Tough on child abuse

The Government clearly signalled that tough times call for tough action with last week's announcement of new child protection legislation to be introduced to Parliament later this month.

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett revealed the measures as part of the 10-year Children's Action Plan, launched last year to implement the Government's White Paper for Vulnerable Children, which was based on nearly 10,000 submissions to its Green Paper and consultation with health, justice, education and social services experts and consideration of international ''best practice''.

The legislative changes start from the very top, with the heads of Police, Justice and the ministries of Health, Education and Social Development accountable ''for protecting and improving the lives of vulnerable children''.

They and Te Puni Kokiri (the Ministry for Maori Development), Ministry of Business, Employment and Innovation, district health boards and school boards of trustees will be required to adopt child protection policies.

All staff working with children in schools, hospitals, government agencies and government-funded organisations will undergo mandatory security screening and vetting every three years.

People with serious convictions will be permanently restricted from working closely with children.

Parents who seriously abuse or kill children will have to prove they are safe to parent again, in a reversal of the current onus of proof.

Child harm prevention orders will be placed on adults who pose a serious risk to children. In extreme cases, courts can curtail and define guardianship rights of birth parents.

Mrs Bennett says the changes are designed to provide a better life for the most vulnerable children: ''New Zealanders asked us to take real action to make a difference. We're doing exactly that.''

There has been outrage for many years about this country's shameful child abuse record. About 10 children are killed every year by a member of their family, and hundreds are hospitalised as a result of abuse or neglect.

Child, Youth and Family says in the year ending June 2012, it received 152,800 notifications or reports of concern, of which 21,525 were found to have substantiated child abuse or neglect.

Every time another story hits the headlines, the handwringing begins again, more expert advice is given, more reports are written, more inquiries set up, yet more tragedies unfold. Real action has long been needed.

The rules are tough and it is to be hoped they will make a difference.

But there is a fine balance, and the risk is that in protecting vulnerable children, the fundamental rights of others may be eroded.

Opposition parties have voiced concerns about some of the harsher measures proposed in the new legislation - such as the child harm prevention orders, and proposals to make it easier for children to be removed from their families.

And there has also been concern over the Government's controversial and hard-hitting welfare reforms in terms of freedoms and rights.

Certainly, we don't want to go further down that road, given Amnesty International's latest annual report into

The State of the World's Human Rights slammed New Zealand for undermining children's rights, given our high levels of child poverty which ''disproportionately affect Maori and Pacific Island peoples''; women's rights, given our ''persistently high and increasing levels of violence against women''; and the rights of asylum-seekers, through mass arrivals legislation which became law in June.

The previous report made the same findings on child poverty, questioned the rights of workers on foreign-chartered fishing vessels, scrutinised ''indigenous people's rights'' and our role in ''counterterror and security''.

While human rights will be examined as the legislation passes through its parliamentary stages, it is pleasing to see action taken, and to see children being put firmly at the centre of policies designed to protect them.

If the legislation does result in better co-ordination between agencies responsible for caring for children, that can only be a good thing.

When it comes to caring for our children, we surely all have a role to play, but it is good to see the Government leading the charge.


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