Child abuse report too narrow, says Labour

The Kahui twins are among New Zealand's most high profile child abuse victims. Photo / Supplied
The Kahui twins are among New Zealand's most high profile child abuse victims. Photo / Supplied

A report on tackling child abuse is a step in the right direction but its focus on the most vulnerable ignores the needs of every child, Labour says.

The discussion paper - titled Every Child Thrives, Belongs, Achieves - included suggestions such as mandatory reporting of abuse and giving priority treatment to younger families.

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett said some of the issues were controversial and would make people uncomfortable, but New Zealanders needed to think about what trade-offs and sacrifices they would be willing to make.

The report painted a bleak picture of child abuse in New Zealand.

Two children were physically, sexually or emotionally abused every hour, with 21,000 cases of abuse and neglect in 2009/10, and 13,315 avoidable hospital admissions the previous year.

Some 47,374 children under the age of 16 lived with a victim of family violence in 2010, while 15 per cent of children under 18 years needed support and intervention at any one time.

Of those 15 per cent were children who were significantly more at risk of poor life outcomes such as learning and behavioural difficulties, mental and physical health problems, alcohol and drug dependency, criminal activity, imprisonment, poor education achievement and employability.

The report offered options and sought feedback on what changes the public thought would work, rather than spelling out clear cut options.

Its proposals included priority treatment for parents to access a range of services; mandatory reporting of abuse by doctors, teachers and nurses; reconsideration of the preference to send children removed from their homes to relatives; and better sharing of information even when there were privacy issues.

Labour deputy leader Annette King said the paper was a step in the right direction, but was lacking because it was too narrowly focussed on vulnerable children.

"Vulnerable children are part of the picture, but all children in New Zealand need a good start in life," she said.

"Where you start to make the change is in the first five years of a child's life, and you support all children and their family through those early years."

The discussion paper included many of the elements of Labour's children's policy, including information-sharing, child-centred practices, agency collaboration and law changes.

Ms King said rather than political posturing, a cross-party consensus was needed.

"It is time that the political divide was closed in terms of putting children first," she said.

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei warned against putting the needs of some vulnerable people ahead of others, saying that was a recipe for shifting the problem.

"Until we adequately address poverty and deprivation, we won't get far in stopping abuse and neglect," she said.

Children's Commissioner Russell Wills said the time had come for tough conversations about how to improve children's lives.

The discussion paper was an opportunity to make changes for those children who were failing, hurting or missing out.

"Our children deserve better than this, but unless we change what we're doing these children will do badly."

Dr Wills said he had no doubt that if people got involved by making submissions, tangible results would follow.

Ms Bennett told reporters today the discussion paper was different, gusty and controversial.

It did not set out solutions but was aimed at generating debate in the community, she said.

"I know that New Zealanders haven't seen a lot of that in the last 15 years - I hope they embrace the process and see it for real, sustained change that it can make longer term."

Ms Bennett said the Government would look at feedback as it came in and develop a white paper by about May next year. Law changes were likely to follow.

The Government was not sitting on its hands on the issue of child abuse, she said.

"We've already made substantial changes around child abuse and neglect and how Government agencies work and in community programmes.

"We will continue to do that - this is merely a consultation document that's going out alongside of the work that's already been done."

Ms Bennett said priority access to services, mandatory reporting and information sharing would all be controversial, but needed to be looked at.

Groups including Barnados, Plunket and disability provider IHC have welcomed the discission paper.

- NZPA


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