In the early 19th century children had no special rights in law or wider society. They were not distinguished from adults. This changed later in the century as childhood became recognised as a separate stage of life. Children were seen as vulnerable and in need of protection. This was not understood in terms of ‘rights’ (this concept arose later), but underlying it was a belief that children had a right to protection.
This attitude was reflected in social organisations like the New Zealand Society for the Protection of Women and Children (established in Auckland in 1893). New laws aimed to protect children from neglect and abuse, restricted their ability to work outside the home and provided for compulsory free education. Law changes signalled a limited willingness by the state to intervene in the lives of private families for the benefit of individual children.
Trade unionist Edward Hunter (1885–1959) founded a group called the Rights of Childhood League in 1919. It brought together unionists and educationalists to lobby for improvements in child welfare. A booklet called Rights of childhood was published the same year. The League did not last very long – in 1922 the Truth newspaper wrote ‘Some time ago a dreamy idealist founded a Rights of Childhood League, having some ambition more worthy of a human soul than a thousand a year and a motor car. This League fell to pieces and the Practical Man said “I told you so”!’.1
In the 20th century the development of a comprehensive social-welfare system extended the state’s protection of children’s rights. These rights were cast as a welfare issue. The Education Department was responsible for child welfare until the Children and Young Person's Service in the Department of Social Welfare was established in 1972. Prior to this the Child Welfare Branch of the Education Department (1925–72) was responsible for deprived and delinquent children. Outside government, the Plunket Society was the most prominent child health and welfare agency.
Later in the century, government legislation dealing with children gave their welfare paramount status above all other considerations, including parents’ rights. Early examples were the Guardianship Act 1968 and the Children and Young Persons Act 1974. In parental divorce and separation cases child welfare was critical. Children could have their own independent legal representation. The Status of Children Act 1969 made all children equal in the eyes of the law regardless of their parents’ marital status or their country of birth.
Child welfare agencies
From the 1970s there was increased attention to children at risk of neglect or abuse and the development of legislation and state agencies directed at child protection. There was a major focus on keeping children with their families of origin, which was incorporated into the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1989. Difficulties in implementing this principle when children were at risk of abuse was recognised in the Care of Children Act 2004 that clearly stated the need to ensure the safety of children when decisions were being made about their care.
In 1999 the Department of Child, Youth and Family Services (CYFS) replaced the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Agency as the government agency responsible for child protection and children who broke the law or were at risk of offending. CYFS collaborated with police, the courts and with other social welfare organisations. Its social workers had a heavy case load and the agency became increasingly subject to criticism in the early 21st century, particularly when children at risk died in the care of family members or those close to them. Reviews suggested that the agency was not responding to increasing and complex needs and not providing enough support for children in care or young people leaving care. The need for better responses to cultural differences and improved coordination among state agencies were also identified.
The Ministry for Vulnerable Children (Oranga Tamariki) replaced CYFS in April 2017 after an expert group produced a critical review of child welfare services in December 2015. This agency became Oranga Tamariki – Ministry for Children on 31 October 2017. The focus for this agency is early intervention in families that are struggling to meet the needs of their children. Attempts are made to keep children with families and whānau, but social workers will intervene if child abuse or neglect occurs.
Child poverty and well-being
Children’s well-being has been identified as strongly related to the financial circumstances of the households in which they grow up. Groups such as the Child Poverty Action Group have campaigned for increased attention to the impacts on children of poverty and the need to monitor levels of poverty among children. They have estimated that 14% of children in New Zealand are living in material hardship and 8% in severe material hardship. The Child Poverty Monitor has been documenting material hardship in households that include children and the impacts of child poverty which include higher levels of infant deaths, higher rates of respiratory and communicable diseases, higher rates of hospitalization, lower housing quality and lower rates of educational attainment.
In 2018 the government introduced the Child Poverty Reduction Bill which was directed at making governments responsibility for meeting targets to reduce child poverty and requiring commitments by government to address child well-being. This legislation has received cross-party support.
Throughout the 20th century recognition that children could have specific rights grew. This happened within an international context. Documents outlining children’s rights were endorsed by the League of Nations in 1924 and ratified by the United Nations (UN) in 1959. New Zealand belonged to both these organisations. In 1989 the UN adopted a more comprehensive document called the Convention on the Rights of the Child (known as UNCROC), which was ratified by New Zealand in 1993. It applied from birth to 18 years. UNCROC was not embodied in law but was referred to by many government and non-government agencies.
1979 was the International Year of the Child. It was a UN initiative and marked the 20th anniversary of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. The intention behind the year was to encourage countries to review their approach to children and commit to programmes designed to enhance their well-being. A UN working party was set up to write the convention UNCROC, which was adopted in 1989 after 10 years of consultation and drafting. New Zealand has had an annual Children’s Day since 2000.
Child liberation and participation
From the 1970s there was a new focus on children’s liberty and participation rights. Supporters of children’s rights said that children should be able to make and exercise their own choices in life in addition to being protected. Critics said that rights like this burdened children with adult choices and responsibilities they were not equipped to handle, and created problems for parents and teachers trying to exert their authority.
Age restrictions in law were a focus for liberation advocates. UNCROC balanced protection and liberation rights but did not tackle age restrictions. Though the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 prohibited discrimination on the basis of age, this only applied to those 16 or over. A 2004 study found there were 497 provisions in New Zealand law that discriminated on the basis of age.
The Office of the Children’s Commissioner was established in 1989. In the 21st century non-governmental organisations with a focus on children’s rights included Action for Children and Youth Aotearoa, a coalition of organisations, families and individuals that advocates for children, prepares reports for the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and promotes the voice and participation of children in decisions that affect them. International children’s organisations with branches in New Zealand included Barnados, UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) and Save the Children.
In April 2017 a new non-governmental organisation funded by charitable foundations, VOYCE – Whakarongo Mai, was established to support and connect children in care and draw on the advice of young people who had experienced being in care. Its aim is to provide a voice for children and young people in the care system and enable them to come together and support one another.
YouthLaw Tino Rangatiratanga Taitamariki provides free legal advice and advocacy for children and young people under the age of 25. It is physically located in Auckland, but operates nationally using an approach to children’s rights based on the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It provides advice about the court system to children and young people who are the victims of crime as well as those who are facing criminal charges.