We asked National's Nikki Kaye and Labour's Jacinda Ardern: Is enough being done by government to prevent child abuse in New Zealand?
In one sense no Government can ever say that they are doing enough to prevent child abuse. So long as even one child is being abused, we need to strive to do more.
However while the Government, community groups and the community itself can play a valuable role in helping to prevent abuse, it is a chilling thought that there are adults who live in our communities who carry out these dreadful crimes.
Sadly, the numbers are overwhelming with each year about 10 NZ children being killed often at the hands of the people closest to them. That doesn't include the over 13,000 children under five admitted to hospital for conditions that could have been avoided in a year with over 1200 of these children admitted because of assault, neglect or maltreatment.
The truth is that for every child that makes the paper or even makes it to the emergency department there are many more that suffer in silence behind closed doors with nobody to help them.
Sometimes the neglect is not food or violence - it is a lack of love or care. I have met a number of young people who have had pretty horrific upbringings. Some have never had anyone who has cared enough to spend time with them, pay them a compliment or just love them.
This is why while I do believe there is more that government can do, I also believe that just as much focus must go on tackling the underlying social issues that lead people to neglect or abuse NZ children.
When I have asked people who work in professions helping abused children what we can do to try and better protect these children one issue often comes up. They raise the fact that a number of the people that have caused the abuse have been subject to abuse themselves. I know that there are many people who have been abused who are incredible parents and make it their mission in life to give their children the upbringing they never had.
However, there may also be another group of people who have never experienced good parenting and need help so that when they have children they are better parents. We must ensure our policies target these people.
We also need be clear that, regardless of what measure a government or a community can take, the final responsibility rests with the individuals who abuse these children and the families that allow abuse to be hidden.
Unfortunately, despite decades of good intentions by politicians, policy makers and community organisations, we have a pretty dark and sad record with more children neglected and abused than many other countries in the world.
The Government's recently released Green Paper offers what is an evidence based approach highlighting that two periods in a child's life when they may be most vulnerable: when they are very young and when they enter adolescence.
In terms of our young children, we have already released the recent early childhood education report which includes proposals to improve early childhood education access and delivery. Early childhood education is a great investment, and this is why the Government is spending a record $1.4 billion in this sector. We now spend more per child in early childhood education than we do for primary and secondary school education.
The Green paper also highlights that young children can be most vulnerable when they have parents with drug and alcohol issues or who experience mental health issues. The paper may be controversial for some, including suggesting that vulnerable children should have mandatory reporting by key health and education workers. Personally this makes sense to me.
In the last few years we have also undertaken a number of pieces of work to better support vulnerable children. This includes a programme for welfare reform which will provide better support for beneficiaries with children to support them into work, and a review of the child support system to better recognise the shared responsibility of caring for children. We have also invested over $50 million in maternity care specifically targeted to helping first time mums. In 2010 we put almost 15 million into helping teen parents into supported homes and more support for teen dads. This year we invested more than $43 million to ensure children in state care are getting better health, mental health and educational services.
We have also passed the Sentencing (Offences against Children) Amendment legislation which lists the factors the court must take into account when sentencing a person who has caused violence or neglect making sentences more severe for these people.
The Government recently commissioned a response to a report on reducing poor adolescent outcomes. We all know the teenage years can be really hard for a lot of young people but some of this comes down to how we look out for them.
I feel strongly that part of the issue with our teenagers is that as a country we do not value young people enough and we don't give them enough opportunity to contribute and be responsible citizens from a young age. An example of this is the debate around the drinking age. The typical response is to take rights away from all young people rather than instead addressing the issues for the young people that cause harm. A different approach would be to also focus on policies that enable more young people to contribute.
Our ability to design cities like Auckland with good recreational, cultural and leisure facilities accessible to young people is an important part in showing we care and giving young people opportunities to contribute. Better incentives to get engaged in volunteer work is another policy which would help create greater social responsibility and leadership with our young people.
The Minister of Social Development, Paula Bennett, has said that the Green Paper is about testing ideas with the public before making decisions and aiming to open up discussion about child abuse and neglect. Once all submissions have been received, a White Paper will be released outlining the Vulnerable Children's Action Plan and Children's Legislation. I think the Minister has shown political courage by raising the potential for resource and services to be prioritised to vulnerable children over other NZ children.
Preventing child abuse and neglect requires not only a response from government but also requires a social change which can only happen with the help of all New Zealanders.
Some of these issues are complex, but we have turned around damning social problems like drink driving before. It requires political will, intelligent policy, but most of all a strong commitment by all New Zealanders to say at every opportunity that it is NOT ok.
There are some things we don't need to be told; we just know. Shamefully for all New Zealanders, our appalling child abuse rates is one of those things. Surely then, it's time to stop all the chat, the lamenting, the writing of discussion documents. Surely, it's time to act?
When Paula Bennett released a green paper on child abuse and neglect last week, she said that there were elements of the paper that would make people feel uncomfortable. She was right. We all know we have a massive issue, but the scale is still shocking. 1,286 children were admitted to hospital between 2008 and 2009 because of abuse or neglect. That's almost the equivalent of the entire population of Niue. Not only that, the police currently have 6,117 active child abuse cases before them. These are our kids; they're being robbed of the start they deserve and that will come at a cost to all of us.
I am under no illusion that there is a quick fix to ridding New Zealand of child abuse and neglect and just as many of the answers and solutions as to how we can protect our children will come from within communities as they will from parliament. But we cannot ignore our responsibility to act. That's why, ultimately, I am glad that the Government has released a Green Paper for Vulnerable Children, but it's also why I question whether we really need more words?
In 2009 Labour wrote to John Key and offered to work with him on this critical issue. We did so for two reasons. For one, we had left some unfinished business. While Labour did manage to significantly reduce the number of children living in poverty through 'working for families', there was more to do. Secondly, as the green paper has demonstrated, there are a whole range of areas where both parties agree on what should be done. So again- why aren't we just getting on with it?
We've already said what else Labour would do- and it's wider than the Green Paper. We would start by preventing abuse and neglect through support and access to services for parents and children. Support should be available to parents so they have the time to care, with resourcing provided to do it, including for grandparents. This is, after all, the most critical period of any child's life. And because it's also the best time to identify children and parents who may need extra support, we will also ensure that all babies are enrolled with a Well-Child provider; this is the best way to ensure no child falls through the cracks. We are also committed to providing access to Parenting Programmes, initially aimed at families who need more assistance, but available for all New Zealand families over time.
But it's not just about newborns. All the evidence tells us that we also need to make sure that every child has access to a good quality, accessible early childhood education; an area that is currently being eroded by the Government.
There are some things that we don't need to be told; that it's time for action on child abuse and neglect is one of them. That's why, just as we did two years ago, we will offer to work with the Government again on this issue. Because now is not the time for more words- it's time to act.
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