Thursday, June 7, 2012

9,000 submissions and this is the best the Minister can come up with?

In late 2011/early 2012 the Minister of Social Development made quite a big deal about wanting to deal with the issue of child abuse, issuing a Green Paper and inviting the public to make submissions. The Minister herself did a traveling roadshow to encourage people to make submissions. 
The debate around child abuse came to be dominated by one of those simple solutions the Minister seems so fond of, namely the mandatory reporting of child abuse. Mandatory reporting of child abuse is one of those quick-fix-so-we-don't-have-to-deal-with-real-issues solutions the government and much of the public are so attached to. It is also highly controversial, and while some research notes many cases of identified child abuse have come to the attention of authorities because of mandatory reporting, it is also clear that despite mandatory reporting, many people still do not report child abuse because the do not want to be caught in the subsequent legal proceedings. There is, moreover, scant evidence mandatory reporting prevents child abuse in the first place (which should surely be the goal of any rational policy).
Despite the Minister's best efforts to steer debate to simple stuff, reports from various public meetings noted that more fundamental, structural problems such as low incomes and housing featured strongly in people's reasons for what made children vulnerable to abuse. And a quick perusal of the publicly available submissions made by various NGOs and community groups shows that they, too, fingered poverty as the biggest single risk factor in child abuse. Yet poverty, particularly child poverty, has not been part of any official discourse.
The government received 9,000 submissions on the Green Paper, all presumably made in good faith by people who believed the Minister when she said the consultation process would give them "a real say in how we protect our children". Yet curiously, since submissions closed, the Minister has gone quiet on what they contained. In a highly unusual move, the submissions have not been publicly released, nor has a summary of their contents been made available. Is this because they raised questions and offered solutions the Minister and her government didn't want to hear? They wouldn't be that cynical, surely?
Well, as it turns out, yes. In her latest headline-grabbing, grandstanding effort Ms Bennett has suggested - apparently seriously although it could be a late April Fool's joke - that she is considering giving the courts the power to ban people convicted of abusing or killing children from having more children (one can only imagine the judiciary running screaming for the nearest exit at the thought of having to do this). There is no evidential basis for this bullcrap, and it just looks like another policy the Minister plucked out of her arse to distract the public from thinking about more serious problems. While the suggestion has gone down well with those responding to newspaper website polls, the question has to asked: will this stop any children being abused, and the answer is most probably not. How is the remote possibility of not being able to have future children (assuming of course this is even enforceable) going to change the behaviour of an anxious/depressed/stressed parent towards their pre-existing children? It's not. And as with other 'radical' measures the Minister has introduced to great fanfare, the practical effect of the suggested policy will be tiny. According to data from the New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse, in 2010 there were 7 convictions for homicide of children aged 0-14 years, and in 2008 there were 421 District Court convictions for assault on a child. This is in contrast to the 124,000 notifications to Child Youth and Family in the 2009/10 year, of which 55,000 required further action. So banning breeding for about 430 people per year  is not going to make our child abuse problem vanish. 
In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking it's a sideshow designed to distract people from thinking and talking about unemployment, poverty, inadequate and unsuitable housing, poor health and sending the mothers of one year old babies back to work because they've somehow violated the social contract - the stressors that contribute to child abuse, in other words. In the meantime Paula Bennett gets to market herself as leopard skin-clad action woman standing up for New Zealand children. The rest of us need to stand up for our kids and not let her get away with this.