Archie Kerr: Notes from a paediatrician

May 7, 2009

As a Paediatrician at Hutt Hospital for the last thirty plus years, I have seen a lot of abusive treatment of children by their caregivers and accordingly I strongly supported the repeal of Section 59 of the Crimes Act. This action has been glibly labelled as “the anti-smacking” bill, but in fact is not that at all. It removed the excuse that physical punishment with resulting injury could be a defence in court as being part of acceptable disciplining of a child. This is in line with our respect for adults and with the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child to which our government has agreed.

Unfortunately, I have been in a situation where a caregiver escaped punishment in spite of hitting a 14 year old girl with a broomstick so hard that she was unable to stand, sit or even lie down for 5 days without pain because of the bruising on her buttocks and thighs. As this happened nearly 20 years ago one might hope that attitudes have changed and no jury would make a similar decision now. That has not been the case and a number of similar decisions over recent years show that our children still need the protection of the legislation as it currently stands.

The wording of the forthcoming referendum is akin to the trick question of “have you stopped beating your wife?” To ask for a “yes” or “no” answer to the question “Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?” is impossible as none of the basic terms are defined. What is a “smack”? What is “good parental correction”? What does a “no” vote mean and what is the likely outcome of such a vote?

It is noteworthy that the world has not fallen apart since the repeal of Section 59 two years ago and, even though child abuse continues to occur as expected, our children at least do have one more small piece of protection that they so sorely need. It also declares unequivocally to us all that hitting children for whatever reason is unacceptable.

Archie Kerr,
Paediatrician (Retired)

Plunket Barnardos Save the Children Unicef Jigsaw Ririki Parents CentrePaediatric Society Womens Refuge Epoch

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