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Fathers and Children’s Rights

By Peter Walker

On Oct 26 a Social Policy forum was held in Wellington about reaffirming children’s internationally recognised right to two parents.

I’ve never attended a Social Policy Forum, so had few expectations. What struck me very early on in the programme was that there exists a gap (another the Labour Government could work on closing) between those dedicated to the discussion of social policy, and those to the application of it.

Attending the Forum were representatives of both schools and at times, especially in conversations during the breaks, the frustration caused by the gap showed.

Labour MP Steve Maharey (Minister of Social Welfare) and the Alliance’s Laila Harre (Minister of Youth Affairs) opened the Forum, both advocating the paramount importance of the rights and interests of children in matters of legislation.

Both also recognised that in many contexts the role of, and issues facing, fathers are not adequately addressed. Commissioner for Children, Roger McClay replied, summarising and also affirming the value of children and the importance of protecting them and their rights.

Key note speaker, Ian Shirley, professor of Social Policy at Massey University, spoke of the erosion of long adhered to social contracts, and that in the wake of such erosion children are now the most vulnerable members of our society.

Some themes from international literature, he noted, were that children are often treated as “appendages to the family,’ and as “human becomings” rather than human beings.

He then introduced us to the Social Quality Quadrant, a “new way of looking at social contracts,” a theory regarding the association between society and individuals, and institutions and communities.

The graphic he presented cannot be reproduced here, but watch the Father&Child web site or contact the NZ Father & Child Society, PO Box 26040, Christchurch.

While I accept the relevance of such study to the discussion of social policy, it seemed to epitomise to me the gap between discussion and application. I respect the work being done, and might even align myself with the discussion school , but I also trust that its effects are eventually felt at grass roots level.

In a joint effort, Sarah Farquhar and John Brickell spoke of four realities concerning the value society places on children. It was noted that: society does not care sufficiently for children; parenting is no longer “womens work”; parent separation is no longer the exception; and parental responsibility is influenced by laws and social sanctions.

Social scientist, Robin Fleming seems to have emerged from the Forum as the most talked about presentation. Her findings concerning “reconstituted marriages/ families” proved, I believe, to be the most welcomed new information, and I have heard it referred to in several contexts since. (see page 4 of this issue.)

Harald Breiding-Buss presented a series of graphics that, for my money, provided the clearest (and most direct) illustration of where the gap exists between the discussion and the application of social policy.

These graphics must be viewed, and will be reported on in F&C in the future, and also on the Father & Child web site. He pointed out the link between women’s economic advancement and men’s increasing parenting role, and criticised the fact that while government sees policy needs for the former, it ignores the latter.

Mark Henaghan, Professor and Dean, Faculty of Law at the University of Otago, made a point that in many circles, not least the most important ones, appears to be ignored.

The present Guardianship Act affirms already that separated parents have “equal rights to custody” of children. He also listed several reasons why fathers are under-represented.

There is the so-called mother principle (an underlying presumption that mother is more important to children that father); there exists an unacceptable risk of sexual abuse; with any type of violence history there also exists a presumption of unsafety; and that a nomadic lifestyle (for children) is destabilising and disorienting to children (hence a resistance to shared parenting).

Henaghan did however list some advances in patterns exhibited in Family Court decisions. Judgments and some judges’ comments seem to reflect a more father friendly tone as the best interests of children are considered.

Stuart Birks, Director of the Centre for Public Policy Evaluation at Massey University, pointed out the differences that often exist between official designations of “household” and “family” and how parental alienation can set up in children damaging loyalty conflicts.

These can sometimes lead children to make negative statements in court, influencing judgments, and the source of such perceptions are frequently ignored.

The afternoon’s entertainment took the form of a debate between two teams of High School seniors arguing the proposition (paraphrased here) that a single parent can raise a child as effectively as two parents.

I voted for the negating team, primarily because one of the girls on that team was the only participant to offer anything that vaguely resembled a good argument.

The last segment of the day was intended to be a discussion, but late stand-in for Donna Awatere-Huata, ACT MP Muriel Newman, couldn’t get past her (failed) Shared Parenting Bill, and didn’t seem aware that her joke about the stereotypical grunting husband didn’t go over at all.

Greens MP Sue Kedgley seemed to be saying that the Greens were not opposed to the principles in Newman’s bill, but that they have higher hopes for the current review process. Trish Grant (Office of the Children’s Commissioner) seemed concerned about some of the radical sections of the fathers movement, challenged our motived and advised us to check our agendas at the door.

This final segment was rescued by Rex McCann who gently impressed upon us the need to make men’s stories heard.

This year’s Social Policy Forum sought to bring together “research, practise and policy to give meaning to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: Article 18”, part of which reads “States Parties shall use their best efforts to ensure recognition of the principle that both parents have common responsibilities for the upbringing and development of the child” and that “the best interests of the child will be their basic concern.”

These notions permeated every presentation.

Few can deny that the interests of children are at the heart of social policy and the charters of many grass roots parenting groups.

However, despite this, there still remains a long way to go before every child in New Zealand actually inherits what is now determined to be their birthrights – the right, as Roger McClay stated earlier, “to have at least two people who are crazy about them”, the right to be safe in any environment, the right to reach their full potential, and the right to build meaningful relationships with both parents.

A comment I overheard (in the bathroom) was that instead of the format the Forum was taking, it might have been more beneficial to have the same hundred or so people in a room networking and having their own discussions.

This struck me as a good idea, but perhaps for a separate event.

I suspect that, like me, each of the attendees took away with them something useful from the presentations, something relevant to their situation and/or organisation.

Therefore, the format is valuable, and as long as there remains a mix of theory and practical information on offer, the Social Policy Forum, an annual event, will serve an important function.

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