Social Justice Minister Paula Bennett announced a raft of proposed legislation this week aimed at protecting children from abuse. The proposals include: 1) making the Chief Executives of Health, Education, Police, Justice, and Social Development accountable for protecting vulnerable children; 2) setting standards for screening and vetting of government employees who will be working with children; 3) restricting anyone with a serious conviction from working with children; 4) creating child harm prevention orders, which will keep adults either with a history of serious convictions or whom it is believed have been responsible for seriously abusing or killing a child from living with children or going to places where children are likely to be; 5) requiring parents who have abused their children in the past to prove to the Family Court that they can be trusted with their subsequent children; and 6) curtailing the rights of parents whose children have been placed into a Home for Life.
In announcing these proposals, Bennett said that though she knows some of these things will be controversial, she stands behind them because they “are significant and will make a fundamental difference to protecting the most vulnerable children and allowing them to thrive.”
Significant they are, and it is even possible that some of them may make a difference in protecting some children from abuse. But being seen to be doing something to fix a problem isn’t necessarily the same as doing the right thing to fix it. Particularly in the case of the last three proposals, it is hard to see how branding and punishing people who have not been found guilty of any crime and bringing about further incursions of the state into the intimate spaces of family life can really allow for the most vulnerable children to flourish.
Surely we can all think of cases where a child has been harmed either by someone whom everyone just knew was no good even though that person had never been convicted of a major crime, or by a parent who had been abusive in the past. And we’d probably love it if there were a way to keep these kinds of people away from children. But just because there are cases like this doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to deprive people of their civil liberties and to tear families apart, potentially unnecessarily. Our society, and all its members, thrives when families are respected and when people are innocent until proven guilty.
Bennett’s goal is praiseworthy: the protection of our vulnerable children is of paramount importance. But we shouldn’t give up those things that enable thriving in an ostensible attempt to protect them.