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Summary of Presentation on the Repeal of s59

A summary of my presentation to the Select Committee on the Repeal Section 59

Good intentions no excuse for bad law

I have been overwhelmed and encouraged by the debate surrounding the proposed bill to repeal Section 59 of the Crimes Act (the anti-smacking law)

The consensus is clear – as a nation we are disgusted and appalled by the frequency with which we read about another child being beaten until dead or half dead (most often by a mother’s boyfriend or step-parent). We want this to stop or dramatically decrease. The repeal Bill has been presented as a panacea to this problem.

Unfortunately these kinds of bills have been passed in other countries and the results are clear. They do not reduce or prevent serious child abuse or death – in fact a proportion of deaths occur because parents delay getting medical help because they fear having their child removed. Child abuse in Sweden (which has the most long-standing anti-smacking laws) actually rose following the introduction of their anti-smacking law. Most concerning however is 672% increase in youth on youth assault during the period from 1981-1994 which is massively higher than any comparable country without the anti-smacking laws. In effect where there are no consequences to bullying or hurting other children (such as the fear of physical consequences) why stop bullying. Sweden has a higher child abuse rate than the United States (references are Lyons & Larzelere, 1996).

More importantly Sweden has a fantastically high rate of child removal – over 4 times our current rate. Children taken into care are exposed to neglect and abuse and the disruption of their natural attachments to their parents which is essential for their emotional health. Typically because of foster care shortages they are placed in family homes along with other hard to place children including children who have sexually abused other children or have extreme violence or behaviour problems. The psychological damage to children who are removed is extreme and must be seriously contemplated as a cost of removal. Children who are damaged in their attachment capacities are more likely to be violent or sexually abusive – so what occurs is a perpetuation of a cycle of violence.

Sue Bradford has recognized the public’s concern about parents being prosecuted and has provided assurances that this would not happen however the police have clearly stated in a letter to Craig Smith the National Director of Family Integrity that if Section 59 was repealed then, “smacking of a child by way of a corrective action would be an assault…the Police in investigating such cases would consider the amount of force used … an aggravating factor in any such decision may be the fact that a child is generally more vulnerable than an adult.”

Clearly this says that the police would be bound to treat smacking for discipline as prima facie assault (as would be physically carrying a child to their room for – “time-out”. Time-out is illegal in Denmark which has a similar law to Sweden.

The fact is that children’s vulnerability to serious abuse is closely aligned to family breakdown. It has no or a negative correlation to appropriate physical discipline according to empirical peer-reviewed research. If we wish to make it clear that flogging a child or slapping them around the head is not appropriate then what is required is an amendment of section 59 to define reasonable force as proposed by United Future’s Murray Smith and Gordon Copeland. Good intentions are no excuse for bad law. Repealing Section 59 will actively harm New Zealand families and our children as such I cannot stand by and support it in the name of political correctness.


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