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Speech to Social Policy Forum - Laila Harre

7 September 2001 Hon Laila Harre Speech Notes

Speech to Social Policy Forum - "Children in families as reflected in statistics, research and policy".

Law School

Old Government Buildings

Lambton Quay

Wellington

Good morning, and welcome to a forum that may promote constructive and informed discussion on issues relevant to the wellbeing and position of children in New Zealand today.

Much work has been done on this issue at a government level since I addressed you last year. I'll be reporting back today on some of the key findings of the nationwide consultation the coalition held as part of the development of an Agenda for Children, a first for any New Zealand government.

While this was taking place, we have also been involved in consultation around the Youth Development Strategy Aotearoa, a concept similar to the Children’s Agenda that covers young people up to the age of 24. Between these two processes we hope to be able to present a snapshot of what our children, young people and older youth age group think about growing up in New Zealand, and begin to address some of their priorities.

Part of that will be reflecting on what it's like to be a member of a family, whatever its shape or form, and especially what it's really like to be a child or young person within a family.

One of the things that struck me as I was travelling around the country talking to children is the diversity of issues they raised, and the level of understanding they had of things some grown ups are too quick to write off as adults only business. This reinforces just how much we miss out by not asking children themselves what they think and addressing their views and understandings a fundamental component of our ongoing policy and research work.

As Statistics New Zealand's population and Census manager Frank Nolan will tell you later on today, the same lack of focus exists when it comes to families. There have been few attempts to look at families as the prime objective of a survey. Family statistics are normally obtained from surveys with other objectives, and as such are often what Statistics New Zealand classifies as a "supplementary variable".

The latest Census data does tell us that the rate of marriage is continuing to decline, while the number of people living in de facto relationships is increasing. This can't lead to conclusions about the children in these differently organised families. It gives us no indication of the stability of the environment they are living in or their "connectedness" with this and their other social groups. This is important information, as it is by far the biggest determinant of happiness and positive outcomes for children.

So this was the kind of thing we were hoping to gauge through the Children's Agenda consultation.

The consultation took place between April and June this year with a discussion paper prepared for adults and a discussion pack with colourful response sheet and stickers for children. An Internet site was also available for children to use to send a message to government.

Meetings were held to consult face-to-face with children, including 22 groups of children involved with IHC, 3 groups involved with CCS, 50 young people living in four Child Youth and Family residences, five groups focusing on Maori young people, two Pacific youth groups, and 41 separate meetings in 17 different schools around the country.

For the adults, we held ten consultation meetings around the country and we included separate opportunities for Maori and Pacific Island communities to engage.

The response from children was fantastic. There were almost 3500 individual submissions from them and 320 group submissions. Most children used the response sheets, but some sent drawings, posters, essays, letters and even videos.

We had an excellent response from Maori and Pacific children, and particularly from primary school aged children.

As for adults, there were 450 submissions. These represented the views of over 3500 people.

So overall, we had a very positive result in terms of the number of responses.

But what did children actually say?

By and large, children I spoke to focused on shortcomings in their immediate environment, on things like the lack of parks or safe and interesting things to do after school or in their environments.

When children and young people were asked what they liked about their lives the most common responses were that children liked "the freedom of not having to support themselves or bear responsibility in the way that adults do; and being able to have fun, play sport and enjoy their lives.

Other positive things that were mentioned frequently were living in a country that is relatively safe; the clean green spaces of New Zealand; and access to a good education.

The things most mentioned when children were asked what they most disliked were the limitations of age, including not being allowed to drive, buy alcohol, go to some places, or even to have a firearms license and being told what to do.

Other issues that concerned children and young people were:

- not being listened to or taken seriously;

- bullying;

- not being able to make their own decisions;

- having to go to school;

- being told off;

- having to do chores; and

- not having enough for me to do.

By far the most frequently mentioned suggestion for improving children's lives was to provide more things for children to do. I think if I were a social researcher interested in children I would be very interested in the issue of boredom - is that new? And if so is it because children have less to do or is it because childhood is viewed as a more passive period than in previous generations? And while there might appear much that is new for kids are their lives meaningful?

Other children wanted improvements to the school and education system; adults to address crime and the abuse of children and they wanted to be treated with more respect, trusted, given more responsibility, listened to and supported.

Children affirmed that friends, education, family, a safe environment and good health are important in their lives. My own discussion with kids revealed that while parents were particularly valued, sibling relationships were sometimes problematic.

It is interesting to note that there were different perceptions between children and young people of different ages of negatives:

For example for 5-12 year olds the big one was getting told what to do and fear of bullying and for 13-17 year olds it was not being taken seriously or listened to. Young people also wrote about peer pressure, problems created by drug and alcohol use, and the low rate of youth wages.

Boys wanted more sports, recreation and entertainment opportunities above all else. Girls focused on suggestions for improvement in the relationships between young people and adults - more trust of young people, more responsibility and freedom, and being listened to more.

Maori children and young people shared the views expressed by submissions overall but had particular concerns about stereotyping, crime and violence and economic disadvantage. Unlike the overall submissions, Maori mentioned physical discipline as one of the top ten negative aspects of being a child.

Pacific young people acknowledged the importance of family support but were also particularly concerned about child abuse, bullying and use of physical discipline. They also reported experiencing stereotyping, and were eager to have more support services for young people.

Children and young people with disabilities were concerned about stereotyping, along with lack of understanding of their disabilities and under-resourcing of their needs. Isn't it interesting that the children from all the marginalised groups were aware of society's negative perceptions of them.

The discussion paper which was the basis of the consultations with adults, proposed five goals:

- changing the place of children to see them as important members of our society in their own right;

- being more responsive to children’s interests and making their voice louder in decision-making processes;

- making sure services for children and their families are responsive to children’s interests;

- giving priority to addressing poverty and violence in children’s lives; and

- improving opportunities for all children.

Generally the adults who responded to the discussion paper liked these goals.

Overall the highest priority for adults was the need for improved education.

Other issues that rated highly were:

- the need to address violence;

- more parent education;

- the importance of families - “fix the family - fix the child” was a strong theme supported by all ethnic groups.

Many submissions focused on the need to address povery, including those from

Maori and Pacific people. Specific concerns within this were the cycle of

unemployment, and the low levels of minimum wages and welfare

benefits.

Those adult submitters who identified themselves as Maori generally supported the Agenda for Children’s goals and priorities for action, valued sport and recreation and our clean and green, unspoiled environment and the relative safety of New Zealand.

In terms of problems they:

- regarded socio-economic disparities and unemployment, including long term unemployment, as major problems;

- also regarded child neglect and abuse, and drug and alcohol abuse, as major problems;

- believed that there should be more parenting education and better education including free tertiary education;

- want to see benefit and income levels raised;

- want to see the Treaty of Waitangi used as a foundation document; and

- want to reinforce the value of the family unit

Those who identified themselves as Pacific Island people tended to be less supportive of the Agenda for Children. Their approach seemed to be more focused on the responsibilities of adults, and emphasised the limits to children's understanding.

Their concerns about New Zealand as a place for children were:

- drug and alcohol abuse;

- lack of work opportunities and general unemployment, including long term unemployment

- neglect and physical abuse; and

- the focus on consumerism.

They wanted more funding and resources for education, parenting classes, policies that reinforce the value of the family and support for culturally appropriate providers.

The government's next steps are to take on board what children and adults are saying and to produce an Agenda for Children that is relevant to New Zealand now.

This is about ensuring that all children can realise their potential, an important part of which is being honest about what is happening for everyone involved in children’s lives. One thing the consultation showed up is that children are often painfully aware of what’s going on in mum and dad’s lives and the impact it has on the family, and we’re not doing our children a service if we pretend this isn’t directly influencing the way they value themselves.

For example, children I spoke to said they really wished either mum or dad could take a day off to spend with them when they were sick. But they understood the financial pressure taking a day off work created. And while this may have been a pain they understood the way work, through its capacity to create financial security, made for a happier mum and dad, and in turn a happier home life.

What they wanted, and this is echoed in overseas studies on working families, was more stress-free time with mum and dad, not more time per se. This is an important distinction, as is the fact that neither were they concerned with having parents that worked. Just parents that worked too much.

This is a really important fact to bear in mind when we are looking at the whole issue of parental responsibility and in particular the roles of mothers and fathers. A common argument here is that nowadays parental responsibility is less defined by gender and more equally shared, an argument that seems to have roots in the fact that more mothers are participating in paid work than ever before.

This is a fact, but the idea that this means that parenting, particularly childcare responsibilities, are being more evenly shouldered is not. Fathers’ contribution in the form of unpaid labour has not increased at the same rate as mother’s participation in paid work, and fewer mothers, particularly mothers of babies and young children, work than men.

In 1996 30 per cent of women with a baby under one year and 50 per cent of mothers of one to four year olds were in paid work.

When it comes to designing policy to better supporting families, we need to start by looking at all our institutions - including workplaces and the labour market. We also need to make sure we are focusing on outcomes that are best for children, which may mean putting adult interests a little further down the list of priorities than they are now.

Because it was a point of interest at last year's forum, and I understand a special interest of some of the organisers, there is the matter of how this thinking might affect children when their parents part.

Fathers rights groups claim that their interests are not being fairly represented in the Family Court. Of course when a relationship is so steeped in conflict that it needs the intervention of the Family Court the one wonders how any outcome is ever going to be “fair” on a child, let alone either parent.

In my view it's not the job of Family Court judges to engage in social engineering. They must reflect the realities of children's lives in their decisions, rather than assume an ideal, however desirable that ideal may be. I have no doubt at all that the ideal of having strong relationships between children, their parents and utter important adults is an utterly worthwhile one.

But if we genuinely share this goal of having both parents engaged in a rich primary caregiving relationship with their children then far more influential institutions than the Family Court, such as the family itself and the workforce, need to change first.

Let’s bear in mind that the job of the Family Court is to intervene in the small minority of cases characterised by conflict and make a range of decisions based on the best interests of the child or children involved. It is unfortunately inevitable that many of these decisions are contested and bitterly disputed.

Perhaps if we shifted our focus to the social and economic institutions that define gender roles, rather than the judicial institution that reflects them, we'll make more progress.

It doesn't escape some of our attention that the growing harassment at our family courts looks much like the gauntlet women still have to run to access legal abortions. And much of the rhetoric used demonstrates a similar analysis of women's experience.

I realise that might pose something of a challenge to some here today but we all share and obligation to give our children the chance to be heard in all of the processes that are so often purported to be “for their own good”.

Thank you.


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