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Laurie O'Reilly's dying wish: 'Be passionate about children'

From the archives

Laurie O'Reilly.

Even as he was dying, Commissioner for Children Laurie O'Reilly was an unwavering advocate for the nation's children. In this 1997 interview, he was moved to tears talking about the plight of so many. His words still resonate today.

"Yuk! Look at his ears!" cried one small child, when Laurie O'Reilly knelt down to talk to the kids at his first official function at Parliament as Commissioner for Children. His cauliflower ears are a result of 19 years of senior rugby. But the kids stroked and felt those ears as though he were some badly stuffed teddy. "So here," says O'Reilly, "was the Commissioner for Children at his first public appearance at the Beehive and all these kids are feeling sick about his ears."

Somehow, even the tiniest kids instinctively know not to express such wonderment at, say, Jenny Shipley's shins. But this is a guy thing. It's a Dad thing. In the hit-and-myth world of New Zealand fatherhood, kids are confident that Laurie O'Reilly, founder of the Fathers Who Care programme, is cool about children writing letters like the one he just received from Christchurch. "Dear Laurie O'Reilly," it says. "I know that you are very sick and dying of cancer. But enough of that. I want to tell you about me and Jack."

O'Reilly, 55, was told in early June that he had about six to 12 weeks to live. And the prognosis hasn't changed. Now, on a cold August day, he is sitting in his sparse office wondering about the recurring ache in his side that was there again last night: "Is that the start of the end? But then I wake up this morning and, my God, it's gone, and I feel quite good. They say when the system does go down, it'll go down in a heap," says O'Reilly, who has lost 14kg. The cancer has already spread from the oesophagus to the stomach, liver and lymphatic system. "It's funny, I always hated those two words, 'cancer' and 'oesophagus'," says O'Reilly, a non-smoker. But now, as he performs his last official duties as advocate for the nation's children, the child's letter signals something important. "For a kid to be able to say, 'Let's move on to things that are really important, me and Jack, this is where we're at. ' I just love that."

For too long, he says, New Zealanders haven't been listening when children have tried to tell us that they want a close relationship with their own dads – something that O'Reilly points out is their right under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. He has launched his Fathers Who Care: Partners in Parenting programme in response to kids' need for fathers – and as a result of shocking new research into fatherless families. O'Reilly has flown from his family home in Christchurch, where he is on sick leave, to his Wellington office to stress "with real urgency" the need for positive parenting strategies to get fathers truly involved as co-parents of their kids.

The statistics are alarming. "In 1991, just over one-fifth of New Zealand families looking after a child of one year old were sole-parent families," says O'Reilly. "The figure rises to one quarter for New Zealand families with a child between one and four. Over the last two decades, the number of single-parent families has doubled." He describes as "startling and disturbing" the prediction that by 2010, 70 percent of Maori infants under 12 months will be in fatherless families. Currently, 50 percent are believed to be in that situation. New Zealand already has the industrialised world's second-highest percentage of single-parent families. The increase was stressed in a severely critical report by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Why does it matter? O'Reilly can't forget something that happened in his first week as commissioner. Five-year-old Nikita Hart died in Levin after her stepfather punched her in the stomach with such force that her internal organs compressed against her spine. The same man, the court heard later, was responsible for similar injuries to a four-year-old Napier boy who died in 1979 after being punched for bed-wetting.


"I have been devastated by such tragedies, tremendously distressed by them," says O'Reilly. And he quotes from David Blankerhorn, author of Fatherless America Confronting our Most Urgent Social Problem, on how "paternal investment enriches children". First, at the top of the list, is the thing so often forgotten. "First, it provides them with a father's physical protection."

In a speech to be given to the 1997 Family Violence Symposium, O'Reilly says, "As a society, we need to urgently reassess our attitude to marriage. For some time, social scientists have promoted the concept that divorce and fatherlessness are the better and more feasible options for children when there is serious disharmony in their families. It seems to me that research now points quite strongly to the view that the average child does worse, not better, after separation. Take abuse by surrogate fathers and stepfathers. We continue to legitimise family break-up at our peril," says O'Reilly. "Strong attachment and bonding between father and daughter may be a critical ingredient in preventing later child abuse."

Supporting his view that divorce can be devastating for children is evidence presented by Professor Martin Richards of Cambridge University, who was recently in New Zealand. "We know that when a parent dies," says Richards, "the effect on children is much less marked than a divorce. If you talk to children, it's very rare to find children who actually welcome a separation. It's quite the reverse. They feel their parents have chosen to do this [separate], knowing that it might damage the children, so they feel very powerless and quite angry. Death may be terrible and it may be sad, but it's not something the parents have inflicted on them.

"There is, of course, one case where that's not true – where one parent commits suicide. That actually has very similar effects to divorce on children. It makes them feel powerless." The exception to the research on single families, says Richards, is where women of reasonably high incomes have consciously planned to bring up a child on their own.

But typically, says O'Reilly, dad moves out. Eighty-two percent of single families in New Zealand are headed by females. O'Reilly is very concerned "not to be seen as demeaning the role of solo mothers". He notes with concern that women, like children, are more at risk of being battered outside marriage. Richards points out that having two parents stay together throughout your childhood is no guarantee of success, nor is parents separating a guarantee of problems. Where a good parental relationship is kept post-divorce, there are fewer problems. But, after 20 years of research in the UK, United States, New Zealand and Australia, the evidence now suggests, says Richards, that there are six areas where the average development of children who have experienced parental divorce is damaged.

  • School attainment is poorer. Children are less likely to enter tertiary education.
  • Behaviour problems are greater. Boys tend towards bad behaviour and violence; girls become depressed.
  • Self-esteem is lower.
  • Children move into adult behaviours earlier. They experience adolescent sexual relationships and parenthood more often. The quality of their relationships tends to be poorer, with high rates of divorce.
  • Unemployment is more common.
  • Depression rates are higher when they hit crises in adulthood.

O'Reilly quotes David Popenoe, author of The Human Carnage of Fatherlessness and Life Without Father, on his assertion that "evidence indicating damage to children has accumulated in near tidal-wave proportions". As well as their involvement in delinquency, crime and substance abuse, fatherless children, he says, "mostly grow up without a 'protector', without good role models for sons and male-relationship models for girls; without positive models of mother-father interaction; without the kind of supervision that fathers can provide". There is often poverty and abuse. Neglect.

"This is one of the most vital social issues facing New Zealand," says O'Reilly. Already New Zealand has the "appalling" record of being in the top six industrialised nations in terms of deaths from child abuse and neglect of children under 12 months. "New Zealand has the third worst male youth suicide rate of 32 countries in a Unicef study. Total deaths each year for the under-20 age group are approximately 900."

Blankerhorn: "In virtually all human societies, children's wellbeing depends decisively upon a relatively high level of paternal involvement." But Richards, like O'Reilly, believes the outcomes of divorce are not inevitable. "In North Yemen, for example, where divorce has been common for centuries, marriage is seldom seen as life-long and there is not the damage to kids. They've learnt ways of dealing with it. Families stay close."


New Zealand was seen in the past, says Richards, as a "social laboratory"; a world leader with its Family Court legislation. Not now. "Recently, Australia has pulled ahead, and that has been a major model for what's happening in Britain and the US. If people get to the point of divorcing in Australia, they must attend an hour-long information session including discussion of the likely impact of divorce on children. A second half-hour session includes the invitation to attend support group meetings. Then they have to wait three months, during which nothing can happen except taking up the offer of counselling."

O'Reilly believes it is "critical" that the Family Court in New Zealand is appropriately resourced. It should be seen, he says, as a place of first not last resort. As a pioneering counsel for children, he has always believed that the emphasis on "custody" and "access" is wrong. In 1979, when he co-authored Ludbrook's Family Law Practice, O'Reilly challenged the custody emphasis. He is even more adamant now: "Are we not better to focus on co-parenting abilities and the needs of the children and on matching them up?" In England and, more recently, Australia "they've done exactly that".

As a counsel, O'Reilly was often successful in helping people draw up co-parenting arrangements with the person they once loved. He asked the simple question: "'What were the 20 characteristics that attracted you to this person in the first place?' Many people were just very generous in acknowledging the good points of the other party, and then, later down the track, the other party would say, 'Did she really say that?' They talk about the other's strengths as a parent," says O'Reilly. "Women have to ask themselves if they really want their children to see their father only in supervised access centres for the next 10 or 15 years."

But in New Zealand, he says, we often persist with a stereotypical view of gender roles in which the perception of fatherless families is, "Oh yeah, these buggers who take off and ignore their kids, or abandon them, ot become violent." O'Reilly couldn't disagree more with Act MP Donna Awatere Huata's call for absent fathers who have abandoned their children "to be given a boot in the pants" to get them involved again. "We do need fathers with their families, but a caring, nurturing, supportive father," stresses O'Reilly. We need research, he says, on the factors that stop them becoming that factors such as outdated guardianship laws that state that an unmarried mother living alone at the date of birth of a child is the sole guardian. "I have to ask 'why?'" says O'Reilly. "What message does that give to the procreating male who impregnates a woman, and then has no legal responsibility other than to pay his liable-parent contribution? That's not helpful." Nor are things like the lack of nappy-changing facilities downtown for men to use. "And we need to ask whether places like schools are father-friendly," says O'Reilly. "A lot of men are terrified of going into schools."

But what about the really deadbeat dads? O'Reilly: "I did find in my legal practice that there were fathers who were arrogant and quite insensitive to the needs of their partners and children. There were some who were at best cavalier and at worst downright ruthless in walking away from a family. But they were only a small percentage. Many men walked away because they were hurt, devastated, felt totally undermined and in too much agony to argue for the children's right to a dad. Others were able to rationalise that maybe it was better to let the mother and children have a fresh start. But it would be quite wrong to broadly blame fathers and say it is their fault for walking away.

"After three years as Commissioner for Children," says O'Reilly, "I have come to the conclusion that in some cases the legal profession has inappropriately discouraged fathers from pursuing genuine co-parenting arrangements. There have been willing collaborators supporting this approach among specialist reporters [to the courts] and counsellors." We have "conned ourselves", says O'Reilly, if we think we have served children well.

"Whereas the judiciary has generally recognised the statutory imperative against gender bias, I am not so confident that the other professionals involved in the Family Court system have been without bias."

This is a hard thing to say, but O'Reilly believes that "in our enthusiasm to provide protection and safety for women and children from the destructiveness of family violence, we have been distracted from an examination of what causes such violence and from an examination of the impact of fatherless families.

"Let me be quite clear," says O'Reilly. The battle to achieve law reform in 1995, so that the definition of violence includes psychological as well as physical and sexual abuse, "was a battle worth fighting". A growing body of research shows "that children who witness violence have similar outcomes to those who are direct targets of it. They are prone to aggression, attention deficit anxiety and low self-esteem. Violence becomes a learned response," says O'Reilly. But O'Reilly has severe reservations about the effectiveness of court-ordered deterrents. He is increasingly concerned that professional and support groups focus too narrowly on specific acts or events and equate successful intervention with achieving protection orders. That can mean a permanent split from the child.

"The question I would raise is whether the courts do, in fact, take a broad child-centred approach and comprehensively assess a child's total needs, and whether the courts appropriately consider the behaviour within the whole context in which violence has occurred. An analysis of case law would indicate that emphasis seems to have been placed on issues of hostility between the parents. I suggest that there is a temptation in preparing psychological reports and evidence to focus on the more overt forms of hostility. I am also concerned that there is a danger that the evaluation will be restricted to the hostility of the person found to have been physically violent.

"But it's hard for the courts. How do you balance protection and safety with a child's need for a father when there has been violence?" The key can be to discover the context of the violence. "One thing I found that wound up non-custodial parents  mainly fathers is not knowing what's going on. 'Is she really on with that guy?' Once they've said, 'Look, she's madly in love with him, yes, they are sleeping together, yes they are living together, no, there is no way she's coming back, it's finished, over', then they seemed to be able to move dramatically on. Communication is vital. I think in some cases we've lost the opportunity of intervening more therapeutically and supportively because of limitations put on a counsel's brief." There are other factors, such as the need for counsel for the child to be better upskilled. And there is the glaring inconsistency, says O'Reilly, between the Children and Young Persons and Their Families Act  which can actually facilitate the return to parents of children who have been actively abused – and the Domestic Violence Act, "which can sever parental relationships".

"I must say I’m embarrassed now at the lack of time I spent with my own children," says O'Reilly. There are some powerful memories: bringing his beloved Kay and firstborn Christopher home, "getting the flowers all set up, the fire, and my boss demanding that I get my feet into the office to prepare legal research for a case he had on the Monday". There's Christopher as a small boy, his father preparing to smack him. "He said, 'I'm not going to cry', and I said, 'You bloody well will cry', and one smack later I burst into tears. It was no help to hear him as I left the room saying, 'I'm still not crying!' I just didn't believe in smacking," says O'Reilly.

Sport was always important. "The first thing we taught Christopher as a baby was lineouts: arms up in the air." The first letter he could recognise in the papers was goalposts," says O'Reilly, a national and provincial coach. Christopher, a young executive of the year, is "now 2IC at Citibank", says his proud father. And it has been one of his great privileges as a father, he says, to coach daughter Lauren, "now a dedicated teacher", at rugby. Kay is a leading netball coach, "but she was generous enough to 'stand back and let me have sporting time with Lauren, too".

He can't say this without tears: "The greatest gift in my life has been fatherhood," says O'Reilly. But he also thinks a lot about his own childhood in Timaru these days. Helping his dad Dinny drive the breakdown truck at 13. Gaining the confidence to overcome his severe speech impediment by working on cars alongside his father: the words "Well done, lad" still clear. The priests and brothers of his Catholic childhood were important. Now O'Reilly is known as "Father O'Reilly" among what Kay calls the Bungy kids the foster kids and others who have all lived at the O'Reilly home at some time.

Dallas Seymour, the young Maori former All Black, turns up today at O'Reilly's office. "I love Laurie and Kay like a mother and father," says Seymour. "It really feels like I'm losing a father here."

In his last days and weeks in the office, O'Reilly is still worrying about finding $100,000 to save from the Commissioner for Children's budget. "I can't cut operating costs further, I've already not replaced 1.5 staff." The publicised $300,000 from the coalition, which Winston Peters said was so deserved, turned out to be just $50,000 and in practical terms it was less than that because the office didn't get it in advance to collect interest.

But O'Reilly has persuaded the Save the Children fund to give $50,000 for Fathers Who Care. Fathers such as Sean Fitzpatrick and Tana Umaga have promised their support for a "Dads Can Do It" campaign. This is not just about violent or divorced dads, stresses O'Reilly. Behind-the-newspaper dads can be just as distant. "The first step is to find out what inhibits and what helps fathering, and then to provide resources to upskill and support fathers." But this will take a shift from employers; from all of us. "Be committed," urges O'Reilly, preparing to hang up his teddybear tie. "Be passionate about children."

This article was first published in the September 6, 1997 issue of the New Zealand Listener.