Blame my liberal world view or my legal training or the time I have spent acting for poor people who get on the wrong side of the legal system. But I think the latest Government proposal to place severe restrictions on people acquitted of offences involving children and to up the bar on people keeping their kids is vindictive in the extreme.
It is all part of a carefully choreographed script that this Government has engaged in again and again and again.
First they pick a subject that plucks at the heart strings, like for instance child abuse.
Then they chose an enemy, the mythological innately evil child abuser will do fine.
Then they choose a position that will upset civil libertarians. They do this because they know with the legal profession they have already lost the support of the progressive lawyers. Their support has been well and truly decimated by the trashing of the criminal and family legal aid systems that has occurred. Lawyers tend to hold strong political positions so there is nothing to gain or lose by adopting these positions.
When civil libertarians express dismay they then say “what about the kids?” as if there is a choice between retaining precious civil liberties and doing something about child abuse.
With the really good proposals and as a sign of utter contempt they can release the news twice and get read meat radio feasting on it on multiple occasions.
And on a really good day the opposition will have a wishy washy position on the proposal which gives it credence that it does not deserve.
So how does Paula’s latest proposal measure up? Unsurprisingly it seems to tick all the boxes.
It is recycled news. The proposal for orders was originally contained in the White Paper for Vulnerable Children except back then it was called a child abuse prevention order. Now it is called a child harm prevention order. The subtlety of the change obviously occupied the thinking time of many high paid PR consultants.
When the White Paper for Vulnerable Children was announced in October 2012 Paula Bennett was reported as saying:
We are introducing a series of changes to deal with those who abuse children.
New Zealanders overwhelmingly want us to get tougher on child abusers to better protect our kids.
Child abuse prevention orders will allow judges to stop child abusers from gaining access to children, meaning high-risk adults are flagged and prevented from working with or living with children.
It does appear that the announcement from last October is essentially the same as the recent announcement although the scope has been widened.
Interestingly in the United States they have a thing called a child abuse restraining order although the order is something that applies to a specific child or children rather than children as a whole. It seems that the right’s best ideas on beneficiary bashing are imported from the United States.
Who will these orders apply to and what is the test? Well according to Paula they will already have had to have a conviction for a specified offence. The select committee will work out which offences qualify but obviously because they already have a conviction they are evil bastards and deserve everything coming to them. A debate about where to exactly draw the line neatly avoids the debate about whether it is right to draw the line at all.
The test as it is currently proposed is that it is to apply to adults at high risk of abusing children in the future. But the test is the civil onus of proof, that is on the balance of probabilities. So if a Judge is only just satisfied that allegation about a person are true then an order can be made. Good luck with the mental gymnastics involved in working that out because the treshold is high but the onus of proof is low.
The consequence may be that a person acquitted of a charge could be told that they cannot go out in public because of the fear of being with children for an extended period of time. This would essentially put them under house arrest for an allegation they have been acquitted of. The order will be in force for up to ten years but if there is an ongoing risk the order can be potentially in force for ever. Good luck reconciling the Bill of Rights with this proposal. The basic response in a civilised society should be that you cannot and should not subject someone to house detention for something they have been acquitted of.
The FAQ also talks about upping the onus on parents keeping children in their care. If they have already had a child taken off them then the onus will be on them to justify the retention of other children they may have. I am afraid that this already happens and I have seen too many applications where unborn children are ordered to be taken from their parents at birth because of previous difficulties with other children. The first ground mentioned is the experience with a previous child or previous children. The proposal tweaks the onus and puts it on the parent to justify keeping their children. If their personal circumstances are that dire that they have already lost the care of a child they face this risk anyway.
In a succinct yet accurate description of the proposals the Law Society has said that the Government is trying to look tough on child abuse while failing to fund frontline services properly. It is interesting that the Law Society has become one of this Government’s most trenchant critics.
Overall the numbers involved will be small but the debate will be intense. No doubt this is what is desired. National will want to be painted as being tough on low lives and protective of children.
If only they were as committed to doing something about child poverty. Then they would really achieve something positive for New Zealand kids.