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Dr Muriel Newman

Doing More Harm than good

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In the late 19th century, New Zealand gained a reputation as the ‘social laboratory of the world’. This was largely as a result of our adoption in 1898 of a pay-as-you-go pension scheme, which was in sharp contrast to the insurance-based contributory scheme introduced almost a decade earlier by the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

From these beginnings, New Zealand has continued to experiment with public policy. There is nothing wrong with policy innovation as long as policy makers are prepared to ‘pull the plug’ if and when experimental policies are seen to be doing more harm than good.

But therein lays the problem. All too often policies, especially social policies, become ‘captured’ by such powerful interest groups that few politicians have the courage to attempt serious reform. And nowhere is this more evident than in the whole area of family law, where, thanks to the perverse incentives introduced by the feminist movement in the seventies fatherless families have been created on a massive scale.

In particular, the poster child of those radical feminists, the Domestic Purposes Benefit, not only seriously incentivises family breakdown, but it creates lucrative financial rewards for young unskilled women with limited career prospects to raise children on their own without the support of the father. As one of our readers recently commented, on the NZCPR’s Breaking Views blog, “I (a pakeha) was married to a Maori Activist of Hone Harawira’s era. I lived in a Maori community and at that time tried to get the young women on the pill because 14 year olds were giving birth to children. I was told by the kuia to back off, as Maoridom needed to replenish its numbers. The consequences of this strategy (built on the DPB) are the young Maori that now fill the jails and streets of South Auckland.”

This “replenishment” strategy created by the DPB has contributed to a social engineering disaster, whereby an estimated 400,000 children live in fatherless households. As the former Governor General, the Rt Hon. Sir Michael Hardie Boys, explained a few years ago, “Fatherless families are more likely to give rise… to the risks of being abused, of being emotionally, even physically scarred, of dropping out of school, of becoming pregnant, of living on the streets, of being hooked on alcohol or drugs, of being caught up in gangs, in crime, of being unemployable, of having no ambition, no vision, no hope, at risk of handing down hopelessness to the next generation, at risk of suicide.”

In fact New Zealand’s suicide statistics make grim reading – every year more people commit suicide than die on the roads. Yet, while policy makers proactively look at ways to reduce road deaths, they prefer to ignore factors such as the impact of family breakdown and family law on suicide – even though the link is known to be strong.

When family breakdown does occur, while many separating parents are able to agree on future arrangements without acrimony, many others are not so fortunate. They instead become embroiled in vicious custody battles over the children. Often underlying such conflict is the question of who gets the weekly income from the government in the form of the Domestic Purposes Benefit (worth upwards of $600 per week for a parent with two children living in Auckland) and who gets the weekly bill from the government in the form of a child support liability.[1]

Having a system in place that rewards the parent who gains sole custody of the children when a relationship breaks down, while penalising the parent who misses out, means that New Zealand long ago lost sight of what really matters in the design of family law.

Everything we know about children tells us that it is in their best interest to maximise the involvement of both parents in their lives (unless of course parents are unfit). Children want, love, and need two parents. Society needs children to be fully parented. By any measure, children with both parents usually do better in life than those who have been denied a relationship with one or both of their parents. Society picks up the pieces far less often in cases where children and young people have enjoyed the fullest possible relationship with both their mother and their father. That’s not to say that single parents fail to do their best, but just as two of anything is more than one, two actively involved parents can provide more physical, emotional, and psychological support than one parent can.

And nor should we forget the wonderful contribution made by grandparents – and the wider family – in the upbringing of children. All are extremely important in providing a child with a loving and supportive family network.

However, New Zealand’s present family law system takes two parents, who in most cases want to do all that they can for their child, and pits them against each other – one becoming the winner, gaining custody of the child, while the other becomes the loser, a mere visitor in the child’s life. But the biggest loser is the child, for it is the child who walks into a courtroom with two parents and walks out with one.

Who can seriously believe that that is the best we can do as a society? With the tragic consequences of inadequate parenting evident all around us, we can no longer afford a legal system that discards one of the two most important people in a child’s life – his or her parents.

As a result of this winner-takes-all system, a quarter of all New Zealand children whose parents separate or divorce lose all meaningful contact with their non-custodial parent. A further 40 percent see that parent for only a few hours every month. This is a disastrous outcome for the children, the families, and society as a whole.

Many other countries have found far better ways of dealing with the difficult matter of parental separation, deciding that as far as children are concerned, it is families that matter the most. As a result they have implemented policy frameworks that put the needs of children first by enabling families to remain connected after separation to the greatest possible degree.

As far as the DPB is concerned, New Zealand is one of only four countries that incentivises family breakdown through a stand-alone sole parent benefit that entrenches dependency on the state. Other countries provide temporary support for sole parents through general benefits. That is what New Zealand should do.

In addition, many countries are now replacing adversarial sole custody laws with shared parenting as a way of ensuring that, in spite of family breakdown, both parents accept their on-going responsibility to jointly raise their child. New Zealand should also adopt this approach.

Shared parenting is the law in France, Sweden, and Holland, many states in the USA, Australia and Belgium. In these countries, the law encourages parents to involve each other in the lives of their child to the fullest possible degree, and in Belgium, ‘open’ case files are created so that parents at any time can have immediate access to the courts to directly sort out problems that may have arisen – without the involvement of lawyers![2]

Meanwhile in Brazil, a law was passed just last month to outlaw ‘parental alienation’, which they have now classified as a form of child abuse. In that country they believe that a parent who makes false allegations against another parent deserves to be severely punished because such actions compromises a child’s fundamental right to enjoy a healthy family life.

So, with many countries adopting policies designed to minimise the damage to children created by parental separation, you might well ask what is happening here in New Zealand to improve the situation.

Sadly, while the Government has indeed instigated a review in the area of family law, instead of taking a broad view to determine how we can turn around the disastrous social statistics associated with New Zealand’s unacceptably high rates of family breakdown and fatherlessness, it is narrowly focussed on child support.[2] Almost 20 years after the dysfunctional Child Support Act was introduced, and almost 40 years after the disastrous DPB began to socially engineer this country, there appears to be no enlightened leadership in this policy area at all.

This week’s guest commentator Bruce Tichbon, a tireless campaigner for family law reform, who describes the present Child Support Act as a social and financial disaster explains, in his article Child Support Review:

“The review seems to try to reduce the unfairness by turning the clock back nearly 20 years and returning to assessing both parents and basing the amounts on the cost of supporting the children. However, it assesses the cost of the children before the divorce occurs, making the assessed figures too high and not representative of the cost of supporting children in the divorced situation. The extra funds of course will end up as bundled spousal maintenance. The failure of the proposed new regime to separate spousal and child maintenance is a major failing.

“The proposed new regime also offers more flexibility to share costs in shared parenting situations. However, the unchecked ability to use allegations of domestic violence and sexual abuse against men has reached such a high level that it is hard to see much change from the current very low level of shared parenting – 3.9 per cent of children and 4.6 per cent of relationships in the child support scheme.

“The proposed new regime will fail because it does not address the real issues. The first step the government must take is to stop using family law as a vehicle for radical social agenda such as gender equity. Parents must in future be treated precisely as equals. The government must stop intervening and imposing artificial inequality (such as the way the Child Support Act creates a ‘Liable Parent’ and an ‘Eligible Custodian’) or the awarding of the DPB to one parent without consulting the other.

He adds, “Another area not touched in the review is paternity testing for men. Overseas experience shows up to 20 percent of the men forced to pay child support are not the biological fathers. It is an insult to parents who must pay crippling levels of child support that a simple and cheap paternity test is denied to them, even though the technology has been available for over 25 years.”

When family law fails, society suffers. The Child Support Review provides the public with an opportunity to express their views and call for an urgent review of family law with a view to implementing the sort of shared parenting framework that is now found in more and more enlightened jurisdictions around the world. The Review closes on Friday 29 October: an online survey can be found at www.supportingchildren.ird.govt.nz, written submissions can be mailed to Supporting Children Project, Policy Advice Division, IRD, PO Box 2198, Wellington 6140, or emailed to policy.webmaster@ird.govt.nz with “Supporting Children” in the subject line.

1.MSD, Domestic Purposes Benefit Factsheet
2. Peter Tromp, Benefits of Post-Divorce Shared Parenting
3.IRD, Supporting Children