child abuseIt seems incredible that any adult would stand by and let a little child be seriously abused, not just once or twice but regularly, yet it happens. Even when the abuse results in death, cowardly adults who turned a blind eye are free to attend the funeral and weep crocodile tears. No law can touch them.

Well, not any more; not in New Zealand, anyway. A new law makes it a criminal offence to fail to take reasonable steps to protect a child or vulnerable adult from the risk of death, grievous bodily harm or sexual assault. The penalty is a maximum of 10 years imprisonment.

Parents or people aged over 18 could be found liable if they had frequent contact with the victim, including if they were a member of the same household — even if they do not live at the house — or if they were a staff member at an institution where the victim lived.

The NZ Parliament voted 109-11 to pass the law. It was opposed by the Greens (strangely enough, since they gave the country its anti-smacking law), the leader of the new Mana (Maori) Party (child abuse is more common among Maori) and independent gay MP Chris Carter, who has since resigned from Parliament and taken a job with the UN in Afghanistan.

New Zealand has a serious child abuse problem resulting in several deaths a year on average, but teachers, family violence organisations, the police and the sector are increasingly registering their concerns. Figures released this week show that the government agency responsible for child welfare — Child, Youth and Family — received around 150,000 notifications of concern last year — up from 40,000 in 2003.

The government is conducting an inquiry into child abuse but discussion so far indicates that the underlying cause of much abuse is unlikely to be seriously tackled: the country’s high rates of single motherhood and short-lived cohabiting relationships. A recent OECD study shows that 22 per cent of all NZ households with children are headed by a sole parent. Non-marital childbearing has increased from 13 per cent in 1982 to 44 per cent. The dangers of these settings for children are well documented in research.

According to a US federal study published earlier this year, children living with their mother and her boyfriend are about 11 times more likely to be sexually, physically, or emotionally abused than children living with their married biological parents.

It’s time for Kiwi’s to take sexual mores and marriage out of the too hard basket, if we really want to make life better for children.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet