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The Welfare of Children - In New Zealand, Who Care

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The Editor Opinion Piece -2 April 2000 For immediate release.

The Welfare of Children - In New Zealand, Who Cares?

"If present trends continue, by 2010 half of European and nearly three quarters of the Maori infants under 12 months will be in families where there is no father. Unless we turn things around, we as a nation are going to be in serious trouble". So said the Governor-General, Sir Michael Hardie-Boys, at a breakfast meeting in Lower Hutt last month.

Sir Michael is right, a disaster is befalling the New Zealand family. Overseas research shows children in fatherless families are seriously disadvantaged. Children in fatherless families are twice as likely to get into trouble with the law or go to jail. They are about ten times more likely to suffer serious physical abuse. They are far more likely to commit suicide; overall they have a 40% higher death rate than children in stable two parent families. Today there are over 200,00 children in New Zealand suffering under such circumstances, and the number is growing.

Those of us who were lucky enough to grow up in a stable two-parent family were fortunate. We were not forced to live in poverty, or to wonder why we never saw our fathers.

What is driving this huge surge in fatherless families today? There are a number of factors. One is the rising divorce rate. But the main factor is current social policy in New Zealand, which favours the formation of sole parent families when parents separate. This means one parent is defined as the primary care giver, and that parent becomes the custodian of the children. The other parent becomes the non-custodial parent. Almost invariably if the mother who wants custody of the children she will get custody. It is commonly accepted amongst the majority of New Zealand adults, that “the children go with the mother”. Most documents, magazines or books you will ever read in this country or in Australia about divorce assume automatically there is a custodial parent and a non-custodial parent. Try this Aprils Australian Women's Weekly on divorce (NZ Edition, Page 91) “If, as is usually the case, the mother is the prime caretaker….”.

Strangely, this policy favouring the mother having sole custody is rarely written down. What is written down in s23 of the Guardianship Act is that "the welfare of the child is the first and paramount consideration". This statement initially sounds wonderful, and it certainly seems to give anyone who quotes it the moral high ground. But somehow "the welfare of the child" is almost invariably interpreted as meaning sole custody to the mother.

The preference for sole custody, although not explained in the Guardianship Act, is highly evident in the way government benefits are issued by WINZ favouring sole parents, and in recent legislation. The Child Support Act dictates there must be an "eligible custodian" and a "liable parent", effectively meaning a custodial mother and a non-custodial father.

So it is evident that the main factor that will cause the disaster predicted for 2010 by the Governor-General is actually being caused by the Government's own social policies. But wait, is there a saviour in sight? Dr Muriel Newman of ACT New Zealand has introduced a piece of private member's legislation, the Shared Parenting Bill. This Bill will remove the preference for sole parenting and replace it with a preference for the mother and the father to share the parenting of the children. Suddenly, mothers and fathers will become equal parents. Muriel says this kind of legislation is well proven overseas as a means to protect the two parent family unit, to reduce the number of absent fathers, and to improve the welfare of the children.

Sadly, there are agencies and individuals, including lawyers, social workers, psychologists, counsellors and bureaucrats who benefit from the present preference for sole custody. They almost exclusively oppose separated parents being empowered by the Shared Parenting Bill to co-operate for the sake of their children, instead of being encouraged to fight over custody as they are at present. Are they more concerned about the welfare of children or their own jobs?

So you will see many red herrings. One is the claim that a 50/50 split would be absolute and impractical. This is not true, Dr Newman’s bill proposes that a 50/50 split of custody would be used as the staring point, instead of 0/100 as happens at the moment. Then there is the ridiculous claim that children would be confused by having two households with two sets of rules. If that was the case, then we would not let children leave home to go to school, we would not let them visit friends, and we would not be preparing them for the realities of life.

And then there is the myth that non-custodial parents retain some kind “guardianship” of their children. Although this exists in theory under the Guardianship Act for non-custodial parents who were either married to or living with the respective custodial parents when their children were born, in practice, the status of guardianship is not worth the paper it is written on. This is where politicians like the Hon. Laila Harre, who also opposes the Bill, have got things so completely wrong.

We can all be sure that Sir Michael Hardie Boys, as Governor General, would be only too happy to give Royal Assent to this legislation, and help New Zealand to avoid the disaster he foresees.

Tragically, the Labour-Alliance government has indicted that they will vote against the Shared Parenting Bill. It seems the Ministry of Women's Affairs produced a report saying they didn't like the Bill. Are they worried about the welfare of children, or are they worried that the Bill will challenge the virtual monopoly that women have to get possession of the children after divorce, and the benefits that go with that? Or perhaps the Government departments, who already control the structure and finances of one third of New Zealand families because the parents don't live together, are looking forward to 2010 when they will control well over half of the families in New Zealand? This surely will mean thousands more staff in WINZ, CYPS and the Child Support Agency, and promotions all round.

In the late 19th century men were happy to share the vote with women. In the early 21st century it appears women are not prepared to share the family with men. Men in the 21st century want more to do with their children, but the Government seems determined to keep most families split along gender lines.

Who cares about the welfare of children? Ten points each to Sir Michael Hardie-Boys and Dr Muriel Newman. Zero points to the Labour-Alliance Government.

Darryl W.L.T. Ward - Phone 025 230 1667


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