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Dr Muriel Newman

Improving the Lives of Children

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A study released last year by the OECD on child wellbeing painted a grim picture of the status of children in New Zealand. It found that New Zealand children lived in poor conditions – average family incomes in New Zealand were low by OECD standards and child poverty rates high. In terms of the “health and safety” of children we ranked next to bottom – 29th out of 30, with by far the highest rate of youth suicide and an above average rate of child mortality.[1]

New government figures released last week have confirmed that the proportion of New Zealand children who are at risk of abuse is growing rapidly with the number of child abuse notifications this year expected to reach the highest level ever at 125,000.[2] This is up from 30,000 in 2002.

Apart from the horrendous real-life tragedies that lie behind these devastating figures, there is a second tragedy and that is that the National government is playing a political game by blaming the increase in notifications on public anti-violence campaigns, rather than acknowledging the factors that are causing this escalation in violence against children, so that something can be done. Because, as we all know, while child abuse is a complex problem, it rarely occurs in intact married families, but is very common in single parent families and those dependent on welfare.

Stuart Birks, the Director of the Centre for Public Policy Evaluation at Massey University and this week’s NZCPR Guest commentator, discusses this game-playing theme as it relates to public policy in his article Agenda denial and framing – the Child Support Act 1991:

“An American politician, the late Eugene McCarthy, described politics as a game. It is a game where the public see the performance, but not the behind the scenes planning. Much of the politics that we see is engineered. Some of the strategies are described in academic literature using terms such as ‘agenda setting’, ‘agenda denial’ and ‘framing’. It is not entirely accidental that some issues get a lot of attention and others are ignored. It is the result of groups competing to set the agenda. When an issue does get attention, the aim is then to frame it so that a particular view and desired solution dominates.”

We saw this sort of ‘framing’ in action during the ‘smacking debate’, which was led by Sue Bradford, the former Green Party MP and one time member of the Workers’ Communist League. Driven the socialists’ imperative of undermining the parental influence and control of children, and the feminists’ agenda of undermining the role of men in the traditional family, the view she promoted was that any form of physical force against a child – even a light tap on a naughty toddler’s bottom – was to be regarded as violence and should be banned. This was the argument adopted by both Labour leader Helen Clark and – unbelievably – National leader John Key. As a result, the smacking ban was introduced and traditional child rearing practices outlawed. Children are now increasingly more badly behaved than they ever were, and with corporal punishment having been banned in schools over a decade ago, violence and bullying in schools has now reached dangerous levels.

The fact that child abuse has continued to escalate in spite of the smacking ban – as we all said it would – means that it is other serious factors that are driving the increase in violence against children. National should reverse both of these ridiculous bans, giving parents back the power to control their wayward children, and teachers the power to control violent students.

In his article, Stuart discusses how framing can be used to mask the real agenda of the powerful vested interest groups that are promoting policies that can badly damage society and he calls for the need for a far greater public awareness of what is going on. He explains, “In a healthy democracy, many different groups would have a voice, and people would be aware of both the alternative perspectives and the nature of the game. A first step in developing and maintaining such awareness might be an understanding of the term, ‘framing’. At any time, the prevailing perception of issues (what they are and how they are viewed) could be considered as being the result of processes of agenda setting and framing. We then have the choice of passively accepting these, or challenging them and ensuring that alternatives are presented. This could be uncomfortable for some of those who see themselves in the dominant group. It involves challenging their ‘fundamental beliefs’. However, dominant groups do not dominate forever, and it may not be in anybody’s interest for some groups to be heard and others ignored.” To read Stuart’s full article in which he looks at the framing that surrounds aspects of family law, please click the sidebar link

There is no doubt that New Zealand’s current social policy agenda has been heavily influenced by the powerful feminist movement. Their radical agenda was aimed at lifting the status and power of women in society by undermining the status and power of men, with the traditional married family seen as a prime battleground. However, you don’t have to be a genius to realise that when a society allows its government to bring in policies that undermine marriage and the solid commitment to family that goes with it, then one way or another the children are going to suffer. The problem is that once a committed father has been cast out of the family home, it means that the one person whose traditional role has always been to protect the children has suddenly been removed. It is pretty basic really – take away the protector and children are left more vulnerable to violence and abuse. With increasing numbers of children now growing up in homes where neither a married dad nor a biological dad is present, it is little wonder that child abuse is on the rise.

This is not rocket science. These outcomes we face today are the result of policy and law-making decisions that were made twenty or thirty years ago, that have never been properly reassessed. In fact it should be standard procedure that after a set period of time, existing laws should be subjected to an appraisal process which examines firstly whether the law is achieving its stated objectives, secondly what the impact is on all of the groups that may be affected by the law, and thirdly whether the behavioural changes that have been evoked by the law are positive ones. If the result of the appraisal shows that the negative unintended consequences are greater than envisioned, then the law should be repealed or amended. Leaving New Zealanders to suffer the consequences of poor lawmaking should not be an option.

The feminists in the New Zealand Labour Party orchestrated the introduction of the domestic purposes benefit in the seventies, to allow women to opt out of marriage and the support of their husbands, in favour of state dependency and taxpayer-funded handouts. All too often husbands had little say in what was going on, and their attempts at reconciliation frequently failed because their wife did not want to lose her benefit or her independence. Things became worse in the nineties when the draconian Child Support Act was introduced as a means of forcing fathers to contribute to the runaway cost of the domestic purposes benefit. The Act was designed by the Labour Party but passed by the National Party and remains one of the country’s most badly designed laws. As Bill English, the National Party Member of Parliament who chaired the select committee responsible for the Child Support Act later said, “That was a 400-clause bill. It sought to impose a fairly rigid legislative framework on a very diverse element of people’s experience – that is, modern relationships between parents and children. I might say to this Committee that we rushed that legislation. We did not hear sufficient public submissions, and those we heard, we did not take sufficient notice of. I might also say, as a back-bench MP at the time, that we were whipped fairly thoroughly by the Government of the time, which was my own party, to make sure that we put that legislation through as originally framed by Ministers. We made some real mistakes.”[3]

In spite of this understanding that the law is hugely problematic, it appears that no proper attempt has ever been made to fix it – by the Law Commission, by the Law Society, or by Parliament, although Peter Dunne has signaled an intention to tackle it. As a result, on a daily basis parents – largely fathers – up and down the country struggle with the punitive demands made on them by the IRD administrators of the Act. For too many years the Act has been a battleground between warring factions – mothers who say the father isn’t paying enough and fathers who say the payments are crippling. Instead of having in place laws which encourage fathers to remain as closely engaged with their children as is possible after a relationship breakdown, the Child Support Act has been responsible for alienation on a massive scale.

In fact, between the DPB and the Child Support Act, the feminists have well and truly achieved a level of success in New Zealand that must have exceeded their wildest dreams. Large numbers of fathers have been completely gutted – their hearts ripped out by government policies that were designed by the feminists to undermine their role as providers for their family. But in taking out the father, the child’s protector has also been removed with the devastating consequences that can be seen in those escalating child abuse statistics.

When I was a Member of Parliament searching for a solution to what was back then a growing problem but no-where near the crisis proportions we see today, I became convinced that shared parenting, a system used in Sweden since 1982 and increasingly in other countries around the world, was the best solution. Under a shared parenting regime, if a relationship breaks down, then, just as both parents are equally responsible for the care of their children before the relationship breakup, so too they are equally responsible afterwards – unless a parent opts out and gives the other parent sole custody. In this sort of arrangement the best interests of the child is the paramount consideration and keeping both parents engaged with their child through a shared care arrangement is seen as essential.

Under a shared care regime there would be far less need for state support and the benefit system could easily be reconfigured to provide temporary top-up support for those with younger children or anyone who needed extra assistance while they found their feet. Most shared parenting regimes allowed for the exclusion of parents who could be deemed to be a danger to their children – like drug addicts who need to go into rehab to sort themselves out before being considered capable of caring for children – while others included penalty clauses to prevent one parent from maligning the other. In other words such laws demand that parents put their children first with the result that the sort of outright animosity that all too often clouds family law as it stands in New Zealand today, would be avoided.

Back in 2000, the National Party was very supportive of the concept of shared parenting. Given that shared parenting is now the preferred arrangement in more countries around the world than it was back then, I would suggest to the Minister of Social Development that as she reviews the future of social welfare, if she is genuinely concerned about reducing the escalation in child abuse, then seriously investigating the benefits of shared parenting – so that both mothers and fathers (and grandparents and the wider family) remain involved in their children’s lives – could make a real difference to the lives of children who are the victims of family breakdown.

1.OECD, Doing Better for Children
2.Herald, One baby in hospital a week because of abuse, MPs told
3.Bill English, Hansard 21 November 2000, 588, NZPD, 6747