Shared parenting. When I first got involved I knew from experience that the warfare had to be taken out of family law and the only way to do that was to remove the threat of a parent losing their children through custody and access – shared parenting seemed the logical way forward.
We did our research and drafted a bill, which I submitted it into the Parliamentary Private Members’ ballot where, like Lotto, you take your chances.
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.
On Wednesday the 10th of May 2000, we presented our case in Parliament.
This is what we said:
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.
Sadly the Shared Parenting Bill was defeated by 49 votes to 71. In the end, only ACT, National and United supported it - even though other parties had indicated they were sympathetic.
So we tried again.
Since Parliament’s standing orders prevent the same bill being submitted into the Members’ ballot more than once during a Parliamentary term, we had to try a different tack.
We realised that most people had no idea about the injustices in family law, since the responsible government body – the Family Court - operated under a veil of secrecy.
A psychologist who worked in the Family Court for 10 years before finally having to quit had described it like this: “It is an impenetrable closed system that needs urgent review. It brutalises families and individuals in ways that we are not prepared to tolerate from the prison service, the police, the military, or the IRD. It drives people to murder and suicide. If people could hear of the pressure that families are placed under through the Family Court there would be a huge outcry.”
We rationalised that opening up the Family Court would bring awareness of the injustices and force the reform of family law.
We drafted our Bill, put it into the ballot and it was drawn. We lobbied widely – the media came on board, as did many in the justice system, and, of course the public.
Sadly, that Bill met the same fate as the Shared Parenting Bill – it was defeated – although the score improved to 53 in favour and 69 opposed, with ACT, National, United – and New Zealand First voting for it.
Undaunted, we tried again, this time adding shared parenting as an amendment to the Guardianship Act. Even though that Bill wasn’t drawn from the ballot, our lobbying helped to force the Government to update the law.
In late 2001, the Government published a review of family law looking at reform options. They included shared parenting and the need for a more open family court.
This set the scene for a law change – replacing the Guardianship Act with the Care of Children Act.
The introduction of the Care of Children Bill gave us yet another opportunity to try to introduce shared parenting.
I sat on the Justice and Electoral Select Committee during discussions on the Bill and we came within a hair’s breadth of introducing Rebuttable Shared Parenting as the default outcome of custody hearings.
We proposed that shared parenting should be the starting point of day-to-day care determinations and parenting orders – all based on the principle that just as two parents are equal in their parenting responsibilities and rights before a relationship breaks down, so too they should be regarded as equal afterwards - unless it could be proved that one of the parents was unfit.
Unfortunately ideology got in the way - the Minister Lianne Dalzeil resigned from Cabinet and joined the Committee, pulling the plug on our proposal on the basis that the feminist movement was not prepared to give up their hard won gains.
She was clearly concerned that shared parenting would undermine the ease with which separating women could gain sole custody and the Domestic Purposes Benefit - enabling them to bring up children without having to rely on men.
From that point on, the Select Committee closed ranks and our law change was off the agenda.
Undaunted, we carried on, presenting our amendments to introduce shared parenting and open up the family court through Supplementary Order Papers during the Committee Stages of the Bill.
As was to be expected, they too were defeated, but nonetheless, our advocacy had forced reform. We got the ball rolling on the urgent need for a change in direction for family law.
On the day the Care of Children Act came into force in 2004, the Minister for Courts Rick Barker explained that one of the key objectives of the new law was to keep both parents engaged with their children and to encourage them to make their own shared care arrangements - without needing to go to court at all.
He also said the Family Court had become more open with media permitted to attend and report on cases, but not identify individuals.
And in fact, I was talking to a lady not too long ago who explained that when she recently separated, shared care was the expectation – and that’s what occurred. She knew others going through the Family Court system and they said the same thing was happening there.
So while the present law no doubt still falls well short of our original objectives, in many ways, real progress was made – thanks to many of you who are here today.
So why was it so difficult to introduce law change in this area?
First of all, the politics of the government got in the way.
Helen Clark’s Labour Government had tightly embraced identity politics - feminism in particular. As Lianne Dalzeil implied, any law change that was perceived to be undermining the feminist cause, was to be rejected.
Secondly, I was an ACT MP and we were in opposition - it is very rare for a Government or its support parties to back an opposition Member’s bill.
Without a doubt, if I had been a Government MP - or an MP in a support party - the Bill would have been referred to a Select Committee.
The reality was that most Government MPs, especially electorate MPs, were well aware there was a problem with family law and they accepted the need for change – but on their terms, not ours!
So the lesson from this is that when you are looking for champions for your cause, try to find ones who are part of the Government!
From a public policy perspective, the feminist movement has done extraordinary damage. Their aim to destroy the patriarchal married family continues to impact heavily on society – and society pays the price in a multitude of ways.
The fact that a single parent benefit is still in place, which pays women to raise children on their own - without the involvement of fathers - remains a scandal.
The single biggest factor in child abuse, youth crime and social dysfunction is sole parenthood.
Worse, the impact is intergenerational – there are no quick fixes when children’s lives are damaged.
And that’s why, when the National Government introduced their fundamental reform of the welfare system a few years ago, we criticised them for not going far enough.
By not merging the Domestic Purposes Benefit with Jobseeker Support - as the Welfare Working Group, that formulated the reforms, had recommended - they have put vulnerable children in harm’s way.
The reality is that it’s only when women no longer see sole parenting as a viable lifestyle choice that real change will occur.
Without a doubt, the safest environment in which to raise children is a family where the mum and dad are married.
Any government that really cares about the wellbeing of children should be passing laws that strengthen marriage and the family, rather than undermining them.
And the priority should be to replace the stand alone sole parent benefit with support based on work - as occurs in most other countries.
Not only that, but the former Children’s Commissioner Laurie O’Reilly and the former Governor General Sir Michael Hardie Boys were right when they said that the role of fathers in families needs to be promoted and enhanced.
They worried that strategies to prevent family violence could undermine the positive role of fathers, and they felt that much more needed to be done to support fatherhood.
They believed that ‘fathering’ is among the most important issues of our time – that children need fathers, and that the special relationship between father and son or father and daughter, cannot be filled by mothers, no matter how hard they try.
And that is so true – the way women do things is different to men. It’s just nature.
A simple experience brought that home to me a few years ago when our young granddaughter was climbing a tree outside our kitchen window. “Be careful, I called out” - at the same time as my husband was saying, “See how high you can go”!
And that’s what brings balance for children – the over-riding care and concern of mothers and grandmothers, and the encouragement for competition and adventure of fathers and grandfathers.
So what next, for shared parenting?
My advice is to use this year’s election campaign as an opportunity to spread awareness of ‘parenting equality’ by approaching candidates and presenting a well-crafted message to gain their support. Raise the issue at election meetings, encouraging women to speak out in support as well, and then after the election, approach the MPs and find some who are prepared to champion the cause.
None of this is easy. We all know that, but it’s far better for the heart and soul to be actively involved with others in pushing for positive change - to make New Zealand a better place for families - than to feel disillusioned, powerless and alone.
And with regard to the personal difficulties that people face over access to their children when a relationship breaks down – after years of battling for change and trying to help people fighting the system - in the end, the best advice I could give, was for them to put their personal animosity towards their ‘ex’ to one side and think only about the children.
Because, in reality, it was only when they made peace with the mother or the father of their child that a reasonable outcome became possible. Until then, their battle was always destined to be uphill.
So, the best of luck in bringing about further change in the future – and as my mother used to say to me … “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, and try again”!
Second Men’s Summit on Male Wellbeing and Gender Equality Wellington - 6 April 2017
Dr Muriel Newman
New Zealand Centre for Political Research
New Zealand Centre for Political Research