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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 May 2007, 13:13 GMT 14:13 UK
How one NZ town stopped smacking
As New Zealand's parliament passes a controversial bill effectively outlawing smacking, Angie Knox goes to Ngongotaha to find out how one local community has already responded to the no-smacking challenge.

New Zealand has a poor record of violence against children

Tourists speeding towards Rotorua tend to give Ngongotaha a miss as they head for the geysers, hot pools and sulphurous tang of New Zealand's self-styled thermal wonderland.

The little settlement on the outskirts of Rotorua is hardly a tourist mecca, with its one main street and a dozen or so shops catering to the 4,000 inhabitants.

Yet Ngongotaha is home to an ambitious social experiment.

Two years ago it set itself the goal of becoming the first smack-free community in New Zealand and the safest place in the world to bring up children.

It is part of a positive parenting initiative, spearheaded by veteran social worker Rose Berge of FamilyWorks, a church-based social services agency with a focus on families and children.

"New Zealand has the third highest child homicide rate among the OECD countries," said Ms Berge in the FamilyWorks' Rotorua office, referring to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

"Our domestic violence rates are horrendous, our child abuse rates are horrendous... If we're going to stop child abuse in this country, it has to start, I believe, with the way we parent our children."

Rob Beckett
We have a lot of parents who have alcohol and drug difficulties, they also have problems with gambling
Rob Beckett
Ngongotaha social services

FamilyWorks had been seeing a lot of cases from Ngongotaha.

When Ms Berge paid a visit to the community to find out why, she discovered there was only one social service agency, Te Whare Hauora o Ngongotaha - a wellness centre offering medical and mental health services, a quit smoking programme and services for the elderly.

Ms Berge got talking to the Hauora's manager, Rob Beckett, about what the community needed, and came up with smack-free Ngongotaha, a parenting campaign to offer alternatives to physical punishment.

"She had the idea, we just made the idea come alive," Mr Beckett told me at the Hauora centre on Ngongotaha's main street.

"We knew violence in the home was a concern - no different from any other community in New Zealand. Poor parenting skills was one of the reasons. We have a lot of parents who have alcohol and drug difficulties, they also have problems with gambling."

With government funding, they canvassed the views of local parents, got local retailers on board with a no-smacking sticker campaign, and organised smack-free Christmas parties at four local marae, or Maori meeting houses.

Around 100 parents and care-givers have been through the free positive parenting programmes to date.

Mixed feelings

New Zealand's national game, rugby, is big in Ngongotaha.

As the local coach for junior rugby, Mr Beckett saw sport as another way to get the message across.

Rose Berge
There is a silent majority who aren't owning up to hitting their kids. I predict the demand for our services will now triple
Rose Berge

"Some parents on the sidelines are very abusive towards other parents and the kids on the field."

A quiet word on the side is how he handles behaviour like this on the pitch or off, and the under-10 players now wear the smack-free logo on their rugby shirts.

So have they got the community on board? Rob Beckett said lasting change could take a generation.

"We know there are people out there who smack their kids now. But what we're looking at is those kids that are coming through will never have to smack their kids because they've been taught parenting skills."

A straw poll of local retailers suggests he is right to take the long view.

One shop owner said she had displayed the smack-free sticker for a while, but felt there were more important things to get right, such as the drink-drive laws.

Another retailer said he had donated NZ$1,200 (US$882) to the campaign, but worried that under the new law children would now start threatening to take their parents to court for smacking them.

A third said she did not agree with the campaign.

Changed legislation

Nationwide polls on the child discipline bill reveal a similar picture.

They show that around three-quarters of New Zealanders think it is okay to smack.

Debate on the new legislation prompted a wave of protests from ordinary parents through to fundamentalist Christian groups, angered at the prospect of being turned into criminals in their own homes.


But the bill won backing from social service agencies and charities involved with tackling family violence.

Last weekend, a national newspaper published photos showing the horrific bruising suffered by a three-year-old boy whose parents literally beat him to death during toilet training.

They have been convicted of manslaughter.

But other parents have successfully been acquitted of assault after hitting children with a bamboo stick, a belt, a hosepipe and a piece of wood.

They were able to use Section 59 of the Crimes Act - which permits parents to use "reasonable force" in disciplining their children - as a legal defence.

That defence has been removed under the new legislation, passed by an overwhelming majority in the New Zealand parliament on Wednesday.

But while it is now technically illegal for parents to even smack their children, there are unlikely to be widespread prosecutions.

The last-minute re-wording of a key passage in the bill confirms that police have the discretion not to prosecute in minor cases - and it is this change that secured cross-party support for the new legislation.

In Ngongotaha, Rose Berge believes the bill is a step in the right direction.

"It has brought to public conversations issues about disciplining children which were never in the public arena," she said.

"There is a silent majority who aren't owning up to hitting their kids. I predict the demand for our services will now triple."

NZ protest to block smacking law
28 Mar 07 |  Asia-Pacific

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