The Shared Parenting Bill was drawn and I strongly lobbied all other Parliamentary parties, the media, community groups – everyone I could think of - for support. Our objective with the Bill was to get it to a Select Committee so the injustice that existed in the current system could be exposed to public scrutiny.
The Shared Parenting Bill is based on the notion that when parents separate or divorce, the children deserve, and, in fact, have the right, to continue their developmental years with two parents.
These parents should be equal in their responsibility for the upbringing of their children, unless there is a compelling reason why one parent is not fit.
In such cases, where children are genuinely at risk, this bill provides for all the protections and safeguards of our present sole-custody law.
Everything we know about children teaches us that it is in their best interest to maximise the involvement of both parents in their lives.
Children want, love, and need two parents. Society needs children to be fully parented.
By any measure, children with both parents usually do better in life than those who have been denied a relationship with one parent or both parents.
Society picks up the pieces far less often in cases where children and young people have enjoyed the fullest relationship with both their mother and their father.
Of course, that’s not to say that single parents don’t try to do their best - but just as two of anything is more than one - two actively involved parents can provide more physical, emotional, and psychological support than one parent can.
The present custodial system takes those two parents, who in most cases want to do all that they can for their child, and pits them against each other.
One becomes the winner, gaining custody of the child, while the other becomes the loser, a mere visitor in the child's life.
The biggest loser, though, is the child, for it is the child who walks into a courtroom with two parents and walks out with one.
Who can seriously believe that that is the best we can do as a society?
With the tragic consequences of inadequate parenting evident all around us, we can no longer afford a legal system that discards one of the two most important people in a child's life - his or her parents.
As a result of this winner-takes-all system, a quarter of all children whose parents separate or divorce lose all meaningful contact with their non-custodial parent.
A further 40 percent see that parent for only a few hours every month.
More children currently lose a parent through separation or divorce in New Zealand every 6 weeks than the number of children who lost a parent through the entire period of the Second World War.
New Zealand is already one of the industrialised world's leaders in sole parent families. We also lead in the rate of youth suicide.
As parliamentarians, we cannot ignore the fact that within the current system New Zealand children are not doing well.
We cannot ignore the consequences of a system that awards custody to one parent as a matter of course, denying children their fundamental birthright - to have the ongoing support of both their parents.
We cannot ignore the fact that currently we have the most under-fathered generation in the history of the Western World.
If present trends continue, by the year 2010 half the European and three-quarters of the Maori infants under 12 months old will live in families where there are no fathers.
As a consequence of this lack, such children will be vulnerable and at risk of poor outcomes in life, from the day of their birth.
The Rt Hon. Sir Michael Hardie Boys, Governor-General of New Zealand, recently stated:
“Fatherless families are more likely to give rise... to the risks of being abused, of being emotionally, even physically scarred, of dropping out of school, of becoming pregnant, of living on the streets, of being hooked on alcohol or drugs, of being caught up in gangs, in crime, of being unemployable, of having no ambition, no vision, no hope, at risk of handing down hopelessness to the next generation, at risk of suicide.”
The late Laurie O'Reilly, the former Commissioner for Children, shared the Governor-General's passion for children to retain contact with their fathers as protectors, supervisors, good role models for their sons - and male relationship models for their daughters.
He believed that our current focus on sole custody alienates fathers after separation or divorce.
He wanted to see New Zealand looking towards the type of shared-parenting laws that we see increasingly overseas - laws that keep children in full emotional, physical, and spiritual contact with their fathers as well as their mothers.
Even members of the judiciary share concerns that their attempts to solve problems in Family Courts over the last 30 years have created widespread problems in Youth Courts and the criminal justice system.
They want Parliament to re-examine what is in the best interests of children.
They are concerned that their historical judgment that stability for a child is represented by one parent and one home may now be out of date.
In countries where stability means frequent and ongoing contact with both parents, children are doing better. Shared-parenting plans ensure arrangements are tailor-made to suit the individual child.
American family law experts who visited New Zealand last month explained that when the negative consequences of granting sole custody were recognised in the United States in the 1960s, shared parenting became the fastest-growing family law change ever to sweep through that country.
Shared parenting now forms the basis of law in 48 states, refuting this Government's claim to the contrary. Shared parenting is the law in France, Sweden, and Holland.
Both Canada and Australia are looking at shared parenting, and in Britain a single-issue political party, the Equal Parenting Party, has been established.
All countries that are finally facing up to the tragic consequences of widespread family breakdown are moving towards shared parenting.
The Ministry of Justice has said that this Shared Parenting Bill is consistent with our New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.
The Commissioner for Children would like to see it go to a select committee, as would Women's Refuge, Parentline, Grey Power, rural groups, women's groups, men's groups, members of the legal profession and the judiciary, the Salvation Army, churches, charities, psychologists, counsellors, mediators, academics, and literally thousands of New Zealand families.
Since this bill has been drawn in the ballot for members' bills, my office has been inundated with tragic stories from people whose lives have been shattered by our present custodial laws. Many have been ruined spiritually as well as financially.
A mother said: ‘I hope that your proposal becomes law and prevents anyone else, mother or father, or their children, from living the nightmare that I am trapped in.’
A father said: ‘I am one of those parents who has not seen his daughters for 20 years. One walks into the Family Court and that is it.’
A grandmother said: ‘As a mother I've stood by for 2 years and watched my son try to deal with the loss of his four lovely children. For the first year he was unable to work, so great was his grief.’
A grandfather said: ‘As grandparents we've been denied the privilege of being part of our grandchildren's lives. Their uncles, aunts, and cousins have all missed out, as well.’
A child said: ‘The worst injustice is to us children. We have a right to have both our parents fully involved in our lives, and we have a right to all our other relatives, as well.’
A university lecturer said: ‘My 5-year-old son has been alienated from me by the system for 3 years. To say I am emotionally scarred by the experience is an understatement. I still need suicide prevention counselling. I struggle with bouts of deep depression, and I fear close relationships with women and children.’
A psychologist said: ‘Families are placed under intolerable stress by the system. People are driven to murder and suicide. The brutalising of families should not be tolerated in this country.’
Last week I was called by a mother whose son had recently committed suicide.
She said that he was a loving father who cared deeply about his three children, yet during the 5 years of his separation he had been able to see them only four times. She said the hurt was overwhelming and it would not go away.
The family attributes 95 percent of the reasons for his death to the ongoing battles for custody and access.
That mother requested that I share her family's tragedy here tonight. She said that if her story helped persuade my parliamentary colleagues of how desperately and urgently this issue needs to be addressed by Parliament, then her son's death would not have been in vain.
Family law as it currently stands has been responsible for significantly damaging the social fabric of New Zealand.
The drawing of this bill and the enormous interest it has generated, have created an expectation that Parliament will tonight begin a process of healing.
The damage I am speaking about is not principally economic, social, or political; it is human. It is to do with what the current system has done to our children.
It is precisely because this is an issue that is above party politics that I recommend the bill go to the Social Services Committee.
New Zealand Centre for Political Research