While no one would claim a that light smack is a form of child abuse, it is difficult to define the boundary where the degree of physical assault becomes abusive and damaging to a child’s health and development. It depends on contextual factors like the warmth or lack of it in the child’s household and the extent to which there is other violence in the home.
But it is clear that the existence of significant physical punishment in a home is a risk factor for child abuse – research indicates that children in homes where physical discipline is used are more at risk of abuse than those where it is not. Factors such as escalating levels of force in situations where mild smacking does not appear to work, growing lack of empathy for a child’s pain over time and unintended injury arising from the assault play a part.
Claims that are made that the new law has not led to a reduction in child abuse misrepresent one of the aims of people that supporting law reform – to contribute to a change in the social norm about hitting children and thus reduce abuse over time. This will take generations.
The use of child deaths, particularly individual cases, to say that law reform is not working is not only distasteful but also misleading because child deaths represent the extreme end of the child abuse spectrum, and usually involve complex factors like drug and alcohol abuse and intergenerational violence. A law reform alone cannot be expected to have impacted on such situations.
Claims that the law has led to a large increase in referrals to the child protection service are unverifiable because statistics on notification rates are not currently public. Throughout the Western World child protection services have been experiencing an increase in notifications over the last decade. This is thought to arise from increased awareness of abuse and willingness to make referrals. Another factor in New Zealand is increased awareness of partner violence and the fact that children witnessing domestic violence are now correctly regarded as being emotionally abused and in need of care and protection.
Should there indeed be an increase in notifications of children being assaulted this should be regarded as a positive thing in that children and families deserve help and support where discipline is inappropriate and heavy handed. The principles of the Children, Young People and their Families Act 1989 are such that help and support are regarded as the appropriate intervention unless the child is unsafe or a significant assault has occurred.
Children are let down by a system that does not respond to concerns about their safety.
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.
New Zealand’s child discipline law is a good one.
The law supports positive parenting.
The law increases children’s protection from assault.
Please email your MP and ask them to support retention of the current law.