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Time To Look At The Bigger Picture

Time To Look At The Bigger Picture

Weekly Column by Dr Muriel Newman

Chief Youth Court Judge Andrew Beecroft yesterday identified six characteristics of serious youth offenders: 85 percent are male, the majority have no contact with their father, 80 percent do not go to school and have chronic drug or alcohol addictions, most have psychological or psychiatric issues, and 50 percent - up to 90 percent in some courts - are Maori.

He went on to explain that many of these boys have no adult male role model: "14, 15, and 16 year-old boys seek out role models like 'heat seeking missiles'. It's either the leader of the Mongrel Mob or it's a sports coach or it's Dad. But an overwhelming majority of boys who I see in the Youth Court have lost contact with their father. ...what I'm saying is that I'm dealing in the Youth Court with boys for whom their Dad is simply not there, never has been, gone, vanished and disappeared".

The Judge also went on make a devastating comment: "...every single young boy that we have dealt with has been abused as a child".

This is why I am so passionately opposed to public policy and practice that incentivises family breakdown, and excludes fathers from the lives of their children - especially when the evidence is clear that children being brought up in families headed by a sole mother are at far more risk of child abuse than children raised by married parents.

The issue of fatherless children has been in the public eye this week, after revelations that the number of women on the Domestic Purposes Benefit who cannot - or will not - name the father of their children had grown to a record 16,500 this year from just under 14,000 when Labour took office.

In fact, the figures are much worse than that. An update I just received from the Minister shows that the number has grown to 17,117 - or one in six of the women on the DPB. Of those, 50 percent were Maori and 30 percent European.

The reasons why these women have not named the father of their children fall into three basic categories: women who are colluding with the father to avoid the child support system, women who cannot get the father to agree to be named on the child's birth certificate, and women at risk who have been the victims of abuse or attack. Women who are victims should clearly be protected not penalised, and those violent and abusive fathers punished for their crime.

Nor should the women be penalised who cannot get the fathers to agree to be named on their child's birth certificate. Instead, those fathers should - subject to paternity testing - be made to pay. Any claiming they did not agree to the pregnancy should think again - it takes two to have a baby, and each must take full responsibility.

For the majority of the women who refuse to name the fathers of their children, the sanctions must be even handed: if - having reached a mutually agreeable financial arrangement - a woman shields the father from his child support liability, then she should accept responsibility for becoming the breadwinner herself. It is simply unacceptable for an able-bodied couple to abrogate the full financial support of their children to the taxpayer. Either the father should be made to pay up, or the mother should get a job - and DPB eligibility should be based on the naming of the father.

Inherent in all of this should be the absolute right for named fathers to require paternity testing. At present, a liable father can request paternity testing, but it requires the mother's agreement. In spite of overseas evidence showing 10-20 percent of liable fathers are not the biological father of a child they are providing financial support for, in New Zealand men cannot have the test done as of right.

Where a couple colludes to avoid child support, fathers must be required to either pay their contribution, or engage in community work to help repay taxpayers who are carrying their burden. Those who refuse should face imprisonment.

But central to these changes is a thorough review of the Child Support Act.

New Zealand's child support system is an anachronism and needs urgent reform. This was called for as early as 1994 by Judge Trapsky, who undertook a comprehensive review and proposed far-reaching changes, which were steadfastly ignored by successive governments.

Central to a revamped child support system is the need to take each parent's full financial situation into account, rather than just that of the non-custodial parent. Further, allowance should be made for the time each parent spends with their child.

But, most importantly, shared parenting - rather than maternal sole custody - should be introduced as the norm when a couple separates. Shared Parenting is a system that is not only far better for children - giving them the support of both parents, and extended family - but in those countries where it is the law, child support non-compliance is extremely rare.

The Labour Government is now talking tough on this issue, but must be careful that the law changes that they are proposing are well informed, balanced and fair. If they follow the plan outlined above then, not only will they be addressing an area of law in urgent need of reform but, they will also be protecting the fundamental right of New Zealand children to know who their father is.

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