Good on the government for its determination to keep having the "uncomfortable conversation" about child abuse. Sad it's not talking much sense
Discretion. Professional judgment. Tough decisions made from years of experience. These are some of the most important tools available to Child, Youth and Family staff when it comes to deciding how best to protect vulnerable children, so why would the government want to take that away?
The short answer is because child abuse is a problem that refuses to go away. It seems our abuse rates just aren't decreasing and remain some of the worst in the developed world, so any responsible government should be looking at creative ways to keep Kiwi kids safe. We should all be feeling desperate about how we can turn this terrible trend around. If I give Paula Bennett the benefit of the doubt – and accept that this is an issue of deep concern to her, as she says and as I've been told by others – I can put her latest policy idea down to just such desperation.
But the temptation in politics is to do something, anything, without stopping to make sure that the something tried doesn't make things worse. I think this is such a case.
Bennett says cabinet is considering changing the law so that the court can tell abusive parents that any future children will be removed at birth. The goal is to stop abusive parents having more children, she says. What she doesn't say is just how this would all be enforced, but it seems it would be some mandatory court order.
This idea appears flawed on numerous levels, such as how anyone could enforce such a law (without compulsory sterilisation), whether victim mothers would end up suffering for the sins of abusive fathers and if there aren't better ways to address the causes of abuse, thus building a fence at the top of that ol' cliff.
But the flaws begin with the very premise this vague policy idea rests on. It assumes a significant number of New Zealand children are being left in the care of known abusers. I'd like to see Bennett's evidence for this, because my understanding is that's not the case. Those who abuse, even neglect, their children will already have them taken away in – to use a favourite National Party line – 'the vast bulk' of cases.
As it stands, Child, Youth and Family has the power – through existing court orders – to remove a child from the care of an abusive of negligent parent. Last year, 148 babies were removed in the first month of their lives; in 2010 it was 177.
Bennett implies many more should have been removed. But the number of children removed from abusive parents is in truth much higher than that. I have no idea how many, but more children are removed at two months... at six months... at a year.
The reality as I understand it is that CYF workers take a child-focused, preventative approach, especially for pre-schoolers. While Bennett talks about removing kids from the most serious abusers, such as killers, children are already removed from homes for much less. Most "unexplained accidents" are sufficient for CYF to remove a child, if the professional assessment is that the child is at risk.
Those, such as Peter Dunne, who have complained at the level of intervention Bennett is suggesting are missing the point; the power for intervention and removal already exists and is frequently exercised.
What does "remove" means? It might be for a while or forever; it may mean the child lives with a family member but the parent has some access; it may mean the parent can earn access again if they can deal with whatever's plaguing them – get out of an abusive relationship, kick the drugs, get counselling for the abuse they themselves suffered or whatever.
Sometimes it may be clear as day that a child has to be whisked away from an abusive parent or household. But if another family member can care for the child, the law encourages the child to stay within the whanau.
So could an abusive parent not have the chance to re-build their relationship? Or while a parent may be too violent or drunk or plain hopeless to be lead caregiver, might there not be a place for them somewhere in the child's life? Sometimes, no. But in other instances, I could imagine that working out.
If we stop, think for a minute and get past our anger, it's obvious abuse or neglect aren't always black and white issues. Talk of "zero tolerance" sounds tough, but it ignores the messy grey areas of life.
If one parent is abusive, is it necessarily true that the child is better away from both parents? Can we really assume that a parent once abusive will always be abusive? With the right rehab or with support "wrapped around them", maybe the child needn't be removed permanently. If a single example of abuse or neglect leads to a single conviction, should that deny someone the right to parent for all time?
Because, while the child's basic safety is the number one priority, maintaining or rescuing family relationships should also be of concern. We know that kids who succeed – what Sir Peter Gluckman calls resilient kids – have strong family relationships. So if a parent can change, that could be of immense benefit to the child.
The point I'm making is that every tragic case is different, and the social workers, child psychologists, teachers, doctors and nurses, judges and so on closest to the case are best placed to use their discretion to figure out what's best for that child in that circumstance. They're certainly better placed than cabinet to define who is an "unfit parent".
I agree with John Key when he says we need to keep having this "uncomfortable conversation". But a blanket, mandatory policy that just says 'no' steals vital discretion from the experts, and to me seems like a serious mistake.