Editorial: Ban on abusers breeding a step too far

Paula Bennett. Photo / Janna Dixon
Paula Bennett. Photo / Janna Dixon

This country's appalling record of child abuse means extreme responses often win an unwarranted degree of support, no matter their obvious flaws.

The latest example is Paula Bennett's suggestion that the courts should have the power to ban child maimers from having more children and to order the removal at birth of any infants born to such people.

This, she said, was among a range of options that the Government was considering to stop "unfit parents" from having more children after they were convicted of child abuse, neglect or murder.

The policy would replace the current approach, which sees Child, Youth and Family obtaining court orders for the custody of newborn babies. Its advocates say it would provide greater certainty that children would be removed to a safer and nurturing environment.

But it also imposes the sort of one-size-fits-all approach beloved by seekers of simplistic solutions. Effectively, all "unfit" parents are deemed to be beyond rehabilitation.

There is no chance that, with support, they could be turned into effective parents.

This all sits rather oddly with the Budget's $65 million funding boost for the rehabilitation of criminals. That was an acknowledgment that a costly punitive policy was not working.

The Social Development Minister wishes, however, to continue exactly that approach. She justifies this by referencing the law that comes to the rescue of abused dogs. "There can be sanctions banning people from owning a dog for five years, but we don't do that for children," she says.

But we also euthanise dogs, while not extending that to humans. This is because of the difficulty of establishing safeguards that would ensure there is no abuse or misuse of the practice. The same flaw blots Ms Bennett's blanket approach to "unfit" parents.

As it is, the massive step of removing infants from their parents at birth or within a month is not uncommon. Last year, Child, Youth and Family obtained court orders in 148 cases. In 2010, 177 children were removed in this manner.

This was done case by case, usually because previous infants had been abused by the parents or because of mental health issues or addictions.

Providing dedicated attention to each case in this manner is an altogether more satisfactory approach. And if there are concerns about children slipping through the cracks, usually because the birth of another baby was not known because the case of a child dying from abuse had been closed, this can be addressed by other means.

An Experts Forum on Child Abuse suggested to the minister in 2010 that there should be an alert system for all abusive mothers, so officials knew when they had more children and could intervene early. Cases would remain open indefinitely, and an automatic flag would rise when a mother had another baby, alerting doctors to the family history of abuse. A mother would, therefore, be tracked throughout her life and if she changed partners.

This would mean a woman was tainted permanently by one episode of child abuse. But while placing the requisite emphasis on a child's safety, it does not rule out the potential for parents to be rehabilitated through effective support services.

The forum was also adamant about the need for all agencies involved in abuse to share information about an individual child as a matter of course. This would go a long way to ensuring that the births of children in worrying circumstances would be monitored, and state agencies would get alongside the parents as soon as possible.

Ms Bennett should heed this expert advice, rather than pursue a policy that is neither warranted nor necessary. New Zealand's child abuse statistics demand a response that is both strong and urgent. But one that is smarter, not unduly harder.

- NZ Herald

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