Special report - At-risk children: a new approach
White Paper aims to protect children from adults who 'on the balance of probabilities' may offend, reports Simon Collins
Adults who have never been convicted of any crime may soon be banned from living or associating with children on the "balance of probabilities" that they may pose a threat.
Today's White Paper on Vulnerable Children says this will be one of "a range of tough new measures targeting people who present a high risk of continuing to hurt children".
A background document says courts will be given powers to impose new "child abuse prevention orders" regulating a wide range of associations with children.
"There might also be a condition available to the court to apply a presumption that any future children of the person be removed, if the court is satisfied that the risk posed by the person justifies such a presumption."
The radical change comes in response to frustrations that the current system can remove particular children from an abusive or neglectful parent, but cannot do anything if that parent later has further children or moves into a new relationship unless a new complaint is received.
"Studies suggest that this is more likely to be an issue with male partners," the document says.
"Mothers' young boyfriends, step-fathers and 'substitute parents', with similar risk factors to abusive fathers - i.e. criminal histories, poor impulse control, a pattern of violence to their partners and with inappropriate expectations of children's behaviour - pose a particular risk to children."
Criminal offenders can be subjected to parole conditions or extended supervision orders, but there is no current provision to impose orders on suspected abusers who have not been convicted.
The new regime will allow courts to impose orders on anyone who has either been convicted of an offence against children or acquitted of physical or sexual abuse against a child "but has been found by the court to be guilty of the offence on the balance of probabilities".
Police, Corrections and the Ministry of Social Development will also be able to apply for an order against any person who "has been proved on the balance of probabilities to have committed an offence involving the physical or sexual abuse or neglect of a child or young person".
The court must be satisfied that the person "poses a high risk of further offending" against children.
Details of the order may be notified to the person's family members, new partners, employers and others.
The order may last for up to 10 years with rights to apply for a review.
The orders will be imposed through the civil law system, but breaches will be criminal offences with a maximum three-year jail sentence in line with the penalties for breach of domestic violence protection orders.
Government agencies will share data to monitor people subject to the orders and other "high-risk adults".
Parents who have their children removed and placed with "home for life" caregivers may also have their guardianship rights reduced or limited.
"Care will be taken to ensure that the proceedings are clearly civil, that the restrictions that can be imposed under the order are directed solely at the risk to children ... and that there are adequate provisions, such as those relating to review and appeal, to ensure adherence to the principles of natural justice."
Orders may require that a person:
* Cannot live, work or associate with children;
* Cannot loiter in areas frequented by children such as playgrounds, parks and swimming pools;
* Must advise police or CYFS of changes of address or job; and
* Must be referred back to the Family Court for a decision on the care of any future child they may have, before that child is born.
New complaints authority
Complaints against social workers could be handled by a new independent authority by 2014.
The change is one of the possible outcomes of a review into best practice that has been planned in the Government's White Paper.
At present, complainants can ask the Ministry of Social Development to take their complaints, made directly to the ministry, to an external advisory panel.
The panel is meant to give an impartial review and report recommendations to the ministry's chief executive.
An independent body would receive and process complaints rather than going through the ministry.
According to the White Paper, an independent review would recommend the best practice for handling complaints next year, to be put into place by the end of 2014.
Social Development Minister Paula Bennett said the review would consider whether Child, Youth and Family needed something similar to the Independent Police Conduct Authority to consider complaints about it.
The White Paper also sets out a goal to improve CYF's workforce.
Public called to 'step up'
Public largesse towards vulnerable children will be encouraged by the Government, which is proposing to create an independent trust devoted to the undertaking.
The Government's White Paper suggests that the trust would begin seeking donations from individuals and corporates within six months to create a scholarship programme.
The programme would begin by the end of next year.
"The most vulnerable children have a tough time," the White Paper says.
"People and companies can play their part." The Government would act to get the public to "step up".
Alongside the scholarships trust, the White Paper also proposes promoting mentoring schemes run by existing providers and encouraging adults to volunteer.
"We all know what a difference a positive adult role model can make as young people are growing up.
"People are encouraged to sign up to help a young person from their positive example."