Sex-pest test means instant dismissal

Paula Bennett
Paula Bennett

Teachers, doctors and any other government employees who fail Social Development Minister Paula Bennett's tough new child-abuse screening test will be instantly sacked.

The new child-protection laws will trump existing employment legislation, removing the need for bosses to go through a fair process of verbal and written warnings to dump anyone suspected of sexually preying on children.

Screening of all government employees working with children is one of the main planks of Bennett's incoming child protection regime, unveiled last week.

All staff working with children in schools, hospitals, government agencies and organisations that get government funding must submit to security screening every three years. It is estimated to affect 376,000 people.

Anyone who fails the test would be dumped. The details of the screening tests are yet to be revealed, but police will be in charge of the vetting procedures.

"The advice I have had so far is that they could be instantly dismissed," Bennett told the Sunday Star-Times yesterday.

But unions sounded warnings about the new regime.

Angela Roberts, the president of the Post Primary Teachers' Association, said she had no problem with efforts to weed out potential predators and protecting children was "paramount", but she was concerned the regime would trap innocent adults.

"How do you get screened? The devil will be in the detail. It's always easy for someone in her position to take the moral high ground by saying it's about protecting children - nobody is arguing against that.

"But there are ways of protecting children without stomping all over human rights and workers' rights."

Brenda Pilott, national secretary of the Public Service Association, described the plan as "undercooked" and said it raised more questions than answers.

Bennett has also said screening tests could be extended beyond government employees.

She revealed there was debate at the Cabinet table about whether others such as Scout troop leaders, dance teachers and sports coaches should have been included in the law.

In the end they were not, but Bennett believed such groups will ask to be voluntarily included to give parents peace of mind, and the law will allow that to happen.

Last year the Star-Times revealed the Teachers' Council has a list of high-risk, potentially predatory teachers, that is hidden from schools and parents.

Council head Peter Lind revealed at the time that police raised flags with the council when they had serious concerns about a teacher but had not been able to prosecute them.

Bennett said every one of those teachers would have to go through the screening process and could face being sacked. It is a system which she is confident would have caught paedophile James Parker and had him thrown out of teaching.

Parker, revealed as one of the country's worst child sex predators, was one of the cases which prompted Bennett's law changes.

He was sentenced to preventive detention on Thursday for 74 abuse offences against Kaitaia students stretching over more than a decade.

Part of the tragedy of Parker's case is that from his first days as a student teacher in the 1990s, concerns were raised about his conduct around boys. He was investigated by police, but not charged.

Bennett said under her regime Parker would never have made it into teaching. "I cannot give you a definitive yes [that he would have been blocked], but I am as confident as I can be."

Parker and others like him would be blacklisted from any professions involving children.

"We have people who seek jobs to bring them closer to children and unfortunately there has been a stark reminder of that in the recent case in Kaitaia [the Parker case]."

Sunday Star Times