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Sharples: Every day is Children's Day

Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Amendment Bill (No 6)

4 March 2008; 9.50pm

Dr Pita Sharples, Co-leader of the Maori Party

There were a few events in the last few days which gave me room for great optimism.

The first, of course, was the celebration of Children’s Day this last Sunday. When we recognise how special and precious our children are – and knowing that perhaps the most important gift an adult can give to a child is in ‘giving time'.

Perhaps an even greater goal is to ensure that every day is Children’s Day.

The second event was a challenge from Children’s Commissioner, Dr Cindy Kiro, that politicians should work beyond their party boundaries to keep children's issues outside party politics.

And the final crowning event in this group of three, the confirmation of the growing confidence that Maori voters have in the ability of a strong and independent Maori voice to represent them in Parliament.

Why this is so important is that with 22% of our Maori population under the age of 19 years of age, and we are passionate in our belief that these children and young people deserve the very best representation that they can.

In fact, when one considers the fact that in 2005, 28 percent of newborn New Zealanders are Maori, it is very quickly becoming obvious that Maori are the face of the future.

And despite the tired old ‘play it again’ lines of 2005 that Mr Shane Jones loves to bang on about, what Maori are showing in statistically significant numbers is that Maori are seeking representation in this House to give voice to their aspirations for the future.

A vote for the Maori Party is a vote for the Maori voice.

A Maori Party which stands consistently in this House, to put forward the views of an independent, strong and proud Maori voice.

I am not going to join the queue of an ever-present chorus of complaints about the faults and failings of our young.

The adolescent health survey of 2003, surveyed over 10,000 secondary school students to find that over 85% of those surveyed are thriving and positively engaged with their families.

In the Maori specific component of that study, whanau was shown to be a vital environment for taitamariki and a strong and positive influence on most of the 2300 participants.

It is rare for parties in this House to be able to come to the topic of children’s policy, and find studies which confirm a basis for hope, rather than dwelling on deprivation, dysfunction and deficit analysis.

But we must start focusing on the potential of our young people, the hope that they represent for our future.

We have had more than enough of politicians posturing about the problems of youth, comparing children to snarling mutts, the association that everything can be fixed by a good dose of boot camp philosophy.

The Children Young Persons and Their Families Act 1989 compelled state child welfare agencies to consider issues of culture, particularly in the context of their “whanau, hapu and iwi”.

In many respects it was legislation before its time, in the way in which it recognised the centrality and importance of the whanau to the care and protection of tamariki and to youth justice.

We must preserve the intent of this legislation – throughout all subsequent iterations, including those on the order paper today.

We are well pleased to see the initiative to raise the legal age of a young person to seventeen.

While in effect this makes our legislation consistent with international arrangements, such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, our key interest is that it ensures the benefits of the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act will now apply to an age group which has too readily slipped through the cracks.

We are also glad to support the purposes of this amendment today, to strengthen the effectiveness of family group conferences.

The family group conference has been described as the lynchpin of our youth justice system. It receives quite a bit of criticism in this House, but in effect it reconciles the two concepts of ‘justice’ and ‘wellbeing’ by making a young offender accountable, while also involving the victim and their families in the decision-making process.

While renowned internationally, it has not been without its challenges.

The commitment to retain children within their family takes enormous effort, time, resources and a belief that family-based solutions are worth all of this work.

The changes introduced in this Bill, to say:

ensure that representatives of victims at FGCs can be accompanied by support persons;

that Courts and lawyers should to encourage the participation of children and young persons in FGCs;

or that FGCs must be advised of the health and education needs of children and young persons

are all excellent enhancements to the original model, and we hope there will be sufficient investment to achieve optimum success.

Findings of the research undertaken by Dr Marie Connolly, who reviewed fifteen years of family group conferencing in 2004, revealed that while the original Act supports a family-led process, in practice professionally driven processes have been creeping into to the system.

As someone who has been involved in many FGCs I am greatly concerned that the original intentions of the process towards facilitating healing and restorative justice have been treated in such a way.

I have particular association with Te Whanau Awhina, which was established over thirty years ago now by Maori welfare community volunteers. It began as a community group providing a forum for dispute resolution at a local high school in Te Atatu North.

In time, the police were brought in and started referring offenders to us and then the courts, and then Judge Michael Brown, began referring a range of offences and offenders to this forum.

It was through the influence of Te Whanau Awhina that the FGC evolved - encouraging the mediation of concerns between the victim, the offender and their families as a means to achieve reconciliation, restitution and rehabilitation.

I’m proud to say that the FGC model initiated by Judge Mick Brown drew from the example of Te Whanau Awhina.

One of the most important paragraphs in the Bill is the commitment to, and I quote, “ensure the family group conferences are timely, well-informed and managed to achieve the best outcomes for children and young persons”.

And so here we are, considering a host of consequential amendments to the Act to strengthen the responsibilities and procedures for the care and protection of children and young persons, including the care and support for disabled children and young persons, and in responding promptly and effectively to reports of child abuse.

There is, however, despite a range of positive provisions and amendments to support victims, children and young persons and families, some concerns which we will be eager to hear the views of the community on, at the select committee stage.

In particular, the concept that the Youth Court can transfer young people to the District Court for sentencing a year earlier at fourteen years old, and that young people no longer need to give their consent to community based orders.

There is an anomaly in the current law which has the potentially negative effect of exposing fourteen year olds to longer sentencing options should the offending be proved.

While it is proposed that the power to convict and transfer young people to the District Court for sentencing be extended to include fourteen year olds who have committed purely indictable offences, we are still very keen to seek clarity about what this will mean and the implications it will have for young people.

I return to the idea of our young people as the face of our future.

We need to create the optimum environment which invests in every child, no matter what circumstances they are born into.

We need to invest in children to develop to their full potential. Then we can truly say that we are making a difference for the future of Aotearoa.

Thank you Madam Speaker.


ENDS

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