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Addressing the Problems: The 5-Point Plan

Addressing the Problems: The 5-Point Plan

This week… A five point plan to reduce child abuse in New Zealand:

• Reform welfare

• Introduce Shared Parenting

• Promote adoption

• Rebuild a community-based family service

• Open up the Family Court

It is a sad fact that while for most parents our children are everything to us, some children are not so fortunate. Instead of the love, support and security they should expect in their normal family life, these children face risk, fear and violence, often from the very people that they should be able to trust.

These are the children who have been failed by governments who have been unable to provide an effective child welfare agency to adequately care for them and protect them from harm.

As details of the deepening crisis in child welfare have emerged, more and more people are beginning to ask whether the Department of Child Youth and Family, as it presently operates, has in fact been charged with an impossible task. I believe that the answer is yes, and that it is now time to modernise and rebuild our child protection strategies from the bottom up.

The problem for the Department is that it was established back in the late eighties when the traditional “family” concept in New Zealand was strong and long-term welfare dependency was not as entrenched as it is at present. Today, in spite of the best economic conditions in decades and a widespread shortage of skilled and unskilled labour, there are still more than 350,000 families dependent on welfare. About a third are sole parent families. The Labour Government has exacerbated the situation with fervour. The domestic purposes benefit not only pays couples to separate (with more ease) but also funds single women to have children without the support of a permanent partner. They have no need to worry about how they will be personally responsible for their children. As a result, tens of thousands of children are growing up in families with a history of instability. New Zealand is n

Human behaviour is complex. While there are no simple answers to reducing child abuse, I believe the following five-point plan would go a long way to building a fence at the top of the cliff so that fewer children have need of a child welfare ambulance at the bottom.

§ Firstly - reform the welfare system. Everyone who is able bodied – except mothers or fathers with very young children – should be required to participate in a full-time programme of work, education and training. Child support, transport help, even housing relocation assistance should be provided to anyone who needs additional support to help overcome their individual barriers to work. Essentially however, anyone on welfare who can work should be expected to engage in the same sort of work week as the rest of adult society. Further, in line with the realities of the workforce, there should no be additional payments for having more children.

§ Secondly – introduce Shared Parenting. In the event of family breakdown, Shared Parenting assures children of the love and support of both their mother and their father, as well as grandparents and extended family; our present system all too often alienates non-custodial parents and their families.

§ Thirdly – consider adoption. Women who have unwanted pregnancies and are not ready to dedicate their lives to bringing up a child should have adoption at birth as an option. Similarly, parents who are unable to provide a loving and secure home for a child should also have this option.

§ Fourthly – establish a community family service. Our child welfare agency needs to be rebuilt as a one-stop community based family service with police, welfare, health and education professionals working as a team with the goal of reducing child abuse in their community. This model is used overseas and was the basis of the successful Starship Hospital “ Puawaitahi” initiative. Such agencies would know the relatively small numbers of at-risk families in each community, and could use their network of Early Start, Police Youth Aid Officers, school social workers, and community social service experts to proactively support these families as soon as difficulties arise, rather than waiting on the sidelines for a crisis to occur and children to be harmed.

§ Finally – open up the Family Court. I believe opening up the Family Court would reduce child abuse for three different reasons: putting the child welfare agency under the public spotlight would force improved performance; families engaged in disputes over children would seek mediation and resolution instead of ongoing litigation in the public arena; and the public confronted with the reality of the damage that all levels of child abuse causes would demand harsher penalties.

While this five point plan will not solve all of the problems that confront us right now, I believe it would go a long way to arresting what has become a malignant cancer deep within New Zealand society.

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