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Fatherlessness Exacerbated by the Labour Govt

Fatherlessness Exacerbated by the Labour Government

Weekly Column by Dr Muriel Newman MP

I recall hearing a news story from Africa some time ago about how a large group of hand-reared, orphaned bull elephants had had to be shot. The reason was that as ‘teenagers’ they grew to become dangerously uncontrollable.

The keepers explained that while they could replace the nurturing of their mothers, it was the socialisation by the bull elephant, teaching them to control their strength and natural aggression, that couldn’t be replicated.

I often think back to that news piece whenever the issue of kids going off the rails is discussed, because every youngster needs to be properly socialised. They need to learn what is acceptable and what is not, to be shown boundaries, given values, taught about consequences, as well as subjected to appropriate discipline.

Fathers have always been active participants in this essential role, providing sons and daughters with the balance of male and female role models, giving them guidance as well as love and support as they grow and mature.

Yet in spite of their fundamental contribution to the raising of children, our legislation is increasingly alienating fathers from children to the extent that fatherlessness has become a major problem for society. That is not to under-appreciate the remarkable job carried out by many sole mothers in successfully raising children against the odds, nor the fundamental changes in family structures and social attitudes in recent decades; but the sad reality is that for many mothers, fathers and children, the ‘fatherless family’ has meant poverty, emotional heartache, ill health, lost opportunity and a lack of stability.

During his period as Governor General, the Rt Hon. Sir Michael Hardie Boys, expressed his strong concerns: “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.''

As the traditional protectors of their family, when fathers are absent the risk of child abuse increases. The Department of Child, Youth and Family advised me this week that they had received 27,507 notifications in the year to 30 June 2002. However, in response to my query as to how many of those children were living with their biological father and mother, they explained: “While information on family circumstances is recorded on case file notes, it is not recorded as discrete data elements that can be statistically reported on.”

I suspect that they simply want to keep out of the public arena the strong correlation between fatherlessness and child abuse. The closed nature of the Family Court also conspires to keep such data secret.

Police records on the other hand show that many youth offenders have had little contact with their fathers, often living in circumstances where they lack supervision and where anti-social behaviour is not addressed, as it should be.

Yet in spite of the negative consequences of increasing fatherlessness, not only to children, but also to society as a whole, we continue to pass laws, which will make the problem worse.

Labour’s Property Relationship Act is considered by many as likely to exacerbate the rate of family breakdown as well as undermining marriage. Budget forecasts indicate that Labour’s new Domestic Purposes Benefit law will increase the number of sole parents by an estimated thousand each year.

Statistics show that almost a half of effected children will lose regular contact with their fathers within two years. One in seven women on the Domestic Purposes Benefit - now over 16,000 - refuse to even name the father of their child.

In this parliament, I will be re-submitting a private member’s bill to introduce shared parenting (a system which works very well overseas) so that in the event of family breakdown children retain frequent and on-going contact with both their mother and their father. This bill also gives children the protection of an open family court.

Labour opposed these bills in the last parliament, but United voted for them. If my bill to reduce fatherlessness is drawn, it will be a real test not only of parliament’s willingness to deal with a significant problem faced by society, but also of United Future’s commitment to the family.

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