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Pansy Speak: A logical debate about smacking

A logical debate about smacking

Judging by the large number of emails asking me to support or vote against the ‘anti-smacking’ bill, the deadline for a decision must be just around the corner.

The contentious bill in question is Sue Bradford’s Crimes (Abolition of Force as a Justification for Child Discipline) Amendment Bill, which repeals Section 59 of the Crimes Act.

Section 59 allows parents or guardians who are facing charges of using force against a child the legal defence that the force is justified as long as it is reasonable in the circumstances.

Over the past 10 years there have been a handful of reported high-profile cases where parents or guardians were acquitted of charges by using Section 59 as their defence. This left many us dumbfounded because bruises or welts were clearly visible on the tiny bodies shown in the photos.

These high-profile cases have served as the catalyst for this bill and have led to vigorous debate.

The debate has been extended to the ‘cycle of violence’ and the need for this to be broken. It’s difficult to argue against this, and most people would agree that no violence should be inflicted on children.

I doubt very much that in cases where Section 59 has been used as a defence that the parents or guardians involved knew that there was such a defence open to them. It’s more likely that their legal counsel came up with the defence after the violent act was carried out.

Therefore, revoking this clause could serve as punishment for those offenders but I doubt that scratching the clause from law will act as a deterrent to those who use force against their child. In most cases where children are the victims of violence they live in horrific circumstances where drugs, alcohol, dysfunctional relationships and poverty are all a part of daily life.

This bill offers the blunt option of revoking Section 59, which only offers two choices, change or maintaining the status quo. In two recent polls, one in Stuff and other published by The Dominion Post, 84% and 82% respectively supported retaining Section 59. Other polls have also reflected this trend.

The Dunedin Multi-disciplinary Health and Development Unit study has also shown that parents and guardians are able to deliver appropriate physical discipline.

Some 1,000 children have been tracked since they were born in Dunedin during 1972 and 1973. The latest interview was conducted in 2004 when the study members were 32 years old. Eighty per cent said they’d been physically punished at home during their childhood, 29% had been only smacked, 45% had been hit with an object such as a strap or wooden spoon, and 6% had suffered extreme physical punishment.

The study also found that the 29% who were only smacked had ‘similar or even slightly better outcomes’, in terms of aggression, substance abuse, adult convictions and school achievement, than those who were not smacked.

Those who support repealing Section 59 argue that ‘smacking’ a child would not lead to parents or guardians being charged because that decision would be with the police. There is an assumption that common sense will prevail, yet, if that was true then offenders who had left cuts and welts on their children’s body wouldn’t be acquitted under the current legislation. So much for common sense!

Do we really want our over-worked police to be called in to decide whether to prosecute, or not, each time a case is reported? Involving police in domestic situations without clear guidance will only make the situation even murkier and undermine the goodwill that exists between police and the communities they work in.

How will making our police define what’s smacking, and what’s not, move the debate along any further? It only pushes the issue further down the line because it’s not resolved.

In the current climate, where the Government is increasingly interfering with our personal lives, many are fed up with the notion that they can’t be trusted to exercise their own judgment.

What do you think? Should Section 59 be repealed or not? Is there a middle ground for this issue? Please email your thoughts to pansy.wong[at]national.org.nz

Pansy Wong



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