Missing the mark

A new report by Unicef makes for further sobering reading about the plight of our country's children.

Titled ''Kids Missing Out'', the report is a summary of the first 20 years of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in New Zealand.

Unicef is the United Nations Children's Fund and its mission is to create a better world for every child. The convention has been ratified by 190 countries.

The report explains how at the time of ratification, in 1993, then Minister of External Relations and Trade Don McKinnon stated that despite making no legislative changes, the convention would ''help ensure that the interests of the children are fully considered in the future''.

Sadly, the report's findings show that while there have been some advances (it cites the repeal of section 59 of the Crimes Act which removed the right of parents to use physical force to punish or correct their children), progress on implementing the convention here has overall been ''patchy and too slow''.

It also says since 1993, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child ''has made a range of recommendations as to how New Zealand might better implement the convention raising, often repeatedly, over 35 different issues''.

Unicef New Zealand executive director Dennis McKinlay says ''the continued failure'' to meet the convention's obligations has ''very real, everyday consequences for children'' and is also ''harmful to New Zealand's standing in the international community'' in terms of human rights and commitments under international human rights conventions.

The report says 20 years after ratification of the convention, an estimated 270,000 New Zealand children live in poverty. Poverty is generally defined as a household living on less than 50% to 60% of the median wage, which Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills has previously said affects their development, behaviour and physical health, can limit their adult potential and comes at an estimated cost to the country of $6 billion to $8 billion.

The report is critical of the increases in hospital admissions for children suffering from poverty-related conditions, access to health services and education, the high rates of child abuse, neglect and family violence, the way in which children are treated by the police and judicial system, and our adoption laws.

It says there are a number of areas in which New Zealand does not fully comply with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and criticises the Government for not committing to implementing the 78 recommendations for alleviating child poverty made by Dr Wills' expert advisory group on child poverty last year.

It says implementation of policies to help children ''will remain ad hoc, reactionary and potentially inconsistent with the convention and each other'' unless an effective convention action plan is adopted, and policy strengthened through legislation.

The report's findings were reinforced on Monday at the launch of the inaugural Child Poverty Monitor. The monitor, a collaboration between the Office of the Children's Commissioner, the University of Otago's NZ Child and Youth Epidemiology Service and the JR McKenzie Trust, examined various measures of child poverty in New Zealand, including health indicators related to poverty. The health statistics in particular were of concern.

The Government has recently made some attempts to address parts of the issue, particularly related to child abuse.

In August, Social Development Minister Paula Bennett announced tough new measures as part of the 10-year Children's Action Plan, launched last year to implement the Government's White Paper for Vulnerable Children.

But what has emerged from the Unicef report is the real need for government level and cross-party commitment to tackle the raft of complex issues involved and ''to translate children's rights into a reality for all children in New Zealand''.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child continues to make recommendations and urges all levels of government to use the convention as a guide in policy-making and legislation.

The report makes three key recommendations to add to the raft of others made in previous papers. They show there are clearly many ways in which to address the issue, but the fundamental challenge facing New Zealand seems to be the real political will - across all parties - to do so.


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