Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Child safety laws tighten checks

Social Development Minister announces more stringent security screening as part of abuse crackdown.

Hail-Sage McClutchie, 22 months, died of head injuries in 2009. Photo / Christine Cornege
Hail-Sage McClutchie, 22 months, died of head injuries in 2009. Photo / Christine Cornege

Changes to child protection laws will mean that all staff working with children in schools, hospitals, government agencies and organisations that get government funding will have to have security screening every three years - a change estimated to affect at least 376,000 people.

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett announced the new measures in compulsory screening as part of a wider package aimed at addressing child abuse.

The new screening requirements will be compulsory for all government and state-funded organisations where staff regularly work with children - from paediatricians to cleaners in early childhood centres which get state funding. Although it will be voluntary for private sector businesses and groups, that will be reviewed in two years.

The new mandatory checks will be in place by 2014 for new staff and existing staff will be screened from 2015 on. The initial screening process is expected to cost $200,000 and Ms Bennett said the ongoing costs of repeat screening were unknown but not expected to be significant.

Ms Bennett said although most new staff were already screened when they started, the recent case of paedophile teacher James Parker showed the need for thorough and regular checks, including making it mandatory to check with former employers to see if there were concerns.

She said everyone in the "Children's Workforce" would be subject to the checks - about 376,000 workers employed or contracted by the Government to deliver services. In a further change, anyone with serious convictions will be permanently prevented from working alone with children.

Other measures to be introduced include:

Five government departments - police, justice, education, health and social development - will have new legislated responsibilities for vulnerable children which will be a factor in chief executives' performance reviews.

Courts can issue Child Harm Prevention Orders to prevent people considered at risk associating with children for up to 10 years, even if they are not convicted of a crime.

If CYF has removed a child from the care of a parent because of abuse or neglect, the parent will have to prove they can provide a safe home for any further children.

The Family Court can curtail the guardianship rights of birth parents whose children have been placed into a permanent home with another family. Only used if the birth parents are disrupting the new family.

Ms Bennett has described the changes as the biggest shake-up in the child neglect and abuse area since the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act in 1989.

She conceded some were controversial and could have human rights impacts, but was confident the bill would get enough support to pass.

Labour's spokeswoman Annette King said there were concerns about the circumstances in which the Child Harm Prevention Orders were used and Labour will wait to see the full details before deciding whether to support it.

Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia was wary of proposals to make it easier for children to be removed from their families, especially if they were put into state care. United Future leader Peter Dunne was also cautious that child harm prevention orders could be laid against people who were not convicted of a crime against children.

However, the majority of the changes were welcomed by advocacy groups Every Child Counts and the Sensible Sentencing Trust.

Every Child Counts manager Deborah Morris-Travers welcomed the decision to increase screening of those working around children. She said although the new Child Harm Prevention Orders were yet to be vetted for human rights implications, provided a high standard of evidence was required they showed promise.

"The proposed Child Harm Prevention Orders signal clearly that involvement in the lives of children is a privilege and our nation will not tolerate child abuse."

Sensible Sentencing Trust head Garth McVicar said although the privacy and human rights activists would criticise the changes, if they saved just one life it would be worth it.

Learning from mistakes
Cases Paula Bennett set out as the reasons for new laws.

The cases:
Henry Te Rito Miki: The convicted sex offender used multiple identities to get work at several North Island schools. James Parker: The Pamapuria School teacher was convicted of 74 charges of sexual offending against boys over a 13-year period. His former school and police had earlier concerns.
The fix:
Mandatory thorough and three-yearly screening of those working with children, including for other identities and contacting former employers to check for concerns. Anyone with serious convictions has a permanent ban on working alone with children.

The case:
Hail-Sage McClutchie: Died of head injuries in September 2009. Hail-Sage's older sibling was removed from the home but CYF did no assessment after Hail-Sage was born.
The fix:
If CYF has already removed a child from a parent, any subsequent babies will also be removed unless the parent proves they can provide a safe home. Currently, CYF has to go to court and prove the child is in danger.

The case:
Nine-year-old girl in Waitakere is subjected to ongoing serious abuse by her parents. Ministerial Inquiry found several government agencies were engaged with the family but failed to take action, which prolonged the abuse.
The fix:
Government departments - health, justice, social development, education, and police - will have new statutory responsibility for child protection, including policies requiring frontline staff to identify and follow up on suspected abuse. CEOs will be held accountable through performance reviews.

- NZ Herald

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