Paper prepared for the 1999 Skeptics Conference, Auckland, 28-29 August.
Our children are our greatest investment, our hope for the future. The best thing we can do as a society is to nurture the well-being and the development of our children. We want the best for our children. We do not want them hurt or injured. With this in mind, social, educational and justice systems have progressively developed policies to protect children and prevent them coming to harm. Today there exist a wide range of agencies, facilities and resources whose primary function is to keep children safe from harm.
The principal consideration of the Children, Young Persons, and their Families Act is the welfare and interests of the child or young person. This Act states that children and young persons must be protected from harm, their rights upheld, and their welfare promoted. The Act specifies that where possible, the primary role in caring for and protecting children lies with the family and only if they are at serious risk of harm should children be removed from their family. The Act defines child abuse as the harming (whether physically, emotionally or sexually), ill-treatment, abuse, neglect or deprivation of children, and children are in need of care or protection if they are being, or are likely to be, seriously abused in any way.
New Zealand children are exposed to child protection and safety programmes from a very early age. There have been several education programmes designed for pre-school children. These all promote the belief that children have a right to absolute safety. The Feeling Safe handbook states “All children deserve to be safe and feel safe always”. Another early childhood resource designed to protect children from abuse (“Keeping Children Safe from Sexual Abuse”) states “Children have a right to feel safe all the time!”. The “Safe before Five” resource gives a similar message.
The same message is taught in primary, intermediate and secondary schools. Material distributed to secondary school health educators states “Children have a right to feel safe”. The National Protocol of the Ministry of Education, Early Childhood Education Services and NZCYPS states that all children have the right to have their needs met in a safe environment and “To ensure the safety of the child is paramount”. The NZ Police programme “Keeping Ourselves Safe” is part of primary, intermediate and secondary school curricula.
Child protection policies predominantly deal with keeping children safe from adults. Safety means safe from abuse. The units at primary school level do include personal safety education relating to physical dangers such as road safety. However for older children, the units predominantly focus on safe practices when interacting with adults and ways to help children disclose abuse. Usually, the unsafe adults are men, who are presented as violent and sexually predaceous. Safety from adults is targeted under guise of generic safety, but generic safety is in fact a much broader and essentially a different issue.
It can be argued that a policy of “absolute safety” has a price. No-one wants children to come to harm and we do need to educate children in personal safety skills. It is the role of parents and other adults involved in the upbringing of children to teach them ways to keep themselves safe, both from their physical environment — safety around the home, water and roads, how to identify and avoid hazards (look before you cross the road; do not stick a paper clip into a power socket) — and, on rare occasions, from interactions with other people (child abuse).
I argue that a policy of absolute safety, of providing a completely risk-free environment is neither feasible nor desirable. We should not set ourselves unattainable goals. Clearly, I am not advocating placing children in situations of unacceptable risk. Rather, I am suggesting teaching children how to assess risk, handle uncertainty and meet challenges. Such learning to cope will serve to reduce exposure to possible risks in the future.
Absolute safety is not attainable
We need to take into account the “benign indifference of the universe”. No matter how much parents and other caregivers want to protect children, bad things will and do happen that are totally beyond their control. Even if a child is raised in a protective environment like a hot-house flower (not allowed to ride bikes, climb trees, play sport or visit the homes of friends, for example), absolute safety cannot be guaranteed, and the child might still suffer an accident or the consequence of an unpreventable adverse event, an “Act of God” such as an unforeseen environmental disaster.
Absolute safety is not desirable
The drive for absolute safety is due to adult fear. It is an imposing of these fears on children. This gives children an unrealistic expectation of the world, that they are entitled to be 100% “safe” at all times. Such a policy can lead to individuals who excessively avoid harm or who feel bitter, betrayed and victimised when adverse events do befall them.
Children need to learn about calculated risk-taking. We must temper education about safety with education about exploring possibilities and taking calculated risks. Parenting is about the gradual lessening of controls as children get older and more mature. Children need to learn the consequences of their actions. Childhood is a time of discovery through practice and experience. Learning opportunities often occur when mistakes are made. Children need to learn the consequences of their actions. There is an adage “there are no mistakes, only lessons” or, as Edward Phelps put it, “The man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything”. We need to teach the skills of problem-solving and decision-making. To problem-solve, we must first identify the problem, then ascertain all our possible choices of response, and finally base our decision on an estimation of the relative good and bad consequences of each possible action.
There is a relationship between taking risks and experiencing stress. Hans Selye, the “father of stress”, compares stress to food — we need some to live, but too much can be damaging. The complete absence of stress (like “absolute safety”) is death. Our aim is not to avoid stress but to recognise our responses to it and manage our lives to cope with it. Our risk-taking should be calculated, not foolhardy. Children should be supported and challenged to take risks that are worth their while.
We want our children to be robust and hardy, capable of endurance and resilient — to be able to recover from adverse experiences. We want them to have a variety of problem solving skills, to be confident and able to think for themselves, and to develop into adults with a strong sense of physical competence. We want them to make good decisions and take responsibility for their own actions; to be able to work well with others, and to establish and maintain mature and satisfying interpersonal relationships.
Risk-taking has been shown to be positively related to creative ability and to self-confidence. The specific importance of fostering risk-taking behaviours has been recognised in treatment programmes for emotionally disturbed and for mildly handicapped children. This is further illustrated by outdoor pursuit programmes such as Project K and Outward Bound, which offer children and young people the physical challenge and adventure of a “wilderness experience” aimed at improving their sense of self worth and purpose. Such programmes do not attempt to have “absolute safety”.
Safety policies are gender-specific
In general, policies aim to keep women and children safe (from men). It is implied that men are prone to violence and sexual assault, from which women and children need protecting; that children are safe with women, unsafe with men.
The NZ Police Keeping Ourselves Safe secondary school resource for Forms 3 to 4 (13-14 year olds) contains four cartoons illustrating unsafe situations for adolescents. The first depicts a teenage girl being molested by her father or step-father. The second shows a son being beaten by his father, the third, a young girl is sexually attacked by her male boss, and finally, a party scene where the men are all drawn as lecherous and unpleasant, and a young woman is sexually attacked. All four show men as the offenders, the ones to be kept safe from. There are no positive images of men portrayed. While on their own, each might be considered an unsafe situation for young people to watch out for, in combination the overall message is that the world is filled with violent and sexually aggressive men.
In reality, the vast majority of fathers and mothers love and care for their children and do not abuse or neglect them. The majority of non-sexual child maltreatment (physical and emotional abuse and neglect) is perpetrated by women. The majority of sexual abuse of children is by men, but sexual abuse is only about 10% of all child maltreatment. Fathers and mothers kill their children about equally. Children are at greatest risk of all forms of child abuse when raised by solo mothers, without input from fathers.
Safety in the Family Court
The New Zealand Family Court operates on a lower level of proof than Criminal Courts. The burden of proof relies on the “balance of probabilities” not “beyond reasonable doubt”.
Family Courts are designed to operate on whatever is in the best interest of the child. Family Court judges often say that they will err on the side of “safety”. The Family Court may deny parents access to a child on the grounds that there is a possibility that they may have maltreated the child, or may do so in the future. Overwhelmingly, it is fathers whose access is limited or denied. Once an allegation has been made against a father, the Court must be “completely satisfied” there is no possible risk before dismissing it. Fathers accusing mothers of maltreating the child risk reprimands from the court that such suggestions are stressful for the mother (the primary care-giver) and hence adversely affect her ability to parent. These actions (challenging the mother’s parenting skills or mental status) may be viewed by the Court as harmful to the child.
Article 19 of the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child deals with measures to protect children from violence or mistreatment. According to this convention, parents have a right to ongoing contact with a child unless there is clear evidence that such contact will cause the child harm; also, children have right to a relationship with both parents unless there is clear evidence of harm to them. Denying this contact should only occur where there is proof of actual harm not just “risk” of harm.
The New Zealand Family Court goes far beyond this when it denies parents access to their children on the grounds that there is a risk a parent may have maltreated a child, or may do so in the future. Unless a risk can be completely dismissed, the court must take it into account. In many cases this does not adequately consider the potential harm to children of denying contact with their fathers, or having a child grow up believing that her father abused her when she was little. It is not recognising the right of children to have access to both parents.
This history is a composite of five cases I have been involved with, and I know of many other cases which share some of these aspects. All events described have occurred but combining several stories means the confidentiality demanded by the Family Courts is maintained.
Tony and Cathy met in the 1980s. She had a past history of psychiatric illness and was on long-term medication. For the first two to three years after their daughter Rebecca was born, things were reasonably OK. Tony was a journalist who often worked from home and he was involved in considerable care of Rebecca from her infancy. When the child was one, Cathy enrolled in a course in counselling.
Cathy stopped taking her medication. Problems started to develop in their relationship and when Rebecca was aged 3 1/2, she decided the marriage was over and asked Tony to move out. He went to stay with his brother and his wife. For the first month he would have Rebecca frequently, but he and Cathy were arguing a lot, although not fighting physically. After one month Cathy refused to let Tony see Rebecca. He heard via friends that she had new boy-friend (a fellow student from the course) and Rebecca was spending her days at the Créche attached to the institute where she was studying. Tony filed for custody. Three weeks later he was arrested at work, charged with indecent assault and rape of his daughter. Rebecca now was just four.
Cathy claimed Rebecca had said she had seen daddy’s penis and “stuff” had come out and also that the penis had gone in (her) vagina. The child had three interviews with a psychologist. In the first and second interviews she said she had seen daddy’s penis. At her third interview she said his penis had gone in her vagina, that it had felt yucky and had hurt. Tony explained to police that he and Cathy used withdrawal as contraception, and twice had caught Rebecca watching him and Cathy during sexual intercourse. Tony denied all sexual contact with his daughter but felt that she was describing what she had seen happen between her parents.
All access stopped. Rebecca began attending weekly sex abuse counselling. Fifteen months later the matter came to trial. Rebecca’s interviews were shown to be deeply flawed and contaminating, with many leading questions. Medical evidence indicated that there could have been no penetration of Rebecca’s vagina, and the jury acquitted Tony on all charges. Tony returned to the Family Court to apply for access to his daughter. Nine months later there was a defended court hearing, effectively a re-trial. It was concluded that while the girl had not been raped, it could not be said categorically that she had never been abused, although there was no evidence that she had. The judge said he had to err on the side of safety. While there was no evidence this had ever occurred in the past, it could not be proved that Rebecca would never be maltreated by her father in the future. The judge decided that both Rebecca and her mother would now be too distressed by unsupervised access.
By this stage, Rebecca was six and had undergone two years of counselling, funded by ACC. The judge ordered supervised access either at an approved centre or by using family members or friends for supervisors. The latter never occurred because Cathy would not approve anyone as a supervisor. The judge also ordered that Cathy attend counselling to help her understand why professionals might be saying that these allegations were not true and accept that her daughter may not have been abused. This requirement was never met.
One and a half years later, Tony is still limited to two hours weekly supervised access with his daughter, which costs him $20 per session. He pays maintenance of over $400 a month, and lives frugally to pay off $108,000 legal costs.
Tony’s contact with Rebecca is very restricted. At the access centre he attends, all communication between them is monitored. He is forbidden to ask her any questions at all, even of the most benign nature (for example, what she is learning about at school). He is not allowed to discuss their family with her. His only source of communication with her mother is through the supervised access centre. He cannot ask Rebecca what she would like for her birthday. If she herself does mention something that she would like, he has to ask permission from her mother to give it to her. He has no ready access to her school reports nor her medical files should she be taken sick.
About once a month, Cathy fails to take Rebecca to the Centre. Tony has no redress for these breaches. Tony has to travel 35 km to the Centre, and traffic conditions make the time this takes variable. He recently arrived 10 minutes early; saw Cathy dropping off Rebecca; parked several cars away and once she had left, went to the gate. Rebecca ran to greet him. However the supervisor came, told him in front of his daughter that he had breached his contract by being early and that he forfeited the right for a visit that day. Frequently Cathy remains in the car-park and watches Tony and Rebecca during access visits. Despite this being a breach of the contract, Tony has no redress against this.
Tony has always adamantly denied any abuse or violence against either Cathy or Rebecca. He is supported by both his own family who believe that the allegations were false and probably the product of Cathy’s ongoing mental problems.
Cathy has isolated herself and her daughter from the rest of the extended family, so Rebecca has no contact with her paternal grand-parents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Tony continues to abide by the restrictions even though they preclude having a relaxed and natural time with Rebecca, because he believes that even this limited contact with her father is better for her than no father at all.
Culture of fear
We now have a generation of men afraid to comfort and care for children in case their innocent actions are misconstrued. Fathers are afraid to bathe their children; grandfathers afraid to have grand-children on their knees. Elderly men who would once have comforted a child crying on the street (maybe with a grazed knee) now cross the road to avoid getting involved. Male teachers are no longer able to give children a hug or put an arm around them when they are upset.
Separating a child from a loved parent on the basis of hearsay evidence of what might possibly (not probably) happen or have happened without corroborating evidence is foolish, and could well be harming the child needlessly
There is no absolute knowledge and the concept of “absolute safety” is fatally flawed. Irreducible uncertainty leads to unavoidable error and results in inevitable injustice. Life cannot always be “fair”. We can estimate the likelihood of exposure to mischance. However, we cannot read the future. The unpredictable can and will happen.
Paradoxically, the current culture of safety does not prepare children to live in a world where all actions may carry a degree of risk and where uncertainty and incomplete knowledge means that consequences cannot be predicted with 100% surety. In our desire to keep children from harm, we need to be realistic about the possible dangers they face and the implications of policies designed to protect them. It is neither feasible nor desirable to provide a completely risk-free environment for our children.
References available from the editor.