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Dr Muriel Newman

Dealing with Abuse: The Way Forward

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I’m appalled that Mr Key thinks he is above the people and that his past promises (not to change the law) are more important than their wishes. Political parties are elected to govern the country according to the wishes of the majority. That’s how democracy is supposed to work. In some circumstances, the majority view will be uninformed and the government may make laws that they think will provide a better result for society. But this is NOT one of those situations. I’m further appalled that he thinks that it’s OK for him to just tell police how to enforce a law as has been reported in the news. That’s not his or their job. It’s his job to make laws that he thinks are correct and it’s the police’s job to enforce them without fear or favour. Then the courts decide if the police are correctly interpreting the law. The law is clearly against the wishes of the, by now, well-informed majority and MUST be changed or repealed. – a reader’s response to last week’s poll where 98% of informed NZCPR readers believe that the present anti-smacking law should be repealed.

While New Zealanders were busy voting on whether parents who lightly smack their children should be regarded as criminals, two toddlers were so brutally abused they died. The anti-smacking law did not protect two year old Jacqui Peterson-Davis of Kaitaia, nor three year old Kash McKinnon of Palmerston North, from the fatal injuries that killed them. Nor did the law protect a four month old baby boy from Papakura, nor a 17 month old little girl from Kamo, both of whom were admitted to Starship Hospital during the same period with critical head injuries. These two deaths bring the number of children who have died of abuse since the anti-smacking law was passed to fifteen.

Without a doubt the child abuse crisis in New Zealand is growing. In their briefing to the incoming government, Child, Youth and Family revealed that they had received 98,890 notifications of potential child abuse in the year to 30 June 2008, compared with 26,000 in the year to June 2000. This is in spite of successive governments allocating more and more money to try to get on top of the problem. In this year’s budget some $2 billion has been appropriated to support children and protect them from abuse: over $433 million to Child Youth and Family, some $37 million on services to support and strengthen families, communities and whnau; over $10 million to the Children’s Commissioner and the Families Commission; and $1.5 billion in welfare for 100,000 sole parents with children on the Domestic Purposes Benefit.[1]

But with the number of children being abused increasing each year, isn’t it time we faced up to the fact that the policies designed to deal with what is undoubtedly one of society’s most difficult and tragic problems, are simply not working.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator, Stuart Birks, Director of the Centre for Public Policy Evaluation at Massey University, looks at the pit-falls that exist in the area of public policy, where so-called experts often wield undue influence:

“We place a lot of weight on the word of authority figures, especially if they have qualifications and can call on supporting research. The media often report on research as if the findings are points of fact. Is this confidence misplaced? There are three very simple points that should be remembered if we are to interpret this sort of information realistically.

  • – Theories are just analogies. They are not definitive descriptions of the phenomena to which they relate, and we cannot claim that they represent reality.
  • – Evidence does not prove the validity a theory. It can only be consistent with the theory. There can be numerous alternative, consistent potential explanations. Many of these will be wrong, even though not disproved at that time.
  • – Current wisdom is based on convention, that which is commonly accepted at this time and place. The same phenomena may be understood or interpreted quite differently in the past, or in the future, or elsewhere (by a different ‘conventional wisdom’).”

In his article Should we believe the experts? Stuart uses as an example a claim by the Principle Family Court Judge that the Family Court is not biased against fathers, pointing out that such a conclusion is not borne out by the statistics which show no marked increase in the award of sole or joint care of children to fathers since the mid 1980s.

Over the years a great deal of research has been undertaken into the factors associated with child abuse. This research, which includes some recent work by the Ministry of Social Development[2] and the Children’s Commissioner[3], shows that family structure plays a pivotal role in the wellbeing of children. Without the shadow of a doubt, the safest family environment in which to raise a child is a home in which their biological parents are married. The importance of marriage is especially significant since it signals the long-term commitment of parents to each other and to their children. That is not to say that all children raised in step-families, defacto families, or sole parent families are at risk of being abused – of course they are not. But on the balance of probability, a child raised by their mum and dad in a traditional married family is far more likely to remain safe from harm than a child raised in any other family type.

The problem is that for the last nine years, social policy has been captured by the anti-family movement and shaped by a political view that all family types are equal. Laws have been passed and policies enacted that support that view. Strangely, this anti-marriage stance is strongly promoted by many of the groups who work with abused children and their families even though they see the consequences first hand in the growth in family fragmentation and dysfunction as well as the increase in the number of children being abused.

Patricia Morgan, a senior research fellow with the Institute for the Study of Civil Society, examined the profound transformation of New Zealand’s family policies that have taken place over the years in her book “Family Matters”. She outlines how “feminists turned questions of family policy away from help for families, to one of rights for mothers to an income that made them independent of men”, and she points out that no other country adopted such an extreme agenda. The end result of this manipulation is that instead of being a country where families with children paid almost no income tax – a situation that existed right up until the early seventies when the Domestic Purposes Benefit was introduced – New Zealand has become a county that imposes very heavy tax burdens on families, largely to pay for the rising cost burden associated with the DPB: “Parenting outside marriage became the only form of child-rearing that society remains willing to subsidise substantially”.[4]

It has been a radical social experiment. Largely under the radar of public awareness, our society has gone from subsidising marriage to subsidising single parenting. The resulting rise of fatherless families has had devastating consequences as the former Governor General, the Rt Hon. Sir Michael Hardie Boys, explains: “Fatherless families are more likely to give rise to the risk 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.”

The point is that children need contact with their fathers as well as their mothers as they are growing up. The role of fathers, as a child’s natural protector, supervisor, as a role model for sons, and a male relationship model for daughters, is invaluable. Yet New Zealand now has welfare and family law policies in place that are designed to drive fathers away from their children in the event of family breakdown.

In particular, the Domestic Purposes Benefit provides the parent who retains sole custody of a child (usually the mother) with a secure income – just so long as the other parent does not care for the child for more than 40 percent of the time. The non-custodial parent (usually the father) who would, more often than not, prefer to fully share in the upbringing of their child, is saddled with child support to repay the state for the DPB.

While the whole draconian child support regime, which is fundamentally flawed and has never worked well, is thankfully about to undergo a comprehensive review[5], unfortunately the same cannot be said for the DPB. By linking welfare payments to the custody of a child, the DPB is all too often a catalyst for conflict over custody and access. Instead of the “best interests of the child” being the driving imperative, it is all too often the financial resources provided by the DPB.

There is a better way. As an MP I twice attempted to introduce shared parenting bills into Parliament, in order to ensure that both a mother and a father – as well as grandparents and other family members – remain connected with their children after family breakdown. Unfortunately the Labour government prevented the bills even going to a select committee and to date no other MP has promoted such reform. Shared parenting is now a presumption in law in an increasing number of countries including the USA, Italy, France, Sweden, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Australia, Ireland, Malta, Luxembourg and Holland.[6] Many more countries that are finally facing up to the tragic consequences of widespread family breakdown are moving this way.

If the National Government is serious about getting on top of the child abuse crisis, it needs to re-examine the whole gamut of associated social policy in New Zealand to properly assess the extent to which measures that used to protect children and families are now eroding them.

As Stuart Birks points out in his guest article, theories and policies surrounding complex social issues are not clear cut. And as attitudes and understandings change, yesterday’s conventional wisdom on the best way to protect vulnerable children may not work today.

In light of the conflict of outcomes for families and children of present policies that are fuelling the inexorable rise in child abuse, a Commission of Inquiry would be the best way forward. A Commission of Inquiry could properly assess all of the issues and objectively examine existing laws in order to map out the best way forward. For the sake of the growing numbers of vulnerable children that can now be found in every community throughout the country, this is a most urgent priority.

1.Treasury, Estimates Vote Social Development
2.Children’s Commissioner, Death and serious injury from assault of children under 5 years in Aotearoa New Zealand: A review of international literature 
3.Ministry of Social Development, Children at increased risk of death from maltreatment and strategies for prevention
4.Patricia Morgan, Family Matters, Astra Print, Wellington 
5.Families Commission, What Separating Parents Need When Making Care Arrangements for their Children 
6. Peter Tromp, 
Benefits of Post-Divorce Shared Parenting