Hard line over child abuse

MICHAEL FOX
Last updated 14:06 13/08/2013
Chris Skelton/Fairfax NZ

Minister for Social Development Paula Bennett has announced changes to look after children who are hurt and abused.

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Parents convicted of killing or abusing their children will have to prove they no longer represent a threat in order to be able to care for new children, the Government has announced.

Under proposed new law changes revealed today, judges would also have the power to ban suspected child abusers from being around children for up to 10 years without being convicted of a crime, and to limit the ability of abusive parents to be involved in their children's lives.

The heads of five of the country's biggest ministries will also a have legal responsibility to protect vulnerable kids while there will be increased screening for anyone who works with children.

This afternoon Social Development Minister Paula Bennett revealed the extent of the proposed changes to child protection laws to curb child abuse following the release of a White Paper for Vulnerable Children in October.

"We've all had enough, it just has to stop," Bennett said.

Under the new regime, parents who seriously abused or killed their children would have to prove to Child Youth and Family they were safe to parent again if they were to have another child.

Around 300 children a year are removed into care having been born to parents who had previously had a child removed from them, and the onus is on the state to prove they pose a risk to the child.

"Someone who has committed a serious offence against a child should not be allowed near children," Bennett said.

This part of the legislation would be retrospective and apply to cases of parents who were looking after children having been previously convicted of a serious crime against them.

Courts will also be able to curtail and define guardianship rights of birth parents in extreme cases where the children were removed from their homes due to severe cases of abuse or neglect.

In order to better ensure children were able to settle into their new homes, the courts would have the ability to stop parents filing court proceedings and from visiting their children.

Bennett also confirmed that all those who worked with children would undergo a more rigorous screening process to vet out potential abusers.

This would include police records and history checks and risk assessments and would apply to around 376,000 people currently working in positions which would require testing.

People with serious convictions would be permanently restricted from working with children.

As reported earlier, suspected child abusers could also be banned from being around children for up to 10 years without being convicted of a crime

Bennett said up to 80 people a year could be slapped with orders preventing them from working, living and socialising with children, with penalties of three years imposed on those who break the ban.

If police or Child, Youth and Family believe "on the balance of probabilities" someone poses a threat to a child, High Court or District Court judges could impose the ban, similar to restraining orders in cases of domestic violence.

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"The court can consider a pattern of behaviour, so it might be that in some cases police have high intel[ligence] on an individual and their behaviour has been considerably concerning, they don't have enough evidence to take them to court but they might ask that the courts put a civil order against them."

Bennett admitted the law would be controversial but said she was putting the welfare of children first.

There were too many children dying and on the balance of probabilities, the crime was committed by the "one adult in the room".

But the threshold of proof was too high, she said. "Far too many of the serious cases of abuse of kids that have been killed, it is often a non-blood relative, so the boyfriend if you like.

"Sometimes they can be very hard to take to conviction or, of course, they are alone and the wee child can't speak up."

Under the proposal, qualifying offences could include suspected sexual violation, incest, sexual grooming, indecent assault and murder.

It would restrict where those people could work, live and socialise.

"For example it might be that the person cannot live, work or associate with children, it might be that they can't hang around parks or pools where children might be."

The restrictions, and how the threat would be assessed, would be finalised over the next few months but Bennett admitted they could be "very restrictive".

She said the majority of orders would likely be imposed on those with prior convictions but there would be others who had clean records.

PRESSURE ON GOVERNMENT DEPARTMENTS

The law will also put more onus on the heads of some Government departments with reporting on vulnerable children to form part of their performance reviews.

Bennett said the new legislation would make the heads of police, Justice and the housing, social development and education ministries accountable.

Protecting vulnerable children would form part of the performance expectations of those chief executives.

Child protection policies would also be adopted by those five agencies as well as Te Puni Kokiri, the Ministry for Business, Employment and Innovation, District health boards and school board of trustees.

This would mean frontline workers knew exactly what to do when they suspected abuse.

"Do not underestimate the power of this. It will have a direct impact on every front line worker in every one of those departments and policies will change."

"When a 9-and-a-half-year-old was seriously abused in West Auckland, 25 agencies were involved; at least seven were government agencies. They weren't coordinated and inaction from some contributed to allowing continued abuse."

If this law had existed, clear policies would have ensured staff acted differently by reporting abuse and taking action, she said.

The Government said this was not mandatory reporting as previously floated.

Currently, only Child Youth and Family and police have a statutory responsibility and other agencies have failed to follow up on cases of abuse and neglect, the Government said.

The Government expected community organisations will voluntarily adopt the policy, Bennett said.

Three bills, the Vulnerable Children Act, Child Harm Prevention Orders Act, Children, Young Persons and their Families (Vulnerable Children) Amendment Act would be introduced this month or next.

POLITICAL REACTION VARIED

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei said the Government had "totally ignored" advice about the impact of poverty on households and vulnerable children.

"If the National Government really wanted to keep kids safe it would support a higher minimum wage and, at the very least, restore benefit rates to the level they were before it slashed them in the 1990s," she said.

"That would make a real difference to the lives of a generation of Kiwi kids.

"Instead it's putting families under more pressure through its benefit reforms, and driving women into unsafe relationships for financial reasons."

A Government which ignored such an important contributor to child abuse was "failing those children", she said.

Turei said a Child Poverty Action Group review of 25 years worth of child abuse cases found poor parents were more stressed and depressed, could feel useless, or under siege from authorities, and were often absent from the home as they worked long hours in order to make ends meet.

News of teen suicides in state care, and of a young boy being "shunted around nine foster homes", also showed Child Youth and Family was struggling with its existing workload and needed more resources and support, she said.

Labour's acting Social Development spokesperson Annette King said all New Zealanders wanted to see child abuse stopped and National's proposals provided the opportunity to look at the best ways to do that.

"For the sake of our kids, it is important to open up this discussion," she said.

"Let's look at the evidence, hear the experts who work in the field, and let the public have their say.

"We need to hear the evidence and be assured the proposals will work."

A number of the proposals were "worthwhile", including legislating to make Government departments accountable for protecting children as well as screening and vetting processes for Government employees working with children.

The child protection policies to increase the reporting of abuse were significant, but would only work if staff were trained to recognise child abuse in the first place.

However, the Child Harm Prevention Orders were "potentially heavy-handed", she said.

"They significantly change the way our justice system works," Kind said.

"There are fish-hooks in the proposal. For example we would want to ensure it couldn't be misused in any relationship break-up."

- Fairfax Media

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