Paula Bennett's dog whistle | The Jackal

6 Jun 2012

Paula Bennett's dog whistle

Today, the NZ Herald reported:

The Government is considering ways to prevent child abusers from having further children or to take children away from them at birth.

Social Development minister Paula Bennett told Radio NZ that over the past year, 148 newborn babies were taken away from their parents because of fears for their safety.

She said the Cabinet was considering a range of options to deal with the issue of known child abusers or killers having further children - including allowing the Court to direct someone convicted of serious child abuse or neglect or murder not to have more children.

She said it would not be forced sterilisation, but if any parent under such an order did have a child it would be taken from them at birth.

While there is an argument that people who are unfit to have children shouldn't be allowed them, the reality of such a directive is largely impractical. Besides, there are already laws in place that are meant to protect children and young people.

The Young Persons and Their Families Act 1989 (PDF) allows for children or young people to be placed in the custody of the Chief Executive when their parents are unfit or incapable of looking after them. At the moment the decision is made by the Family Court, and there are a number of grounds outlined in section 14 of the Act that defines whether a child or young person is in need of care or protection.

The problem with Paula Bennett's proposal is firstly that it places more onus on the state to decide who is unfit to have children, which will be fraught with mistakes; Secondly there is no way to stop people having children, except for forced sterilization; and thirdly there is already a system in place whereby unfit parents lose their children... so this is really an exercise in futility by National, that will obviously appeal to all those bigots out there.

National is playing to people's misconceptions, being that the amount of children in the custody of the Chief Executive has been steadily declining in recent years, from 6,136 in 2008 to 5,020 in 2011.

This raises questions about the reasoning behind Paula Bennett's announcement dog whistle, being that there is a trend downwards of children needing to be removed from their parents. There simply does not need to be any further strengthening of the current laws, because interventions have declined by over 18% since 2008.

Clearly Paula Bennett hasn't based her announcement on anything resembling research.
The other problem is that removing children from their parents does not automatically solve the issue of abuse. In the year to June 2011, there were 30 reported cases of abuse of children or young people in the direct care of CYF's that were referred to the police.

CYF's has not provided information concerning the abuse of children or young people they've placed in out of home care (consisting of 77% or 3,885 of those in the custody of the Chief Executive in 2011), but this is likely to be at or above the levels of abuse by direct CYF's caregivers.

Only 30% of all fulltime CYF staff are registered social workers. CYF's has approximately 3100 full time staff with 989 of these registered. Around 1203 of staff are working directly with children or young people, meaning that 22% of CYF staff working directly with vulnerable people are not registered social workers.

But I digress; there is no question that unloving and abusive parents can have a detrimental effect on the psychological development of a child or young person, but severing the attachment bond also has a detrimental effect. Giving the state even more powers to remove children from their parents, when the end results are not proven to be beneficial, is a recipe for disaster.

The real solution to reduce the amount of children and young people who are abused by their parents is to implement policy that actually makes a difference in their lives... namely reducing inequality and increasing social cohesion. Unfortunately National don't seem particularly interested in doing either.