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Muriel Newman: Saving Our Children From Brutality

The Column - Muriel Newman ACT MP

Saving Our Children From Brutality

Last week’s UNICEF report – that ranked New Zealand as having the third highest rate of child abuse in the OECD – is a real wake-up call. It is an appalling indictment of our ability to perform one of the most basic functions of any Western nation – that of keeping our children safe.

These figures are a sobering commentary on the devastating effect that family breakdown has on children, as it is relatively rare for child abuse victims to be from two-parent nuclear families.

The UNICEF report identifies poverty, stress, and alcohol and drug abuse as factors that contribute to our high rate of abuse. With most abused children coming from welfare-dependent families – where persistent poverty is a serious risk factor – welfare reform, requiring able-bodied beneficiaries to find a job, is an important step in reducing child abuse.

By lowering the tax burden on working families, the financial strain that many families presently experience would not only be relieved, but the general living standard would rise as well. Similarly, significantly lowering compliance costs on small businesses would help to kick-start economic growth, and create jobs to enable those on welfare to move into work.

Common sense tells us that drug and alcohol addictions in care-giving adults are a significant risk factor for the children in their care. This is an area in need of a far greater investment than it has had to date – not only in terms of treatment programmes but, also, eliminating long-term welfare dependency, which is largely associated with such addictions. Substance abusing adults who live in families with children should be supported into treatment programmes as an urgent priority. Without such support, addicts are not only a danger to themselves and those they associate with, but to society as a whole, since many turn to crime to fund their habit.

Part of the problem we face as we search for proactive ways to reduce child abuse is the political correctness that shrouds this entire issue. Answers to my written Parliamentary Questions show that the Government does not want to disclose the marital status of parents whose children are referred to them over cases of potential child abuse, nor will it provide data on how many of these cases are referred to police for prosecution.

On a more basic level, it is now even impossible to find details of Family Court custody judgements in the event of family breakdown – even though it is well known that sole maternal custody, the most common outcome in New Zealand, alienates fathers and puts their children at even greater risk of being abused.

This approach is in sharp contrast to that of Britain. There, the Prime Minister established a Social Exclusion Unit, to investigate factors which cause disadvantage to children and to make recommendations to turn the situation around.

In particular, they are keen to see children, in families where they are at risk of abuse, adopted into families where they would be valued and loved. They are prepared to issue parenting orders – demanding greater responsibility from parents who are not raising their children in a responsible manner – and want to strengthen and promote the relationship between fathers and their children.

The British approach is predicated on the zero tolerance of criminality associated with child abuse: prosecuting offenders – as well as taking a hard line on children who have been harmed, but who later exhibit anti-social behaviour which impacts negatively on others.

In looking at the New Zealand situation, however, it is clear that the Department of Child, Youth and Family – the Government agency that deals with children at risk of child abuse and the families in danger of harming them – is seriously under-performing. Rather than focussing on whether banning smacking will solve the problem – which, of course, it won’t – the Government should be outlining exactly what it intends to do to improve CYF’s performance. It should also explain what steps it will take to hold irresponsible parents to account, to more proactively prosecute child abusers and to support parents of difficult children to find non-violent ways of dealing with them.

There are no silver bullet solutions to eliminate child abuse. Taking the steps outlined above, however, as well as modernising the way the Government deals with the issue – establishing one-stop-shop community-based agencies with social workers, police, health and education professionals working proactively together to reduce child abuse in their community – would certainly help.


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