Time For Change

Thursday, June 25, 2009

During the 21 months that have passed since the Labour-led Government passed Sue Bradford’s controversial anti-smacking law, a total of 12 children have been killed as a result of child abuse in New Zealand.

Yet the anti-smacking law was designed with the sole purpose of stopping just that; of curbing and addressing the shocking rates of child abuse and resultant deaths in our country.

Instead, however, it has had the unfortunate – yet entirely predictable – side-effect of criminalising those law-abiding parents who choose to use a light smack to discipline their children.

Why?  Because – before the passing of the anti-smacking law – abuse was already illegal.  Abusers were already breaking the law.  Adding another law to the list didn’t stop their behaviour, it simply added to the list of laws they were already breaking – and it was the decent loving parents, who were not abusing their children to begin with, who told they were breaking the law.

Labour and the Greens might not like to admit it but, although there are exceptions, the vast majority of New Zealand parents are decent and loving – and, as such, more than capable of deciding how best to raise their children into the successful and upstanding citizens that we want them to be.

Yet now they do not have that choice.  While the child abusers continue to thumb their noses at the law, decent parents are shackled in their efforts to discipline their children.

It is for this reason that I have submitted my Crimes (Reasonable Parental Control and Correction) Amendment Bill: to restore parents’ fundamental right to use all the tools available in order to raise their children as well-rounded and law-abiding citizens.

Included in those available tools is one that has been used throughout history as an effective form of discipline for children throughout the world: a light smack.

The fact is that most parents do not actually WANT to smack their children and only use it as a last resort after all other options have been exhausted.  In most cases of parental discipline, guidance and correction is distinctly NON-physical.

But there ARE occasions on which a parent may reasonably decide that correcting their child’s behaviour requires some degree of physical action.  In these cases, however, Section 59 of the Crimes Act now says that parents are committing assault.  Section 59(2) further states that “Nothing … justifies the use of force for the purpose of correction.”

Thus, parents who would never dream of abusing their children know that they do not even have the authority to decide for themselves whether or not they can use a light smack to correct their children.

But the problems go so much further than that.  As though it were not enough to simply tell parents they cannot smack their children, this law has created uncertainty among parents about what they can or cannot do.

This is because, while the current legislation makes it illegal to use any force against children, police have been given discretion over whether or not to charge a parent who uses a light smack.

So which is it?  Will a parent who smacks their child be charged – or will police ‘wink, wink, nudge, nudge’ turn a blind eye?  The situation makes no sense; there is no respect for the law, and parents are left confused.

Further, the law – while stating that police have discretion over whether or not to charge a parent for smacking a child – says nothing of the Department of Child, Youth and Family.  There is nothing to stop a witness – who sees a parent smacking their child’s hand in the supermarket – from reporting a parent to CYF – which would then investigate the parent and could possibly lay charges against them.

My Bill clearly outlines the circumstances in which the use of force may be unreasonable: if the force causes the child to suffer injury that is more than transitory and trifling or materially contributes thereto; it is inflicted by any weapon, tool, or other implement; it is inflicted by any means that is cruel or degrading.

These terms do not, of course, relate to circumstances where the person applying the force reasonably believes that the use of force is necessary to prevent death or serious harm to the child or another person.

No one wants to see the removal of any measure that could possibly have some chance of preventing even one child from being abused.  But, at the same time, law-abiding parents deserve some certainty about what they can and cannot do – and the ability to choose for themselves how to raise their children.

It is for this reason that ACT is trying, not to repeal, but to amend Section 59 of the crimes Act.  It is an attempt to give parents certainty about what they can and cannot do when it comes to the raising of their children – so they know what is acceptable in the eyes of the law and what is not.

More, however, it is to let parents do what they do best: parent.  It is parents in the home who are best equipped to judge how best to correct their children’s behaviour – not politicians sitting in an office in Wellington.  The sooner Parliament recognises that, the sooner parents can reclaim their fundamental right to raise their children as they see fit.