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Shared Parenting

Thursday 12th Oct 2000
Dr Muriel Newman
Speech -- Social Welfare

The tragic murder-suicide of Rosemary Perkins and her three daughters Alice, Maria and Cherie, aged 8 6, and 23 months, is a shocking reminder of the urgency of the need for change to New Zealand’s family laws.

Newspaper reports claim that the couple had been in court that morning and that Mr Perkins had been given unsupervised visiting rights with his children.

The action, of giving a non-custodial father greater access to his children, was apparently a significant factor in the tragedy. It follows the 1995 deaths of Tiffany, Holly and Claudia Bristol, three children murdered by their father who also killed himself during acrimonious litigation, and a 1997 murder suicide of a mother and her two children.

Yesterday I spoke to a mother whose son had recently committed suicide. She said he was a loving father who cared deeply about his three children, yet during the five years of separation he had been able to see them only four times. She said the hurt was overwhelming and it would not go away. He left a note asking his parents to watch over his children. The family attributes 95% of the reason for his death to the ongoing battles for custody and access.

That mother requested that I share her family's tragedy. She said that if her story helped to show how desperately and urgently family law in this country needs to be changed, then her son's death would not have been in vain. Those parents lost their son and those children lost their father, all because of our adversarial family law.

Well I say - enough is enough. In a civilised society in the 21st century we should not be condoning laws that cause such damage, hurt and bitterness.

Thirty years ago in the United States, murder-suicides of parents and their children repeatedly made the headlines. When they understood that the negative consequences of sole custody were responsible for the tragedies, legislators acted. They saw that their custodial system took two parents, who in most cases wanted to do all they could for their child, and pitted them against each other. One became the winner, gaining custody of the child, while the other became the loser, a mere visitor in the child's life. The biggest loser though was the child, for it is the child who walked into a courtroom with two parents and walked out with one.

They devised a change that took the conflict out of family law, and ensured that a child had the right to the love and ongoing support of both their mother and their father, grandparents and extended family as well. Shared Parenting was the fastest spreading family law change ever to sweep through the United States.

Shared parenting is based on the notion that when parents separate or divorce, the children deserve, and in fact have the right, to continue their developmental years with two parents. These parents should be equal in their responsibility for the upbringing of their children, unless there is a compelling reason why a parent is not fit. In such a case where children are genuinely at risk, this bill provides for all of the protections and safeguards of our present sole-custody law.

Everything we know about children teaches us that it is in their best interest to maximise the involvement of both parents in their lives. Children want, love, and need two parents. Society needs children fully to have their parents. By any measure, children with both parents will usually do better in life than those who have been denied a relationship with one or both. Society picks up the pieces far less often in cases where children and young people have enjoyed the fullest relationship with both their mother and their father.

Of course, that is not to say that single parents fail to try their best, but just as two of anything is more than one, two actively involve parents can provide more physical, emotional, and psychological support than one.

Family law as it currently stands has also been responsible for significantly damaging the social fabric of New Zealand. Who can seriously believe that that is the best we can do as a society? With the tragic consequences of inadequate parenting all around us, we can no longer afford a legal system that discards one of the two most important people in a child's life, their parent.

As a result of this winner-takes-all system, a quarter of all children whose parents separate or divorce lose all meaningful contact with their non-custodial parent. A further 40 percent see that parent for only a few hours every month. More children currently lose a parent through separation or divorce in New Zealand every 6 weeks than lost a parent through the entire period of the Second World War.

New Zealand is already one of the industrialised world's leaders in sole parent families. We also lead in youth suicide.

We cannot ignore the consequences of a system that awards custody to one parent as a matter of course, denying children their fundamental birthright to have the ongoing support of both their parents. We cannot ignore that we currently have the most under-fathered generation in the history of the Western World.

If present trends continue, by the year 2010 half of European and three-quarters of Maori infants under 12 months' old will live in families where there are no fathers. As a consequence of this lack, such children will be vulnerable and at risk of poor outcomes in life from the day of their birth.

The Rt Hon. Sir Michael Hardie Boys, Governor-General of New Zealand, recently stated: “Fatherless families are more likely to give rise to the risk of being abused, of being emotionally, even physically scarred, of dropping out of school, of becoming pregnant, of living on the streets, of being hooked on alcohol or drugs, of being caught up in gangs, in crime, of being unemployable, of having no ambition, no vision, no hope, at risk of handing down hopelessness to the next generation, at risk of suicide.'' Laurie O'Reilly, the late Commissioner for Children, shared the Governor-General's passion for children to retain contact with their fathers as a protector, supervisor, a good role model for their sons, and a male relationship model for their daughters.

He believed that our current focus on sole custody alienates fathers after separation or divorce. He wanted to see New Zealand looking towards the type of shared parenting laws that we see increasingly overseas, laws that keep children in full emotional, physical, and spiritual contact with their fathers as well as their mothers.

Even the judiciary shares concerns that their attempts to solve problems in Family Courts over the last 30 years have created widespread problems in Youth Courts and the criminal justice system. They want Parliament to re-examine what is in the best interests of children. They are concerned that their historical judgement that stability for a child is one parent and one home, may now be out of date.

In countries where stability means frequent and ongoing contact with both parents, children are doing better. Shared parenting plans ensure arrangements are tailor-made to suit individual children.

Shared parenting now forms the basis of law in the USA, in France, Sweden, and Holland. Both Canada and Australia are looking at shared parenting, and in Britain a single-issue political party, the Equal Parenting Party, has been established. All countries that are finally facing up to the tragic consequences of widespread family breakdown are moving towards shared parenting.

When my Shared Parenting Bill was before Parliament, we had support from the Commissioner for Children, Parentline, Grey Power, rural groups, women's groups, men's groups, and members of the legal profession, the judiciary, the Salvation Army, churches and charities, and psychologists, counsellors, mediators, academics, and literally thousands of New Zealand families. My office was and still is inundated with tragic stories from people whose lives have been shattered by our present custodial laws. Many have been ruined spiritually as well as financially.

Family breakdown cuts across race, class and creed. It affects virtually all New Zealanders, either directly or through family, friends and colleagues. It affects all of society. Sadly for the hundreds of thousands of parents locked in conflict, grandparents alienated from their grandchildren, and children caught up in a viscous crossfire between the two people they love most in the world, the government did not support shared parenting, voting my Bill down, refusing to let it go to a Select Committee.

But Shared Parenting is an idea whose time has come, and a father from Dunedin, Tim Hawkins, paid the $500 to launch a petition to call for a Citizens Initiated Referendum into Shared Parenting. I have pledged my support for Tim’s petition, and I am privileged to be here today to officially launch the Shared Parenting petition in Whangarei.

More than anyone, grandparents can see the futility of laws that tear families apart. I am now going around the country talking to groups like this to ask for support, as we collect the 250,000 signature we need. With your help, we can work towards adding New Zealand to the list of countries that have shared parenting as the predominant family law.


For more information visit ACT online at http://www.act.org.nz or contact the ACT Parliamentary Office at act@parliament.govt.nz.

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