Newman Online 1 July 2005
Weekly commentary by Dr Muriel Newman MP
ACT’s five-point plan to halt New Zealand’s dire child abuse record
This week Newman Online looks at ACT’s plan to reduce New Zealand’s appalling child abuse statistics by implementing changes to the welfare system and legislation to protect children.
Answers to my parliamentary questions have shown that established cases of child abuse have surged 45 percent over the last twelve months to a record 13,017 cases. This is a child abuse scandal that has the fingerprints of Government failure all over it.
When Labour was in opposition they were outspoken about the need to reduce child abuse. But when they become the government, they failed to tackle the issues at the heart of the problem - family breakdown and long-term welfare dependency.
The reason, some say, is that left wing governments thrive on dependency and abused children are all too often damaged for life, needing on-going state support. While this is certainly a very cynical view, after watching Labour closely for nine years, it rings true.
This escalation in child abuse is the greatest scandal in New Zealand today. Every other Government failure pales into insignificance. Kiwi children should expect unconditional love. Instead, more than 13,000 were subjected to horrific levels of physical, sexual or emotional abuse and neglect last year.
While Labour claims the growing numbers are due to an increase in the reporting of child abuse that excuse is no longer credible. The Government knows only too well that the overwhelming majority of cases of child abuse occur in families where the biological father is absent, where the family is unstable with the mother often having multiple relationships with different men, where the family income is a welfare cheque and where there is already an established history of child abuse.
Government officials also know that it is a relatively small number of families in each community where the abuse happens. In these families the children suffer from preventable health problems, their connection with the education system is fragile, their communication skills under- developed and as they get older they are prone to destructive behaviours leading to self-harm and crime.
Yesterday’s lead story in the Dominion Post newspaper “How to pick a crim at age 3” served as a sober reminder that abused children all too often become serious violent criminals. In fact, paediatric research suggests that abused children are disproportionately represented amongst youngsters with suicidal tendencies, substance abuse problems, and teenage parenthood. Without intervention these children will become responsible for 80 percent of New Zealand's crime.
Abusive families are also high users of social services: it is not unusual for a single such family to have on-going contact with more than a dozen different government agencies such as CYF, Work and Income, Special Education, ACC, hospitals and other health providers, Police, youth justice coordinators, courts, probation and truancy services, as well as agencies like Women’s Refuge, food banks and private welfare agencies.
The cost to the taxpayer of one such family can easily amount to well over $100,000 a year in uncoordinated, ad hoc interventions. Yet, in spite of substantial expenditure, no single person or agency is able to report on exactly what has been spent, how it has been spent, whether or not the expenditure has been successful, or indeed whether a duplication of services has occurred.
The cost of failure is huge: care for one abused and injured child in hospital averages just under $9,000 for every admission. Keeping one troubled youth in a residential centre costs around $120,000 a year. Housing an offender in prison averages about $70,000 a year. These figures are only the tip of the iceberg if the effect on victims and their families is factored in.
It is an indictment on successive governments that more has not already been done to turn the situation around and since one of the important roles of ACT has been to develop solutions to difficult problems - which other parties then adopt as their own - I will outline ACT’s five point plan to turn the situation around:
Firstly, it’s long past time to introduce proper welfare reform to require everyone on welfare who is able-bodied - including sole parents with school aged children - to get a job (see http://www.act.org.nz/ item.aspx/26533). Work brings structure and purpose into family life, as well as encouraging personal responsibility and self-reliance. Further, families that need the assistance of a mentor who can provide them with support and parenting guidance to enable them to turn around their lives and become better parents to their children should get one.
Secondly, harsh though it may sound these days, women who are not in a position to properly care for their babies should be encouraged to adopt them out. It is just heartbreaking to read of cases like three and a half month old baby Sarah from Putaruru whose mother is accused of battering her to death, when we all know that there are so many loving families around who are desperate to adopt a baby.
Thirdly, we must introduce shared parenting to ensure that if parents do separate, children do not lose the support of their biological fathers. Fathers have always played a key role in protecting their children and denying a child of fatherly contact increases chances that they could be abused.
Fourthly, it is absolutely vital that New Zealand’s child welfare service is focused on prevention, with the investigation of abuse as well as the hunting down, catching and prosecuting of offenders, being the responsibility of the Youth Division of the Police.
If child welfare operated as a one-stop-shop community based family service, with social workers, police, health and education professionals working in teams with the goal of reducing child abuse in their community, then child abuse would fall dramatically.
And finally, we need to ensure greater accountability of agencies that deal with child abuse through a more open Family Court. A few years ago, the Chief Family Court Judge, Peter Boshier opened up his court to the media to expose the incompetence of CYF in failing to carry out court orders. He publicly threatened to charge the Chief Executive with contempt of court. In jurisdictions where courts have been opened, child abuse has declined as perpetrators were exposed to greater levels of public humiliation and shame and agencies improved their performance.