Smacking debate back in the limelight

MARIKA HILL
Last updated 08:21 12/01/2014

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Supporters of the controversial "anti-smacking" law are claiming victory after a dramatic fall in the number of parents being investigated for hitting their children.

But opponents of the 2007 law change have accused the Government of fudging the numbers and the issue looks set to become an election lightning rod, with the Conservative Party, a potential Government coalition partner, committed to overturning the legislation.

The amendment to section 59 of the Crimes Act in 2007 removed the defence of "reasonable force" for parents prosecuted for assault on their children.

It divided the country, with its sponsor, former Green MP Sue Bradford, receiving death threats while Family First director Bob McCroskie, an opponent of the change, found plastic knives stabbed into his lawn.

Opponents of the law change claimed "good parents" would be prosecuted for disciplining children and it would do nothing to stop serious harm to children.

But Ministry of Social Development data shows fewer parents are being investigated for smacking their children. The number dropped by almost third over the past financial year, with 176 parents dobbed in to the MSD, down from 277 the year before.

Police say they have prosecuted just eight parents for smacking children in the five years since the law came in. Seven of those parents had smacked their child in the head or face.

The eighth parent was discharged without conviction for striking the child on the hand. Police said they were also being called to fewer smacking incidents though they stopped counting smacking prosecutions after the Government's five-year review process came to an end.

Bradford said the dramatic drop in notifications proved parents were turning their back on smacking. "This is what those of us involved in the heart of the struggle expected. That dreadful witchhunt and crazy campaign that went on at the time, none of it's come true.

"Anecdotally, I have so many adults who said what a lesson [the law] was. They say: ‘I used to think I had to hit my kids because my parents did'."

Conservative Party leader Colin Craig said numbers were falling because parents made sure smacks were not delivered publicly. "I haven't met any parent who has stopped smacking because of the law, but I have met a number who have changed the way they do it."

Craig plans to make the issue an integral part of this year's election campaign and if he gets in to Parliament, a repeal of the law will be on the negotiating table in any coalition deal, he said.

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"It would be an easy one for National to put over the line because obviously the law is not working. Child abuse statistics have risen. It's a silly law. The vast majority of parents think this law has gone too far."

Bradford fears a "nightmare" scenario where Craig holds bargaining power: "Heaven forbid, if Colin Craig becomes influential in the next Government.

"I think it leaves [Prime Minister] John

Key in some difficulty. It would be dreadful to see him [Craig] and his party with the power to strongly influence a National-led Government."

Act, another potential coalition partner for National, supported a review of the law, as did NZ First. Labour, Maori Party and United Future support the legislation and the Government confirmed it had no plans to review it.

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett said she was pleased to see a drop in the number of parents notified for smacking. And parents can no longer beat their children with pipe, wood and other weapons under the guise of discipline, she said.

Key, who personally voted for the legislation, has consistently refused to entertain a law change, even after a referendum on the issue found 87 per cent of those who voted did not believe smacking should be a criminal offence.

Family First plans to campaign strongly on the issue during the election buildup. "It's a big issue because it was a law that came into every family home. Politicians want it to simmer down and go away, but it's not," McCroskie said, adding figures on falling smacking notifications are "fudged . . . It doesn't identify cases where parents are being ransomed by their own kids."

A smacking debate is underway in Australia and Britain, with the United Nations putting pressure on both governments to ban it but Australian PM Tony Abbott said "gently smacking" can be good for a child.

Research on the effects of smacking is split. Children smacked by their parents were more likely to suffer behavioral problems, according to a recent Columbia University study, while research in the journal Parenting: Science and Practice, showed it was unlikely to cause anti-social behaviour if balanced out by a loving relationship.

Jane Bisset, chief executive of Waikato parenting group, The Incredible Years, said there was always a lively debate about smacking in parenting classes. "Some people will always be challenged in their thinking. Often we hear parents have an epiphany about the lasting damage of a smack compared to positive learning."

It was more for parents to show self-control, she said. "How can we expect a generation of children to grow up in control of their emotions in parents who lose control?"

- Sunday Star Times

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