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Newman: Letting The Light Pierce The Darkness

Muriel Newman – The Column Feb 11th

Letting The Light Pierce The Darkness

This week the Column considers the actions of two Family Court judges who tried to remove the shroud of secrecy from their courts, and discusses what is needed to truly care for our most vulnerable children.

Three years ago, Family Court judge Peter Boshier – who will soon take up the position of Chief Family Court Judge – took the unusual step of inviting the media to cover a hearing involving two Northland boys and the local branch of Child, Youth and Family.

Judge Boshier opened the doors to his court for one simple reason: he was outraged by the department’s ongoing failure to carry out the court’s order – so outraged, in fact, that he threatened to charge its managers with contempt of court.

Just last week, Family Court judge Tim Druce continued the judicial name and shame campaign by ordering a judgement – over the same CYF branch’s failure to carry out the court’s orders concerning a 13 year-old Northland at serious risk of criminal offending – to be released to the media and the public.

Judge Druce’s decision was made in order to expose “the continuing inability of the Department to provide appropriate services to children and young people with severe behavioural difficulties”. A state of affairs which he wanted to be made a matter of public record.

The judgement slated CYF’s failure to provide the services and assistance the boy needed. The department was “unable to specify the persons or organisations who were to provide the services and assistance required, nor was it able to specify details of the services and assistance to be provided”.

While CYF’s lawyer opposed the judgement’s publication, the child’s counsel was enthusiastic: “the need to identify shortcomings in the provision of Governmental and community services is of benefit to government agencies and to the country.”

In justifying his decision to publish the hearing, Judge Druce stated that “release of decisions such as this plainly are one of the many ways by which social policy decision making and implementation of those decisions can be assisted.” In other words, he wanted to use this exposé of incompetence as a means of forcing the Government to improve its child welfare services.

The Labour Government has allowed New Zealand’s child welfare service to under-perform for far too long. Four years after taking office – and many damning reviews later – CYF’s ongoing failure has exposed the Government’s hypocrisy: while claiming to care about children, Labour allows the agency dealing with our most vulnerable to operate at such a level of crisis that judges are forced to go to the public in an attempt to orchestrate change.

If Labour really cared about children, then Prime Minister Helen Clark would take CYF in hand and exercise some positive leadership. Her ambivalence toward child welfare – reflected in her failure to sort out the problems in CYF, including the appointment of a junior Minister to the portfolio – is indicative of a government whose caring is only skin deep.

In my mind, this situation is completely unacceptable and must be turned around. CYF is charged with providing support to ensuring that children at risk of violence and abuse are protected. This means, not only providing care and protection if abuse has taken place but, pro-actively working with such families to prevent the abuse occurring in the first place. Further, the agency must play its part in working with police to ensure that child abusers are brought to justice.

The problem, however, is that much of this department’s work goes on behind the closed doors of family homes and the secret Family Court – leaving the public unaware of the extent of its failings. This is why the Prime Minister can condone CYF’s failure, safe in the knowledge that most of the details are hidden from the public. But if these failings were no longer secret, but exposed to the public on a daily basis – as they would be with an open Family Court – the drive for change would be immediate and profound.

The benefits brought by an open court, especially in reducing child abuse and improving the operation of government child welfare agencies, have been well documented. Claims that such changes would cause the sky to fall in are ill founded.

If Miss Clark made it her goal to ensure that CYF performed well, then child abuse in New Zealand would decline – and, since CYF has youth justice responsibilities, youth offending would drop as well.

In order to facilitate this improvement, the New Zealand Family Court should be changed from being a closed court to an open court. In opening up their courts, judges Boschier and Druce have added weight to my campaign for openness.

If we truly cared about New Zealand’s disadvantaged children, then we would open our Family Court along the same lines as the Australian Family Court. Enabling judges to suppress individuals’ identities and close the court on a case-by-case basis – rather than maintaining a constant shroud of secrecy – would give the public a proper opportunity to assess whether family law is being enforced fairly and whether government agencies are acting in a competent manner.

Judges Boschier and Druce have served the public well by boldly opening up their courts. With Judge Boschier about to head the Family Court, I sincerely hope that the drive for change will gather momentum. If it does, then the benefits will flow. We will see, not only a long-awaited decline in the escalating rate of child abuse but, less adversarial litigation between parents warring over custody and access cases, who see that mediation is a better option.


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