Ben Mills: Let's hear it for the kids

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Where is the talk about helping New Zealand's children in an election year? Photo / Thinkstock
Where is the talk about helping New Zealand's children in an election year? Photo / Thinkstock

On one level, it might seem a little counter-intuitive to raise the issue of priorities for children and young people in the upcoming election.

Children can't vote or stand for election; they tend to be somewhat ambivalent on the issue of the sale of state-owned assets; and most people, including politicians, are far too busy thinking about the deficit or the Greek financial crisis or whether Phil Goff can win than to consider the views or needs of children and young people.

Yet no other issue even begins to approach the public sense of moral outrage when a particularly horrifying incident of child abuse is reported. While child abuse and poverty are well-known and publicised, other problems affecting children are not.

These include:
• 17-year-olds are not entitled to child protection under current legislation.
• Although we have a youth justice system, which is demonstrably more effective at preventing crime than the adult system, 17-year-olds do not qualify; children charged with murder are treated as adults; and 12-year-olds are unnecessarily criminalised.
• 1600 students are kicked out of school every year.

Despite many of those decisions being unlawful, there is very little students or their parents can do to challenge a decision or get back into school.
• Funding for young people in alternative education programmes goes to their original school, rather than to their education provider, meaning that those who need help most subsidise everyone else's education.
• Children and young people are subject to prejudice and discrimination. Seventeen-year-olds are adults with the police and 16-year-olds must apply for their own protection orders if they are being abused. But young people are scapegoats for our drinking culture and crime statistics.
• Child Youth and Family are not obliged to investigate all cases of child abuse reported to them and even if they were, limited care and protection resources would render many investigations ineffective
• Loopholes in legislation mean that children aged 16 or 17 years who are abused at home or kicked out are highly unlikely to receive government help. They are too young to access most private or state housing and struggle to qualify for any state benefit and may end up homeless.

Our children are among the most vulnerable people in our society. If politics is about making life better for ordinary New Zealanders, then improving the lives of the vulnerable must be at its heart.

Furthermore, investing in children is investing in our society early. Ensuring all children receive care and protection means less truancy from school and more kids in school.

Establishing a body to review school decision-making results in fewer kids kicked out of school and less youth offending. Involving more young people in the restorative youth justice system means youth offenders appreciate the impact of their offending and are more likely to make a positive contribution to society instead of following a path of crime.

In short, we'll save billions of taxpayer dollars in prisons, healthcare and benefits in the future by investing properly in our children now.

Finally, more attention is needed directed towards children's issues since, rather than just being the "citizens of the future", children are citizens today.

They may not be able to vote or gamble or drive, but they're still part of our society and need our protection and consideration. As Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills says, "children are taonga".

Currently, the major political parties have varied approaches to children's issues. National do not have a children's policy, however they would like to "make defendants aged 17 to 19 years old subject to the standard (adult) tests for bail".

Labour's policy for children was overdue, but it wants to end child poverty, overhaul child protection legislation, create a Children's Minister and Ministry, increase funding to early childhood education, and a range of other initiatives. However it does not mention compliance with international child rights laws.

The Greens' children's policy wants to raise benefits for those with children; ensure that adoption legislation complies with international child rights laws; create an "integrated framework" to monitor child development; "adequately resource" the Office of the Children's Commissioner; and oppose the incarceration of child migrants among other things.

They've also made ending child poverty one of their three priority areas.

Neither Act nor the Maori Party nor Mana have a specific children's policy, but Act say they want a "broken window approach to policing, especially in respect of youth", whatever that means.

It wasn't immediately clear from the Maori Party's website what their policies were on anything, let alone for tamariki and rangitahi. Mana say they want social policy and social development to comply with international child rights laws, but further details are sparse.

If children are to have any hope of improving their lot this election, we need to do better.

The Government recently launched their Green Paper on Vulnerable Children, a document which seeks submissions from the public on how we can better protect vulnerable children. It is an opportunity, particularly for children and young people themselves, to have a say on how we as a society can better provide for our most vulnerable children.

If the government is serious about reforming child services for the better, then the Green Paper is both extremely welcome and long overdue. (Submissions on the green paper close on February 28, 2012. To make a submission go to: www.childrensactionplan.govt.nz.)

However, children's priorities in general are still disappointingly absent from party policy, campaigns and election coverage so far. We must ensure they are not absent from voters' minds come election day.

This taonga should be handled with care.

* Ben Mills is the legal education co-ordinator with YouthLaw Tino Rangatiratanga Taitamariki, a free legal service for children and young people nationwide. YouthLaw can be contacted on 0800 UTHLAW.

- NZ Herald

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