Paradise Lost Can Be Regained
Weekly Column by Dr Muriel Newman
Although we like to think our country is a child-rearing paradise, the OECD this week released a devastating picture of life for young New Zealanders. The study found that New Zealand's rates of juvenile crime, youth suicide, and cannabis use are the highest in the developed world, with teenage births the third highest behind the US and Britain.
Interestingly, the study didn't report on the fact that 29 percent of families with children in New Zealand are sole parent families, the highest rate in the OECD. While it is not politically correct to say so, the reality is that there is now overwhelming evidence that children living with a single parent fail to do as well, in all areas of life, as children with two parents. That is not to say that all single parents fall short - or that two parents always succeed - but, on the balance of probability, two supportive parents are better than one.
That's why the Government's opposition to my Shared Parenting Bill - ensuring that children whose parents separate have the frequent and ongoing support of both their mother and father - was so distressing. In countries where Shared Parenting is the law, even when the rates of family breakdown are high, children do better. By voting down Shared Parenting, Labour has ensured that most children lose all effective contact with their non-custodial parent, making them extremely vulnerable to the poor outcomes identified by the OECD.
The problems will compound, of course, as a result of Labour's relaxing of the rules for the Domestic Purposes Benefit. Official figures show that there will be at least 1,000 more sole parent families coming onto the benefit each year.
Throwing more money at the symptoms will not turn around these negative statistics for our young New Zealanders. Only law changes that get to the heart of the problem - introducing Shared Parenting and reforming the DPB - will make a difference.
This week, concerns have also been raised about New Zealand children not getting enough exercise. The Ministry of Education and Sport and Recreation New Zealand (SPARC) have joined forces to develop a new initiative to increase children's fitness.
But the taskforce has failed to identify the single biggest reason why children spend more time indoors - their parents' fear for their safety. Fear of crime prevents parents letting their children walk to school. Fear of crime stops parents letting their kids outside to play.
Yet this can be turned around. The police transformed New York from one of the world's most dangerous large cities to one of the safest, by adopting a zero tolerance approach to crime. The programme - called 'Broken Windows' - cracked down on petty crime, ensuring offenders felt the full consequences of the law and stopping them from graduating to serious crime.
The approach was based on the knowledge that a person made the choice to commit a crime, weighing up the possible benefit against the risk. If the odds of being busted are high, and the punishment tough, they are less likely to take that risk.
That's why police shortages and Labour's new sentencing and parole legislation, are such a concern: with all crime on the rise, resolution rates dropping and prison sentences being cut, the Government is sending a clear signal that crime now pays. Add to that the fact that many offenders are looked after better in prison than they are at home, and it's no wonder that the recidivism rate of re-offending in New Zealand is one of the world's highest.
To turn the situation around, the police need the mandate and the resources to adapt New York's zero tolerance approach to crime. Further, we need reform to turn our prisons from holiday camps into work camps.
But there are other initiatives we should be looking at. For example, why don't we recruit and train community police volunteers - like Maori Wardens, or Army Territorials - to help police public places where children used to play. And why don't we develop a national register of child sex-offenders, as well as consider tough new punishments for paedophiles?
Some years ago, I met a man who had immigrated to New Zealand from Europe. His father, a convicted paedophile, had stayed behind. In his country, such offenders had a choice of sentence: long-term imprisonment or castration. He chose castration. His son said it allowed him to work, and lead a relatively normal life, while no longer being a threat to children.
Over the last few weeks a number of children have suffered dreadful injuries from dog attacks. This has again raised concerns about irresponsible dog owners who allow dangerous dogs to roam free.
As a result, council bylaws and animal welfare legislation are all coming under the spotlight. The result will, undoubtedly, be a clampdown on law-abiding dog-owners, while irresponsible owners will continue to flout the law.
One answer may be to more effectively swing responsibility for a dog's behaviour onto the owner, in the same way that drivers are responsible for damage caused by their car. If a dog attacks a person or their property, the owner should be held responsible in the same way as if they had personally engaged in assault with a dangerous weapon. That would ensure the law gets tough on the irresponsible owners, rather than the responsible ones.
We have much to
do to ensure New Zealand lives up to its promise of being a
safe country in which to raise children. Some straight
talking about the real issues and the implementation of some
commonsense solutions would be a useful start.