Don't turn children into the scapegoats

Everyone has one, everyone has an opinion on them, and these days every political party has a spokesperson on them, not to mention a fair amount of policy.

The family has risen to an all-time high on the political landscape with the creation last year of a Families Commission to advocate for families of all shapes and sizes.

But political parties are being warned not to punish the children as they grapple with policy to offset one of New Zealand's most common and growing family formats - the sole- parent family.

The main parties all have a view on what to do about the more than 100,000 people on a domestic purposes benefit - from Labour's encouraging them into the workplace to National's wish to toughen penalties for women who do not name fathers and Act's fear that some women view the DPB as a right.

Economist and child poverty action group executive member Susan St John says beware of punitive measures. Far more children in sole-parent families live in poverty than do children in two-parent families.

"Anything that provides a financial penalty has to be looked at rather carefully because it can mean immediate reductions in the food children are getting," St John says.

Another trap, she says, is forcing sole parents into the workforce once children reach a certain age, because, again, it can backfire on the child. "It ends up in a silly situation where they're working for peanuts at low-paid jobs and not having the energy or time to look after their own children."

The needs of the children must always be put first in policy, not the desire for a payback for taxpayers.

Leonie Morris, programme co-ordinator for the Auckland Women's Centre, says policy seems to be framed around a mindset that a sole parent's goal should be to get themselves into employment.

A lot of sole parents are on their own because they have escaped violent relationships.

"It may be appropriate for their main goal to simply look after their children and themselves at that point."

Parent educator Lesley Max says the correlation between being brought up in a sole-parent household and a poor outcome is clear.

"It's necessary to give thought to it. We all accept the exceptions but the exceptions are where the sole parent has a lot of personal resources, a lot of skill, a lot of energy, good health. So, if outcomes are to be better then policies need to be in place."

But the priority needs to be on the child being parented, not on sending the parent out to work while the child is young.

There also needs to be public education about just how hard it is to be a sole parent, she says.

"I think it's too easy for young women, in particular, to envisage themselves as being more independent as sole parents than, in fact, is the case. It is very, very hard. I don't think the message of just how difficult it is is sufficiently around. Girls need to know."

The sole-parent and DPB policies of the main parties:

Labour:

Says sole parents who work part-time are better off thanks to its Working for Families package. Since 2003 everyone on the DPB has a personal development and employment plan to get them into the workplace.

Legislation already passed will raise penalties for sole parents who do not name the other parent.

National:

DPB recipients would have to work part-time, retrain or do community service from the time their youngest child reaches school age.

They would have to name the father of their child in all but "quite exceptional circumstances". There would be a much higher financial penalty for not doing so.

Parents would have to present preschool children for health, dental checks and vaccinations. They will be allowed to not vaccinate children only if they have a conscientious objection and sign a declaration.

Greens:

Sole parents will not be forced into the paid workforce on pain of losing their benefit while their children are still young, or if they are caring for children and young people with physical, mental and/or intellectual disabilities.

The Greens oppose financial penalties for not naming the father, saying children should not be penalised for the "sins" of their parents.

They propose a universal child benefit be paid to all parents regardless of income or employment.

New Zealand First:

Fathers' names should be made compulsory on birth certificates to ensure they make a financial contribution to raising their children.

The party also wants more support for women to enter the workforce once children are at school.

Act:

It would replace the DPB and all benefits with a single temporary benefit to send a clear message to the able-bodied that welfare is for temporary assistance only in times of need.

People permanently unable to provide for themselves would be exempt. People would have to reapply for their benefit every year.

United Future:

It would not alter the DPB but would add to work education requirements that sole parents undertake parent education, not because they are bad parents but because it is a good opportunity while they are being paid to be at home raising children.

Progressive:

Maintenance of an adequate level of the DPB is vital. Progressive has also advocated for policies such as four weeks' annual paid leave and the progressive extension of paid parental leave provisions, which make it easier for parents to stay in the workforce.

Maori Party: Parents, solo or couples, should be able to stay at home and would be supported with increased family support payments or reduced taxation for those on low incomes.

An agony no one could have saved

Conceived in Spain by an English dad and a Kiwi mum, Jessica Cable, aged 7, is a child of her generation.

Her dad, John Cable, designs superyachts and is often away skippering them for two to six weeks at a time.

He had known Jessica's mum for a long time, but only started living with her when Jessica was born - "for the sake of Jessica, really, from my perspective", he says. "I tried to make a go of it."

It lasted just 16 months. "It was okay at the beginning, but things got more and more difficult."

His partner, he says, "was very frustrated - I can't pinpoint why".

Perhaps, he thinks, there was "an element of postnatal depression".

"She was jealous of a perceived lifestyle and probably felt rejected."

As the relationships deteriorated, he says his partner "was verbally very violent towards me - it's fortunate that Jessica has no recall of that". It was an agonising parting.

In the end, he does not feel that anyone could have saved the marriage. "I try not to think back over it," he says. "I don't see much point in dwelling on it."

Marriage going according to plan

When Sarah and Vincent Heeringa decided to marry in their early 20s, they sat down to plan their lives in their 60s.

They covered "all the big stuff - God, how many children we wanted, what we wanted out of life, what sort of people we wanted to be".

With four children aged from 10 years to 22 months, life in their Grey Lynn villa is hectic. Vincent, the founder of Unlimited magazine, works fulltime, and Sarah edits Parents Inc's journal Parenting, working three days a week from 9.30am to 3pm so she can pick the children up from school.

Vincent says his generation wants it both ways. "I want to have a fantastic, fabulous career - and I want to be rolling around on the floor with my son and playing cricket."

Sarah says couples have to be "committed not just to staying together, but to working instead to maximising the quality of your relationship. Those old sayings are right: never let the sun go down on your anger. Don't let things develop ... to the point where you don't have anything in common."

Sometimes there is no choice

No woman wants to raise her children alone but Roz Goodliffe says she had no choice.

The New Zealander had been living in Britain where she married and had two children.

But the relationship was abusive and, for her own and her children's safety, she put as much distance as she could between her husband and herself, eventually returning to New Zealand.

Her daughter and son are now 15 and 11. She has been raising them on her own for seven years. Goodliffe's ex has chosen not to keep in contact with the children.

Goodliffe, who runs single parent support groups, says it isn't easy being a solo parent, but neither is it doom and gloom.

Violence is often a factor in the break-ups and people are forced to leave, or find themselves alone after their partner leaves.

In the past it was that much harder to survive because there was no domestic purpose benefit.

Children in sole parent families can be just as balanced and happy as children in two-parent families, sometimes more so, she believes.

 

 

 

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