Thursday, 14 August 2008

Nuttier than nutty: United Future's family policy

United Future's family policy has all the vacuous moralising and disingenuous use of research that right wing Christian lobby groups specialise in. The policy has three major planks:

1# The Family Court will be empowered to force DNA testing to prove the parentage of kids, so that fathers can be sure the children they're paying child support for are their own.

2# The child support system will be reviewed.

3# My favourite: UF will make shared parenting the 'default position' for child custody arrangements made through the Family Court. Why? UF cites the following statistics, drawn from the work of Massey University economist Stuart Birks. Apparently, children raised in fatherless homes are:

• 5 times more likely to commit suicide.
• 32 times more likely to run away.
• 20 times more likely to have behavioural disorders.
• 14 times more likely to commit rape
• 9 times more likely to drop out of high school.
• 10 times more likely to abuse chemical substances.
• 9 times more likely to end up in a state-operated institution.
• 20 times more likely to end up in prison.

Now I don't know Stuart Birks or his work from a bar of soap, and I don't know why an economist would do social research of this sort, but if United Future have represented his work correctly then this research is seriously awful. Even if Birks' figures are corrent (and I have my doubts), he doesn't seem to have much grasp of that basic research tenet: correlation does not indicate causation. If 'fatherless' kids are at greater risk of all these outcomes, it may have less to do with paternal absence and a great deal more to do with the poverty and stress which so often affect sole mums and their families. To say nothing of the effects of having your family denigrated by conservative Christians.

What exactly is UF's attitude to the role of dads? To some extent, it seems proprietorial: "Those kids are half mine, dammit, and I'm going to have my share through the Family Court". This irrespective of who was the primary caregiver to the children before their parents split, who has the closer emotional relationship with them, who is better able to provide care. And let's not forget that the Family Court deals only with that 5% of families whose disputes are so acrimonious that they can't sort custody out privately.

On the other hand, UF seem eager to absolve fathers of responsibilty for kids not biologically their own. This seems odd to me. Leaving the issue of financial support aside, if a man has a loving parental relationship with a child not biologically his own (perhaps through a blended family relationship which has gone awry), would it not make sense to foster that relationship rather than promoting the idea that 'if it's not your genes, it's not your responsbility'?

Whatever UF thinks about the role of dads, their low opinion of sole mothers is pretty clear. It's these women and their apparently deficient parenting which are producing the drug addicts, rapists and school drop-outs of the world. Somehow, a child's relationship with their biological father - no matter the quality of that relationship, or whether the child actually wants it - is supposed to remedy all this.

In my humble opinion, the problem underlying UF's thinking on families is that it regards raising kids as a purely private responsibility between two parents - a responsibility characterised by ownership and control. If you think about parenting in this way, you get hung up on who pays bills and gets property rights - as if kids were like some other jointly owned bit of property, a house or a car. You forget about the role of the village in raising the child, and the right of the village to be assured that children are being cared for well, not torn apart by parents motivated by property rights.


Hugh said...

UF's view on children is common among social conservatives - that children are important, but that the interests of children are identical to those of their biological parents, and the appropriate approach from those outside the family unit is gratitude that parents are willing to selflessly benefit the entirety of the nation-state by raising children.

In other words, children are important enough that we should revere those who produce and raise them, but not important enough for anybody outside the family unit to have any input on how they are raised.

The ex-expat said...

I would also add domestic violence into the mix of reasons that these 'social ills' caused by kids raised by solo mums.

Sometimes the best interests of the child are keeping their parents separated from each other so they don't have to witness parents degenerating each other in front of them. Sad but true.

Anonymous said...

Surely Stuart Birks' study, if he really neds to do it, should be measuring the incidence of negative outcomes for children in solo mother households vs. children in unhappy/abusive/stressed families because that is the alternative if he wants to force families to stay together.

Incidentally he has a bizarre gender analysis page here with a link to this page!?

alison said...

Stuart Birks' compilation of letters to the editor is an eye-opener;

Makes me very skeptical about the quality of his research, despite the fact it appears on his Massey University page.

ms poinsettia said...

In my lurking at NZ men's rights activists' blogs I've seen Birk's name bandied about so I'm not sure he's a neutral academic source (whatever that is!). Never seen him comment but (perhaps wrongly) assumed he too was an MRA - there are a few academics about that seem to support some MRA causes.

Agree with your analysis of UF's family policy, and Hugh's suggestion that this view is quite common. Witness the weird fierceness with which people have defended being able to smack their children.

I must admit I find it hard to see a problem with enabling the Family Court to force DNA tests. While I agree that it can be seen as pushing the idea that we are only responsible for our children if they are genetically ours, I think it could help dampen down some fathers' fears, particularly those fathers who were not in a relationship with the mother and who don't have a relationship with the child. At the moment these men have no ability to be certain that a child is theirs and there have been cases where the wrong man was paying child support.

Anonymous said...

As we all know you can use statistics to support anything but this moralistic one parent (Mum) family will create problem kids really #$%^& me off.

well I had a father present growing up and a drunken, angry, violent one at that. One of my brothers dropped out of school, was heavily into a variety of drugs which frizzled his brain that along with depression, contributed to his suicide. I also started smoking dope at 12, lsd at 14 and drank a lot until I cleaned myself up in my 20's. One of my brothers has taken a lot of drugs over the years but has now found P so he sticks to that. The other one just drinks alot.

So where do the statistics put us happy lot that comes from a 2 parent family? I guess as one friend said to me (who had a really awful background), at least you were fed and had a house to live in.

Alot of my memories of childhood are really vague but I clearly remember when my dad went overseas when I was about 10 for a while and it was the best time of our life and I remember wishing he wouldn't come back. If only my Mum had left him, perhaps my brother would be alive now.

I am so thankful that there is a DPB now for women in particular to have the choice (even if financially it is crap money) to leave the fathers of their children, so that their kids can grow up in a predictable, secure, loving environment

Julie said...

I had a bit of a rant about the compulsory DNA thing, and the general mother-hating tone of it, back in March when the Herald had a really quite rabid article on it.

I would have thought that shared custody is the basis that the Family Court starts from already?

Seems to be a real problem with this whole correlation equals causation thing at the moment...

ms poinsettia said...


The mother-hating tone of such DNA plans is extremely offputting, I agree. I wonder if it is even possible to talk about it in a way that doesn't sound as it's accusing mothers of lying - everytime I try to articulate my argument I have many caveats that attempt to circumvent that.

There was an appalling case in OZ of a man who discovered that his 10 or 11 year old child was borne of an affair and brought a court case to argue that he shouldn't have to pay child support for that child. MRAs were supporting but I couldn't believe someone could care so little about a child they had raised that they were willing to publicly disown them that way merely because the child wasn't biologically theirs. I'm not sure if he was successful or not.

To me a DNA order doesn't have to dictate a lack of responsibility, although I'm pretty sure the law suggests otherwise. I think there are so many things more important than DNA in parenting and that the needs of a child should come before a parent's desire to punish the other parent or evade responsibility. But, at the end of all my philosphical contortions, I still think men have the right (now we have the technology) to be sure a child is theirs .

dad4justice said...

The New Zealand Family Court is guilty of breaching basic human rights! Fact ! What a disgrace !

Anonymous said...

Good argument, dad4justice. I'm totally voting UF now.

Anonymous said...

I miss my daughter a lot.

I imagine in the case of "one night stand" children, DNA evidence would be comforting to men. As you say, getting out of caring for non-biological kids who have a connection seems awful to me though.

As you say, the family court only gets invovled when the parents can't sort it. And then they definitely look for what's best for the kid, including trying to get the father as involved as possible (considering variables).

I still miss my daughter a lot.

Hugh said...

Ultimately what's important is that children get the most financial support they can. It's not necessarily imperative that any given man, biological father or not, contribute financially to the child's upbringing, but somebody needs to do it.

A man may have the right to know whether a child is his or not, but that knowledge can only be used to satisfy his own curiosity. It shouldn't be a tool for depriving the child of any resources.

Julie said...

My first instinct on seeing the d4j comment come through the email was that it was a parody, but nope, it's him alright. Hopefully the generally pleasant atmosphere here will prevail.

Interesting points about whether DNA is the only decider of whether a person has a parental relationship. My biological father was not the biological father of my older sister, yet he was her father in every other sense of the word. He raised her from the age of about 8 (I think, I wasn't around!), he walked her down the aisle on her wedding day, he was a loving grandfather to her children, and as far as I'm concerned the lack of a genetic connection didn't matter at all.

I think there are probably many many people out there who have parental relationships to those who aren't strictly their progeny, and that even when a relationship with the biological parent ends the relationship with the child does not. Lots of people manage to continue to have positive relationships with children after divorce (or whatever), and make contributions (financial and otherwise). I can think of several examples in my own personal experience - mums and dads who aren't biologically related to someone but stand as parents none the less.

And d-k, you sound like you might need a hug, so please accept this imaginary one. I'd miss Wriggly terribly if I couldn't see him everyday.

Anna McM said...

D-K, I want to hug you too. I feel very sad for you that you're not with your daughter as much as you'd like to be, but in a way happy that you express this through a thoughtful blog post rather than a nutty rabid protest outside the Family Court.

A couple of years ago, someone at the local Community Law Centre mentioned to me that Work & Income had changed the way they assess whether DPB recipients are in relationships, so that recipients don't get done for accepting benefit while being in a relationship. This change was made so that beneficiaries and their kids could maintain a relationship with the kids' dad as best as possible. I think this is the way policy should move - accepting that family breakup is sometimes part of family life, and shouldn't have to be acrimonious. I might write something a bit more considered about this one day...

Anonymous said...

Wordpress ate my comment from last night, waaa.

Speaking from personal experience, as far back as the early 1980s there was a system in place to challenge paternity, and for the courts to order paternity testing. Has this system magically vanished?

If not, I can only assume UF means "compulsory DNA testing on nothing more than one person's say-so" - with no evidence whatsoever that there's any real grounds to question paternity ... and how does that not just become a tool to intimidate women not to press for their children's rightful financial support? When even raising the question leads to instant assumptions that the mother of the children involved is a slut, basically?

#13baby said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
ms poinsettia said...

#13 Baby,

given you don't know DK's personal circumstances, what a horrid and unnecessarily cruel comment.

#13baby said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anna McM said...

Apologies D-K - we have a troll.

Ari said...

Julie- yeah, sadly, that's D4J for you.

As for their statistics about fathers- I'm afraid there's actually some research that backs them on this. I don't know if it's research that's consistent with feminist principles, but the first time I stumbled upon it was reading up on some pro-sex education studies.

Personally, I think working out an amicable solution where the parents aren't fighting each other for custody should be the first approach tried, so in that sense I wonder if UF might not have the right idea in a small sense- kids don't want to see their parents fighting, even if said parents have their own issues to sort out. I don't think that's conservatism- I think that it's simply recognising that if both parents are willing and capable, it makes little sense to exclude either of them from parenting.

That said of course, I'm also really supportive of solo parents, too, where that's the best option for the kids. I totally agree with you that there has to be some overlap with poverty and abuse here, (I'd have to check whether the studies on this matter have compensated for that, but I suspect the one I read at least rolled in economic normalisation) that solo mums and dads need support, and that there are situations where one parent is just clearly not able to give their kid the care they deserve, or shared custody could potentially put the other parent or the kids at risk or make them feel unsafe. I think UF also forgets that not every family goes to the family court when the parents split up. The people in the family court are winding up there because they are already having difficulty agreeing, so whatever you do, it's always going to churn out disproportionate numbers of couples that can't co-operate, even for their kids. Thus bemoaning that 8/9 times the court orders custody to just one parent is a bit unfair.

And I definitely agree that there's some inconsistency going on here- if we're going to say men have the rights to shared custody of children, don't we also have a responsibility to provide shared custody to children of their partners, even if they're not biologically related? (besides, the idea of paternity-testing children from committed relationships seems awfully unfair to me, as there's no easy way to test if the man involved has fathered children elsewhere himself) I'm with QoT here- I think we already have enough ways for men to test for "paternity fraud".

dad4justice said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julie said...

Mr Burns (d4j) kindly read and abide by our comment policy which you can find here. When you make a comment that exists solely of abuse it will be deleted.

I wonder about UF's family policy, in terms of coalition arrangements. They got a Family Commission out of Labour, and for what it's worth it seems to be doing good work, eg the It's Not Ok campaign. National have indicated they'd rather not keep it. Labour assumedly wouldn't look to cut it. How would these three "new" policies of UF (actually old ones, but fair enough, at least they are consistent) work with either of the major parties?

Anna McM said...

The Family Commission is a funny one - they seem to be more progressive than UF would have intended. They're certainly doing good work with the 'It's not OK' campaign.

I missed whatever it was that D4J wrote, but I feel bound to point out that vitriol and abuse, rather than constructive engagement, are characteristic of what I've seen of father's rights advocates. I'd love to see you prove me wrong, D4J.

dad4justice said...

I deleted the post as I had a good hard think about things.I did not know this place existed on blogosphere until I saw a comment on the standard by Julie.Anyway I am a role model father for teenage daughters and my home is a taxi service, come motel for their service and safety in a dangerous city.
Same planet girls and actually if the truth be known I respect the feminist movement for the collective solidarity they have shown to push their ideologies.

Most feminists I have encountered respect my view points without scratching my eye ball out.

Kind regards girls