14 Aug 2013

Minister assures public over child welfare reforms

3:47 pm on 14 August 2013

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett is assuring the public there will be a high threshold to reach before any adult believed to pose a risk to children faces access restrictions.

The Vulnerable Children Bill will be introduced to Parliament soon, making the public sector more accountable for protecting children, as well as placing greater restrictions on known and suspected abusers. Mrs Bennett announced the changes on Tuesday, saying New Zealanders are sick of known abusers going on to hurt more children.

Paula Bennett.

Paula Bennett. Photo: RNZ

The new legislation will allow courts to impose Child Harm Prevention Orders, restricting the movement of convicted child offenders and other adults assessed as posing a serious risk to children.

Workers on the Government's payroll who have contact with children, including teachers, will all have to go through identity and police checks to screen out potential abusers. About 370,000 people will be affected. Policies to be introduced in government agencies are intended to make it clear to staff what to do if they see signs of neglect or abuse.

Parents who have seriously abused or killed a child in the past will have to prove they are safe to parent again if they have another baby, reversing the onus of proof that currently lies with welfare agency Child, Youth and Family.

The Family Court will be given the power to restrict guardianship rights of birth parents whose children have been removed from their care if they go on to unfairly disrupt their children's lives.

Opposition parties and sector groups have said they support the plan in principle, but need reassurance that adults' rights will not be breached.

But Paula Bennett said on Wednesday that only the Commissioner for Police and the heads of the Department of Corrections and the Ministry of Social Development can ask for protection orders, which then need approval by a judge.

"You or I couldn't just decide we might think that person's dangerous. It's actually the chief executive of MSD or it's the Commissioner of Police, or if someone has done their sentence, it's the Chief Executive of Corrections.

"They are the only three people that can ask that a Child Harm Prevention Order be put on - and it then has to go through a full court process."

Mrs Bennett said she is happy to hear people's thoughts on that process through select committee hearings.

Waste of resources - union

The Public Service Association says vetting all workers on the government payroll who have contact with children is likely to waste time and is money that should be spent on families.

National secretary Brenda Pilott said she is concerned that people who have no contact with children will be caught up in the screening, and children are more at risk from people close to them than from government workers. However, Ms Pilott said she supports reasonable checks to ensure that people with convictions for crimes against children are not working with them.

Children's Commissioner Russell Wills says the Government will need to boost resources for those who work in child protection for new laws to go ahead. Dr Wills told Radio New Zealand's Morning Report programme the legislation signals a shift in balance between the rights of adults and children and believes the proposed bill is a step in the right direction.

Govt confident of support for bill

Paula Bennett says she has written to other political parties outlining the changes and expects to be able to get the numbers to pass the Vulnerable Children Bill.

United Future, the Maori Party and Opposition parties say they support the proposed measures in principle, but need reassurances before they commit. However, the Maori Party says it's worried that some children could be unfairly ripped away from their whanau.

Labour says the Child Harm Prevention Orders that could stop an adult living with children or going to places where children often are, are potentially heavy-handed.

The Green Party said it remains to be seen if the Government's proposed law changes will better protect children from abuse. Co-leader Metiria Turei said she has her doubts and the Government should also be addressing causes of child abuse, such as poverty.