ambit of CYF and the Ministry of Justice. Much of this research aims to evaluate current programmes and procedures, including youth court supervision orders, Police youth aid diversionary practices, Maori community initiatives for youth at risk of offending, and youth justice family group conferences. There is also a more general project under way in the Institute of Criminology at Victoria University, funded cross-sectorally and coordinated by the Ministry of Social Policy, on "Achieving Effective Outcomes in Youth Justice".


This section on future research directions has been constructed from two main sources. Firstly, the Ministry of Social Policy paper presented to the Seminar on Children's Policy contained a section on future research directions, assembled from the feedback received from a variety of organisations and individuals, as outlined in the introduction to this paper. Secondly, the topic of future directions was discussed at the Seminar itself; this paper also draws on those discussions.

Some clear common concerns emerged, which can be broadly grouped into those addressing overarching issues for child research, and those considering gaps in specific subject areas. The first of these is addressed in this section.

Professor Ian Shirley, from the School of Social Policy and Social Work at Massey University, gave a commentary presentation at the Seminar on the Ministry of Social Policy paper "A Research Agenda for Children for the Next Five Years". Professor Shirley began by outlining the strengths of child research in New Zealand, including the historic foundations for child research in the form of longitudinal studies, the strong clusters of research that exist in particular subject areas, the increasing diversity in focus and method, and a recent emphasis on children within different cultural traditions. He also commented that there has been an emerging shift from a focus on short-term crises to a focus on long-term strategies. Then Professor Shirley discussed the limitations he perceived in child research in New Zealand, grouped as conceptual limitations, territorial limitations, and a lack of strategic direction and ownership.

The comments of those who had input into the Ministry of Social Policy paper for the Seminar, and comments from Seminar participants, indicate that many agreed with this outline of the limitations. Underlying much of the feedback received for the Ministry of Social Policy paper was the view that New Zealand needs to develop an overarching strategy for child research, incorporating a vision of sought-after child outcomes, principles underpinning approaches to child research, and clear conceptions of the purpose and relevance of research undertaken. At the Seminar also, much discussion took place on issues related to conceptual limitations, ownership and strategic direction.

Incorporating an Orientation to Successful Outcomes

A point that came through strongly was a rejection of a focus on problems, and particularly a concern that current research individualised failure, making it an individual pathology and passing over issues of systemic analysis and failure. There was a clearly seen need to focus on the factors that lead to resilience, competence and capacities. From a research perspective, this would mean asking questions such as, "What would success look like?" and "How can we foster success?".

Asking what success would look like has two aspects: firstly, it needs a picture of what is meant by "good child outcomes" and appropriate measurements of them. Different interpretations of competence and a broader understanding of capacities need to be considered. Good outcomes could be defined in terms of needs, not risks. Constructing appropriate measures may require New Zealand population surveys that would give some knowledge of outcome norms, which would serve as a basis for future comparison.

Secondly, focusing on success implies a need for more sound information on effective child interventions in a New Zealand context. Effective intervention intertwines issues of what works to improve children's outcomes, and how to deliver positive interventions. Useful questions on interventions include: whether current interventions are too segmented; whether interventions involving peers are effective; how best to design programmes to build resiliency; and a particular need to focus on what intervention delivery best meets Maori and Pacific children's needs. This type of information requires more and fuller evaluations of current interventions to be undertaken.

Two Conceptualisations of the Child

Just as there was widespread agreement on the need to focus on a positive approach to child policy and child research, there was widespread agreement that greater attention needs to be given to the way we conceptualise policy and research in which children are participants. For example, is the appropriate policy concern children as future adults, as current vulnerable members of the population, as individuals with rights, as members of families and/or whanau, or all of these? The conceptions chosen clearly affect the design of child research and policy.

The approach taken to this by Seminar participants fell into two broad schools of thought. The first of these has been characterised as the "children's voice" school of thought, while the second school of thought focuses on children as part of social groupings.

The "children's voice" school of thought emphasises the need to consider children as social actors, stakeholders with participation rights, and not just passive dependants. This approach argues children's voices, views and rights need to be more central to policy and research conceptions of children than is currently the case. While there is already some work in the area of children's voices and rights, this must be linked more directly to child outcomes. For example, how are children's self-identities created, and what impact do they have on child development? How do children see themselves in relation to the law, and how does this affect their behaviour? The issues of children's voices and rights must also be linked more clearly to the design and implementation of research.

The second school of thought stresses that children are part of social groupings. This emphasis on a conception of children as part of social groupings comes from two main standpoints. The first of these is a Maori standpoint which states the need to realise that Maori children are part of a whanau and whakapapa, and the need to realise that this is the primary organising principle from which children should be understood. Equally, the point is made that Pacific children are part of a kopu tangata. The second standpoint is a more general "community development" approach. This approach has an interest in systemic analysis, and an interest in community-led development, arguing that local analysis and community-led initiatives are vital to improving outcomes for children.

While these two standpoints within the second school of thought are distinct, they do carry related implications. Both argue that families and communities must be involved in both the conceptualisation and "doing" of child research; both also argue that fundamental to improving child outcomes is improving outcomes for their family and community. From the "child as part of a social grouping" perspective, there are already some good models in place for improving child outcomes, through Maori-led and community-led initiatives. Some of the most pressing research needs, then, are for more local information, and for government and non-governmental bodies to engage with and empower various types of communities.

At the Seminar, some time was spent on discussing how one might mediate between these two schools of thought. It is clear that they are not incompatible. From a "children's voice" perspective, the issue is ensuring that children are not solely seen as passive dependants. However, there is room for children to be considered both as social actors in their own right, and as part of other groupings. From an approach that emphasises children as part of social groupings, the issue is to ensure that families and communities are integral to research and policy. Thus for example, families and communities must be included in the development and implementation of "children's voice" approaches. A further comment from Professor Shirley was that research is needed on the "political economy of childhood", where the focus is on children as a distinct population group.

Multi-sectoral and Multi-disciplinary Research

A third key area where the input into the Ministry of Social Policy paper for the Seminar and comments from Seminar participants indicated a high level of agreement, is in the need for more multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary work. This has a number of aspects.

Firstly, different sources of knowledge must be acknowledged and respected. Secondly, research and knowledge in different sectors must be more actively linked -- so that government embraces research from outside government, and researchers pass their knowledge on to those in service provision and vice-versa. This requires a consideration of the relationship between policy and research, and of ways to facilitate the flow of information between the two.

Thirdly, it was widely commented that the current range of child research is overly focused on organisational areas of concern, with a lack of work from multiple perspectives. At the same time, it is clear that a number of the large-scale multi-faceted research projects currently underway are beginning to address this issue.

Broad-based Longitudinal Data

The final major overarching point is that New Zealand lacks systematic data on a number of important child population groups, particularly in comparison to the level of data available internationally. Currently available longitudinal data sets on New Zealand children are based in the South Island. The need for such data that encompasses the full diversity of New Zealand children and families is highlighted by the under-representation of Maori and Pacific children in the existing longitudinal data sets. Crucially, any attempts to create more systematic data on children must ensure that there are sufficiently robust sample sizes to allow for identification and analysis of disadvantaged groups.


As with the stocktake of policy-focused children's research, some of the comments on future directions of children's research are clearly related to specific subject areas. These comments focused on the need to fill gaps in information available for specific subject areas. Often, the concern is with a lack of New Zealand data. While overseas evidence is available, it is difficult to judge the applicability of this to New Zealand without New Zealand data and analysis.

Some of these specific gaps have already been touched upon as part of the overarching issues outlined above. There is a clear need for information that would allow analysis of specific communities, i.e. local data and data that enable analysis of geographic communities. Linked to this is an obvious need for more work in the area of neighbourhoods, peer groups and communities -- their construction, their physical and social infrastructure, and the effect of these on families and children. Related to a focus on children as social actors, work is needed in the areas of the development of children's identities, and the legal constitution of childhood.

Family income levels, as well as other household conditions such as housing and employment, comprise an area in which there is a lack of New Zealand-based information and analysis linked to child outcomes. Particularly, there is a lack of information that could contribute to an understanding of the dynamics of low income and how this relates to child outcomes. Another gap mentioned was the lack of income data in New Zealand collected in a format suitable for international comparison. It was commented that New Zealand should analyse income data in such a manner that it conformed to the Luxembourg Income Study requirements, to allow international comparison of the income conditions of New Zealand children's lives.

Another area lacking information is that of family structure and changes in family structure, and parenting. While there is some current and planned research in the field of family structure, there is little current research on the diverse range of family forms and the dynamics of family structure changes. The gap here lies in both a lack of basic descriptive data, and a lack of analysis linking family structure, and changes to family structure, to child outcomes. Particular gaps mentioned in relation to parenting included a lack of attention to the role of fathers, a lack of attention to parents' understanding of children's developmental levels, a lack of knowledge about the effects of early interventions to improve parenting, and a lack of knowledge about differences in parenting in the diverse range of family forms.

Many transitions in a child's development also lack information. This is particularly the case for transitions from adolescence to adulthood. For example, there is little information on the move from education to employment, or on the combination of the two among young adults.

A range of further specific subjects was identified as needing more information, in the areas of health, child protection and youth justice.

In health, people felt more research was needed on: mental health needs, and particularly the efficacy of mental health primary prevention programmes; health promotion and health education programmes; disparities in health outcomes and access to health services; and the reproductive health of young people, particularly Maori and Pacific children. There was a perceived need for a national child health database.

In the area of child protection, people felt more research was needed on children as victims of family violence, including: data collection on victims, particularly over time; family violence prevention and intervention measures; and evaluation of the therapy available through the Domestic Violence Act.

Finally, in the youth justice area, respondents believed more research was needed on: the link between youth offending and drug/alcohol use; the link between having been a victim of family violence and youth offending; and what works to reduce youth offending. There is also a lack of research on female youth offending.


In this paper we have canvassed current policy-focused child research in New Zealand and outlined some aspects of the debate on future directions for child research. In so doing, we have highlighted several points. These include the need to: focus on the positive and ask what success would look like; pay greater attention to the conceptualisations of policy and research in which children are participants; and engage in more multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary research. We have also emphasised the need for more broadly based New Zealand longitudinal data, and more local analysis.

Our aim has been to provide information on the debate to date on a child research agenda, and to spark yet more thinking and debate on the topic. The process of developing a child research agenda is ongoing at the Ministry of Social Policy, and we welcome contributions from readers with an interest in this area(1).

(1) Please contact Bryony Walker at the Ministry of Social Policy (phone 04-918-9530, e-mail, if you wish to contribute to this process.
Rachel Smithies
Sue Bidrose
Ministry of Social Policy
COPYRIGHT 2000 Ministry of Social Development
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2000, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Bidrose, Sue
Publication:Social Policy Journal of New Zealand
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:Dec 1, 2000

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