The Yes Vote – NZ Referendum on Child Discipline 2009

misleading claims about the Child Discipline Law and The Yes Vote campaign

In the run-up to Referendum 09, misleading claims were made by Family First and others on a number of issues about the child discipline law and The Yes Vote campaign. Some of these are discussed below.

Misleading claim 1: The new law has led to far too many good families being investigated unnecessarily, children being traumatised, their lives disrupted, and even some people being prosecuted.

Our response: Assaults traumatise children. Privacy law prevents published anecdotes of unnecessary investigations from being verified.

There is limited public information available about how many families have been investigated for possible assault on children in any period of time, and whether or not investigations are warranted. Confidentiality and privacy requirements within Child, Youth and Family (CYF) and the Police mean that details of cases they investigate cannot be made public. Cases quoted in newspaper advertisements – claiming to be about families unjustly investigated – cannot be either verified or discredited, because impartial information is not available. In at least one case the advertiser published retractions on the Family First website, correcting some details previously published in a newspaper advertisement.

Police activity reports indicate that there have been very few complaints for smacking. In fact there have been very few prosecutions even for more heavy-handed physical punishment. A CYF report indicates that increases in notifications to CYF in recent times are due to a steep rise in reports of children witnessing domestic violence.

When someone is concerned enough about a child’s safety to make a complaint to the Police or a notification to CYF, the situation should be investigated. Children’s safety must be the paramount consideration in every case. Official investigations can lead to supportive interventions being put in place for the family.

We suggest that children are more at risk of traumatisation by being assaulted by people they trust and love than they are by a sensitive investigation and potential support for their families.

Misleading claim 2: The law treats a ‘smack on the bottom’ the same as ‘child abuse’.

Our response: A smack is very unlikely to lead to a prosecution; child abuse should lead to prosecution.

The law most certainly does not treat a `smack on the bottom as the same as `child abuse. Under the `Police discretion provision in the legislation, Police do not have to prosecute minor assaults on children but we hope that they would take action and prosecute if a child is being abused.

Misleading claim 3: Reintroducing legalised physical discipline would acknowledge and value the important role of good parents.

Our response: The role of good parents is to guide their children’s behaviour positively. The law supports this.

Guiding children’s behaviour, setting limits and boundaries and providing children with safety and security are important aspects of parents’ role. Providing safe and secure environments and using positive parenting skills (without physical punishment) are essential for guiding children’s behaviour. The law rightly sends this message to parents, and is in line with children’s interests and consistent with Government and NGO efforts to promote positive parenting. The law should not reinforce outdated and harmful practices.

Misleading claim 4: The law puts law-abiding parents in same category as child abusers.

Our response: It does not. Law-abiding parents have nothing to fear.

Misleading claim 5: The law made no difference to the way parents behave, and is a failure because has not reduced child abuse.

Our response: There was never an expectation that simply changing the law would stop child abuse, nor has enough time elapsed for reliable research to be done to back up such claims.

This argument has been promoted by opponents of the law change.  Supporters, however, never had such unrealistic expectations of simply changing the law.

Supporters of law reform do not claim that a law change would change abusive behaviour, or reduce heavy-handed physical discipline, overnight. Rather they claim that the new law contributes to a change over time in how children and child discipline are regarded. The law is only two years old.

Misleading claim 6: The law change does not address the real causes of child abuse.

Our response: By making explicit that violence against children is illegal, the law draws a clear line in the sand against child abuse.

Attitudes about use of physical punishment are a real factor contributing to child abuse. This is because of things like escalating levels of force in situations where mild smacking does not work, growing lack of empathy for a child’s pain over time and unintended injury arising from the assault. Most people who physically abuse a child say that they were trying to discipline the child. Physical punishment is a known risk factor for child abuse.

Other factors also contribute to child abuse. These include poverty, drug and alcohol abuse and intergenerational family violence. They are real too. Attitudes about physical punishment can be addressed through the law change and through parent information and support. Efforts to reduce the use of physical punishment are part of the bigger picture of reducing child abuse, and a part of changes that will, in time, make a difference.

Misleading claim 7: The Yes Vote Campaign is funded by taxpayer money.

Our response: The Yes Vote Campaign is not funded by taxpayer money.

The claim has been made because many major child and family services support The Yes Vote. Most of the day-to-day work in running The Yes Vote Campaign is performed by independent volunteers, although some staff time is donated to the campaign by supportive Non-Government Organisations (NGOs). No staff have been employed specifically to work on The Yes Vote campaign. The NGOs’ child advocacy functions are funded from sources other than Government contracts.  The Yes Vote campaign itself is funded by donations and private philanthropic funders that support the law.  The Yes Vote Campaign will file a return of expenses with the Chief Electoral Office following the referendum.

Misleading claim 8: Staff who believe in the use of physical punishment of children cannot speak their mind.

Our response: It is appropriate that staff of child and family support organisations be bound in the professional context by policies based on evidence of what is best for children.

NGOs’ support for the law is based on understanding positive discipline (without the use of physical punishment) and on research showing that physical punishment contributes to poor outcomes for children.

While staff in the NGOs that support the law are entitled to their own opinion in private, in the course of their work with families it is appropriate that they comply with organisation policy.

Misleading claim 9: If you oppose the anti-smacking law you are demonised as ‘violent’.

Our response: The Yes Vote Coalition has never said this and does not hold this view.

Most opposition to the law is based on tradition, not on a belief that violence is OK.

Many who oppose the law are coming to terms with their own experiences and practice of childhood discipline. Some are informed by particular Christian beliefs – but note that many Christians and Christian organisations support the new law and are supporters of The Yes Vote.

But many children are treated violently in the name of discipline. Family violence is rife in New Zealand. For family violence rates to change, there will need to be a change to the prevalence of the attitude that violence isa legitimate part of controlling personal relationships and expressing anger.  While a smack is not as potentially dangerous as a punch in the face, it relies on the same sense of entitlement to hit that the old law supported. Also, it models the use of violence to children.

Misleading claim 10: Mild physical punishment does no harm.

Our response: Physical punishment can be harmful, and is at best ineffective in modifying children’s behaviour.

Whether or not mild physical punishment harms is likely to depend on the circumstances it is administered in. The relevant question is does physical punishment do any good? Research indicates that it does not.

The fact that there may be little evidence that minor forms of physical discipline harm children in no way justifies the use of physical discipline. Does punishment, the infliction of pain and retribution really contribute positively to human development and shape behaviour constructively?

A smack is a violent act. If someone smacks an adult woman, do we ask “Does it do her any harm?” Of course not. We assume that to some degree it is harmful emotionally and harmful of her relationship with the person hitting her. It is also an affront to the woman’s integrity. Yet this very question, “Does it do them any harm?” is frequently asked in relation to hitting children.

Misleading claim 11: There has been an increase in child abuse in Sweden since physical punishment was banned there.

Our response: Sweden has been very successful in reducing child physical abuse. Raising awareness of the issue and mandatory reporting have caused reported rates to rise.

In fact there has been a steady decrease in assaults on children since the law changed in Sweden. In Sweden as in other countries increases in notifications for child abuse indicate an increased willingness on the part of the community to take action and report assaults on children rather than an increase in abuse.

Misleading claim 12: Huge increases in notifications to CYF since the law change are in some way connected to the new law.

Our response: The increases are in fact largely due to increases in the number of children referred to CYF by the Police because the children have been present at incidents of domestic violence.

See the Briefing to the Incoming Minister for more information.

Misleading claim 13: The Police have discretion not to investigate cases brought to their attention but CYF do not have discretion.

Our response: Both agencies are required to investigate complaints.

In fact both the Police and CYF are required to investigate cases of assault on children brought to their attention. So they should. The nature of the investigation depends on the information they are given by the person making the complaint.

The Police have discretion not to prosecute which is different from discretion not to investigate. CYF do not prosecute because it is not their function. If they believe prosecution is warranted they refer the case to the Police. In a large proportion of cases CYF take no further formal action following initial investigation, not because there has been no substance to the referral, but because there is thought to be no risk of serious abuse the child. This does not mean all is well in the family, rather that a more supportive and informal solution is indicated eg. referral to a family support agency.

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

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