Editorial: Tough stance on abusers of children on right track

Minister for Social Development Paula Bennet. Photo / APN
Minister for Social Development Paula Bennet. Photo / APN

So awful is this country's record of child abuse that many radical responses have been aired in the past few years.

There was, for example, Social Development Minister Paula Bennett's suggestion that the courts should have the power to ban child maimers from having more children. And there was a coroner's view that all children should be monitored compulsorily until they reach 5, including spot checks of their homes.

That such flawed ideas garnered a measure of support spoke volumes of the widespread despair over the extent of the problem and the failure of policies to address it. Welcome, therefore, is Ms Bennett's long-awaited Children's Action Plan, which, while bound to be controversial, is generally well targeted.

Two aspects of the new regime will be particularly contentious: the wide-ranging Child Harm Prevention Orders aimed at people considered to be a risk to children, and a requirement that parents convicted of killing or abusing their children will have to prove they are safe to care for any subsequent children.

In the first instance, High Court and District Court judges can impose an order for up to 10 years if it is believed "on the balance of probabilities" that someone poses a threat to a child. It will not be necessary for a person to have been convicted of a violent or sexual crime against children. A pattern of behaviour detected, for example, by police intelligence would be sufficient.

At a first blush, the latter feature appears draconian. But the characteristics of the orders and the wording associated with them are broadly in line with protection orders for domestic violence made by the Family Court and criminal courts. In that context and particularly with the presence of judicial scrutiny, they appear merited.

The provision which requires abusive parents to prove to Child, Youth and Family they are no longer a threat tips normal legal practice upside down. Previously, it was up to the state to prove an abusive parent was unsafe. In an ideal world, that would continue to be so.

The reversal carries a strong and unfortunate implication that previously unfit parents are beyond rehabilitation, But there will be greater certainty that children will be removed to a safer and nurturing environment, and, as Ms Bennett suggests, their welfare must come first. The death from extreme abuse of 50 children in the past five years shows how the present approach is not working.

In arriving at this plan, the Government had to ponder one especially finely balanced issue, that of mandatory reporting of child abuse by schools, doctors and the police. Public submissions on this were evenly divided.

The argument against it is it would deter guilty parents from seeking treatment for their children, worsening their circumstances. The Government has decided compulsory reporting would be a "blunt instrument".

Instead, it will lean on government agencies to improve their performance and co-operate more effectively. New legislation, said Ms Bennett, would make the heads of the police, justice and the health, social development and education ministries accountable. Protecting vulnerable children would be part of these chief executives' performance expectations.

It has always been surprising that, privacy provisions notwithstanding, there is not already a high and consistent degree of co-ordination between these agencies. The seriousness of the problem should long ago have eradicated notions of patch protection and prompted a cross-agency drive to identify at-risk children at an early stage. If things do not improve, mandatory reporting will have to be revisited. That aside, however, what has emerged from more than two years of deliberation is stronger and sharper than previous tepid responses.

- NZ Herald

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