Cook Islands Considers New Family Protection Law

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Mandatory reporting requirements for authority figures included

By Phillipa Webb

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, Sept. 11, 2015) – Doctors, teachers, police officers, and religious leaders could soon be required to notify the Ministry of Internal Affairs if they think a child is being abused – or face a $200 fine.

The Family Law Bill 2015 aims to modernise family law in the areas of divorce, domestic and child support, parenting arrangements and the care and protection of children, and is currently being reviewed by a special parliamentary select committee.

It will introduce new mandatory reporting requirements, meaning those in positions of authority must notify the Ministry of Internal Affairs if they believe a child is being abused – it will be an offence if they do not report the alleged abuse, resulting in a $200 fine.

Controversy aside, change to family law in the Cook Islands has been a long time coming.

Ministry of Internal Affairs secretary Bredina Drollet said the Prevention of Juvenile Crimes Act 1969 outlines the juvenile justice system in the Cook Islands, and how children under 16 years of age are treated if they break the law.

It provides for either a Juvenile Crimes Prevention Committee or the Children’s Court to hear cases – as appropriate – administered by the Ministry of Justice.

The Prevention of Juvenile Crimes Act 1969 does not just deal with juvenile crime, it is also the primary legislation that provides protection for children that are being neglected or abused.

Currently, cases of neglect or abuse can only be reported to the Juvenile Crimes Prevention Committee to deal with by those empowered by the legislation.

These people are any constable, community youth officer school inspector, visiting teacher, head teacher, or chairman of a Village Committee teachers.

"This means there is no mandatory requirement for people in authority providing services to children such as teachers, doctors, police officers to report child and neglect cases to the Juveniles Crimes Prevention Committee," said Drollet.

This means the actual number of cases neglect and abuse cases is likely to be under-reported.

Child abuse and neglect cases that involve criminal offences, such as sexual abuse will continue to be dealt with by the Police under the Crimes Act 1969, even if the Family Law Bill is introduced.

Currently, the Ministry of Internal Affairs only has two staff responsible for working with families where children are at risk and have been referred to the government department.

But the Family Law Bill will introduce new powers for the Ministry of Internal Affairs to investigate cases where children are in need of care and protection.

The ministry will have three options to act following the investigation: It will be able to convene a uipa’anga kopu tangata; make a temporary care agreement with the parents/caregivers of the child or refer the matter to the Court.

New temporary care agreements will also enable the parents/caregivers of a child to place a child into government care for up to three months, a decision made by the Ministry of Internal Affairs rather than the court.

But if the ministry believes there has been sexual abuse then the matter must still be referred to the court.

If passed, the new law will allow the courts to issue a safety warrant to police or the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

The safety warrant would allow a police officer to enter and search any property a child is thought to be, and place the child in the care of the government for up to seven days.

Drollet said in most cases, children will not need to be removed from their home, however, if they do need protection, a new ‘Care Order’ is available for the court to place the care of the child with the government.

Under a care order, the Ministry of Internal Affairs becomes responsible for providing the day-to-day care of the child, and can place the child with a family member or another person who will then become responsible for their care.

Drollet anticipates public debate around this section of the bill to be extensive.

"Should doctors, teachers, police officers and religious be required to notify the Ministry of Internal Affairs if they become aware of child abuse?" she asks.

"Should they be fined if they do not?

"And should mandatory reporting be extended to other people such as neighbours, family members, and work colleagues if the objective is to really end abuse against children?"

This story is the first in a series about the Family Law Bill 2015. If passed by parliament the bill could drastically change the way child protection and domestic violence issues are dealt with in the Cook Islands. This story covers the ‘Care and Protection’ section of the proposed bill.

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