Smacking debate needs some correction

Last updated 10:36 12/06/2009

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Linley Boniface (A question smacking of deceit, June 8) is right on one thing. We should not be spending $10 million on a referendum on the anti-smacking law. But we are for two reasons.

OPINION: First, , the politicians failed to listen to the overwhelming majority of Kiwis who knew the law change would do nothing to tackle our horrendous rate of child abuse (and it hasn't). Second, the previous government failed to hold the referendum at the more economical time of a general election because it knew the issue would bring about its downfall. It did anyway.

But Boniface needs correction on many other things. A total of 113 politicians did vote for the law - after being whipped to vote that way by Helen Clark and John Key. Phil Goff and Paula Bennett have now admitted they don't agree with the law as stated.

The law change was labelled the anti- smacking bill because this is what the architect of the law change (Green MP Sue Bradford) called it. And groups who supported it, such as Barnardos, Plunket, Epoch and the previous children's commissioner, have all been calling for a ban on smacking since 2001.

The question "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in NZ?" was publicly notified for submissions in 2007 but there was no opposition from these groups at that time. They never believed that more than 300,000 voters would sign a petition demanding a say on this issue, the majority of whom signed the petition after the amendment was passed.

Those who oppose the question simply don't like the answer they came to: No! And despite Boniface's disparaging claim that the "world around us is chock-full of people who couldn't successfully raise a family of tadpoles to adulthood", the huge majority of good parents raising great kids simply don't buy the notion that a light smack as part of correction is a "physical assault", encourages violence, or should be treated as child abuse under the law. Significantly, these parents and grandparents were raised in a generation where a smack on the bottom or hand was not frowned upon, but an assault was an assault, and treated as such. There was even - shock, horror - some corporal punishment. Yet we turned out pretty well, didn't we?

Much of the research cited does not adequately distinguish the effects of smacking, as practised by non-abusive parents, from the impact of severe physical punishment and abuse.

But a 2007 Otago University study found that children who were smacked in a reasonable way had similar or slightly better outcomes in terms of aggression, substance abuse, adult convictions and school achievement than those not smacked at all.

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And a study by the Christchurch School of Medicine found no difference in outcomes between no smacking and moderate physical punishment. They said, "It is misleading to imply that occasional or mild physical punishment has long-term adverse consequences."

The other research worth noting is the experience of Sweden, one of the first countries to ban smacking, in 1979. Thirty years on, figures from the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention show that, since the ban, there has been more than a 15-fold increase in physical abuse against children under the age of 7, and more than 24 times as many charges of criminal assaults by minors against minors. Do we really want to follow that lead?

A police six-month review early last year showed a 200 per cent increase in families being investigated for "smacking" and "minor acts of physical discipline", yet fewer than 10 per cent were serious enough to warrant prosecution. During that six- month period, four "minor acts of physical discipline" were prosecuted.

And the number of notifications to Child, Youth and Family has exploded by more than 30 per cent since the passing of the law, yet the number of cases requiring further investigation has decreased. We are wasting valuable police and CYF resources investigating cases that simply aren't abuse: good parents reported by schools, neighbours and even the children themselves.

There are some rotten parents out there and I want laws that are applauded for preventing the abuse we have seen in cases such as those of Nia Glassie, the Kahui twins and Coral-Ellen Burrows - not laws that are lauded because barely anybody has been prosecuted under them despite the horrific levels of abuse.

The law as it stands is confusing. In research done in March, respondents were asked whether the new law makes it always illegal for parents to give their children a light smack: 55 per cent said yes, 31 per cent said no, and 14 per cent didn't know.

Parents have been given conflicting messages by the promoters of the law, legal opinions have contradicted each other, and on top of that is police discretion but not CYF discretion to investigate. Families don't know how they will be treated.

Meanwhile, the rate of child abuse continues. Sue Bradford said her bill was never intended to solve the problem of child abuse. She was right.

* Bob McCoskrie is national director of Family First NZ.

- The Dominion Post

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