In the Best Interests of Her Children?

Punitive public policy too often ignores its impact on the children involved. 

My last column described how the punitive measures we had for dealing with debtors were only abolished in 1989. Yet others continue to suffer from oppressive legislation – if they are low enough in social ranking.

I was reminded of this by a report that the Child Poverty Action Group published recently. Kathryn’s Story, by lawyer and journalist Catriona MacLennan, describes the life of someone near the bottom. (I was marginally involved with the case, although my economic analysis did not need to know all of Kathryn’s life circumstances which the report reveals.)

The report uses the term ‘Dickensian’, but Kathryn’s life has been far worse than that of any Dickensian character. You will have to read the report yourself but it describes sexual abuse and family violence including homicide. (As far as I can recall, Dickens does not mention the former and only alludes to the latter on rare occasions.)

The Dickensian parallels are with the way the social institutions treated Kathryn. A court decided she had committed fraud by obtaining a benefit while she was in what it judged a marriage-type relationship. She denies that she was. Whether she was or not, you’ll have to make up your own mind after reading the report. Perhaps there is a fundamental clash between the rigours of the law and the complexities of the human condition.

It was the rigours of the law which sentenced Kathryn without warning and promptly jailed her. Not for her the court offering a businessman a respite before incarceration to put his affairs in order. Her affairs were her children; she had no chance to say goodbye to them. or to make arrangements for them while she was in prison.

I leave you to decide whether, had she committed fraud, imprisonment was a just punishment given her circumstances. Research by academic accountant Lisa Marriott compared sentences for benefit fraud with those for tax offences. She found tax frauds, involving an average of $287,000, carried a 22 per cent chance of jail for the fraudster. In contrast, beneficiary fraud averaged amounts of $67,000 but carried a 60 per cent chance of imprisonment. So a beneficiary fraudster was almost three times more likely to be imprisoned than a tax fraudster, even though the amount involved was only a quarter. (Incidentally, there was no penalty on the man involved in the alleged relationship, despite his knowingly benefiting from what the court found was ‘immoral earnings’.)

When Kathryn returned to civvy street she was still required to repay her debt. Not having any resources, her benefit has been deducted by a weekly amount. Benefits are well below a decent standard of living and Kathryn has even less. Can you imagine a businessman required to repay debt having his standard of living cut to below the poverty line?

So Kathryn leads a crippled life, and while the report says little about her children in order to protect their dignity, they too must be scarred for life. Yet she has been brave enough to challenge the deduction from her benefit, with a consequent and still ongoing 15-year legal fight.

Is this the best we can do? Are we too busy punishing those we do not approve of to ignore the consequences to human dignity and to the children who suffer collateral damage?

I have a soft spot for Hillary Rodham (Clinton); many decades ago I learned the phrase ‘in the best interest of the children’ from a book to which she contributed. (She is sometimes credited with ‘the whole village brings up a child’. The phrase is probably based on African proverbs; good on her for promulgating the sentiment.)

I am struck how often social policy at both the lower level (say of the courts) and at the upper policy level ignores the best interests of any children involved. I cannot believe that the jailing of Kathryn was proportionate if the impact on her children had been taken into account. They were taken into state care while she was imprisoned; sad to say the care was not always satisfactory – in effect they were jailed too.

I am an advocate for the Commissioner for Children – what an excellent job the outgoing one, Russell Wills, has done – becoming a parliamentary commissioner reporting to parliament whether legislation, policy and public practice is in the best interests of children. The role would be paired with the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment whose remit is to be concerned with another dimension of the wholeness of life – in this case the environment – which also does not elect MPs.

Micawber’s children and Amy Dorrit – Charles Dickens himself – all ultimately have benign life stories despite their fathers being incarcerated. One has no such confidence of a similar an outcome for the children of beneficiaries like Kathryn. The former lived in the harshness of nineteenth-century England from which many of our ancestors escaped to lead a better life here.