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Are We There Yet?

Posted on 05 Sep 2007

Good afternoon

I have been asked to speak about whether or not we, as a nation, are 'there yet' in terms of putting children at the centre of Government policy and to say how I - and the ACT Party - would make this a reality.

As such, allow me to begin by answering this question with a resounding 'no'; we most certainly are NOT at a point where children are central to policy - in fact, I would have to say that we are actually moving in the opposite direction.

The issue of child welfare is a complex one and if we are to truly find a solution to the problems that New Zealand is facing, then we must - as with any problem - first identify the cause ... lest we embark upon misguided endeavours that make the situation worse rather better.

Let me make clear that I appreciate that the aims of this group are broad.  That said, however, I strongly believe that one issue takes immediate priority over all others: the need to preserve the physical safety of our children - when children are being toilet-trained with the aid of a pick axe handle, for example, other considerations must be put on hold.

At the risk of oversimplifying the issue, many of New Zealand's problems in this area stem from having people with the emotional development of children being parents themselves - and who, predictably, put their own needs first. 

While this is a common problem, only the most horrific cases make it into the newspapers - allowing us to see the problem as distant and rare.  The reality, however, is that dysfunctional families are neither.

At the same time, legislation can only achieve so much - and results are modest at best.  Repeal of Section 59 - the Anti-Smacking Bill - is a case in point.  Although the message might be clear to those of us here, it clearly is having no effect on those viciously abusing their children. 

This has left us with only two options: giving the family more money, or imprisoning the parents.

Over the past decades we have seen the options available to organisations like CYF decline as every type of institution for the housing of children has been closed.  CYF social workers have an 'on call' system with which to deal with emergencies but know they have no safe place to put at-risk children.

The solution is obvious - but it won't come cheap: an array of services ranging from advice sought voluntarily by parents, to Court-imposed supervision, to incarceration. 
Some concepts are best illustrated by an example; since 1996, ACT's policy has been to introduce a mentoring system for dysfunctional families:

In a situation where a solo mother applies for emergency support after spending the family's income on alcohol, most people would opt to give the mother a little more money rather than allowing the children to go hungry.  ACT would propose another option: that of placing the mother's finances into someone else's hands - introducing a mature influence into that household if there is not one there already.

While most households might find this intrusive and unpleasant, they would learn to manage and the mentoring could be continued indefinitely.

Another option would be to see the entire family living in a supervised facility.  Only in a minority of cases is it necessary to enforce a strict separation of children and parents.
The key point is that there needs to be a range of services running the gamut from advice through to prosecution.  While CYF workers need not necessarily run the service, they certainly need to be able to access it.

Now, many of you will know that most cases of child murder involve families not known to social welfare agencies; no one - family, friend or neighbour - has brought the abuse to the attention of the authorities, and some will not even co-operate after a murder has been committed.

At this point we face a hard question of civil liberties: to what extent is it permissible for the State to monitor the care of children?  It is a regrettable fact that the majority of child murder victims are infants - almost all under four years old.  I once asked a salty old pediatrician why this was, and he said that by age four most children can run pretty fast.  

This is where things get tricky.  A public campaign to encourage people to dob in child abusers would result in a flood of tittle-tattle.  Social Welfare staff here will know that silly or vexatious complaints do occur - but all teachers, Plunket nurses and anyone in the frontline of child welfare should be taught how to engage with at-risk children.
While all of this is worth doing, however, it is still an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff - trying to fix harm after it has been done.  The real question is how we prevent it in the first place.

The fact is that we see far fewer problems in the traditional family, and I don't mean 'traditional' in the religious sense - for example, as a liberal, I have absolutely no problem at all with gay couples and find it ridiculous that some people suggest they represent a threat to the traditional family.

A traditional family is best for children - and I suspect that most people know that ... they simply don't know how to sustain it.  ACT believes that welfare dependence has created perverse incentives and many of the problems our children experience today have been made worse by an inter-generational dependence on welfare as the sole source of income for too many families.

ACT has been accused of being too harsh in this area in the past; suggestions - such as naming the father of a child on a birth certificate before the DPB will be paid out, and raising the age of DPB eligibility to 20 - have been met with misplaced outrage.

More of the same is not working and sometimes tough decisions need to be made to change people's attitudes and behaviours.  An honest and open debate is long overdue if we are serious about putting children at the centre of Government policy.

One thing is certain: our children are precious and deserve the best - that's me speaking, not only as a politician but, in my much more important role as a mother.

ENDS

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