We’re still killing our kids

Central Leader - - News -

So, I’m re­peat­ing my­self. No apolo­gies.

Two years ago, I wrote this:

Quote: Imag­ine the up­roar, the state of emer­gency, the of­fi­cial hor­ror and fear, the Royal Com­mis­sion, the law changes, the huge emer­gency bud­get fund­ing if it hap­pened.

If 48 MPs, po­lice, de­part­men­tal heads, judges and com­mu­nity and Maori leaders were rushed to a hospi­tal in one year af­ter sus­pi­cious in­ci­dents.

Half of them with in­juries from bash­ings – “non-ac­ci­den­tal head in­juries” is the de­scrip­tion. If seven of them died. Those are the fig­ures, but the ca­su­al­ties are not high­pro­fil­ers. They’re chil­dren, mostly un­der a year old.

Those to­tals are from Starship, for 12 months – the worst on record. They don’t in­clude bat­tered chil­dren ad­mit­ted to other hos­pi­tals

The Starship to­tal at that stage – two years ago – 181 cases of “sus­pected or def­i­nite” child abuse in six years. Thir­teen of them died. In one hospi­tal.

The gov­ern­ment, its de­part­ments with re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to pro­tect our chil­dren, the com­mu­nity, fam­i­lies and whanau, neigh­bours and friends have all been reg­u­larly and pub­licly con­sciences­tricken over the years.

And they then put the ter­ri­ble de­tails of the deaths be­hind them – un­til the next in­ci­dent when they un­con­sciously re­peat the process.

This is one of those times. The coun­try is in a guilt phase. But how long will it last, what will be the out­come? Un­quote

Then, last year, this news­pa­per pub­lished what I de­scribed as tomb­stones, an ac­cus­ing litany of the in­no­cent dead, chil­dren who had died at the hands of fam­ily, whanau and those they were en­ti­tled to trust.

Read­ers told how they wept when they read it – and a post­hu­mous let­ter I wrote car­ry­ing the sig­na­tures of a list of chil­dren and how they had been mur­dered.

For soil­ing their pants, for wet­ting their beds, prob­a­bly from fear, for bring­ing home a packet of jelly­beans from kinder­garten, beaten to death, kicked to death, their gen­i­tals bru­talised.

I quoted a Unicef re­port nam­ing us as hav­ing one of the worst lev­els of child mal­treat­ment in the de­vel­oped world, with OECD also list­ing us as the third worst killer of chil­dren among its mem­bers.

I have news for you. Tears are un­der­stand­able but they’re not enough. Two years later, those ter­ri­ble la­bels still ap­ply.

We are still killing our kids – a hor­ri­fy­ing av­er­age of 10 a year, three in lit­tle more than one re­cent month.

The lat­est OECD re­ports vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren in our so­ci­ety are among the most abused, de­prived and at-risk in the de­vel­oped world.

All this as tough times rob im­por­tant help agen­cies like Barnar­dos of spon­sors’ money they de­pend on.

In the words of Dr Annabel Tay­lor, se­nior lec­turer in so­cial pol­icy and so­cial work prac­tice at the Uni­ver­sity of Can­ter­bury:

“What the OECD re­port con­firms is that those tragedies are the most ob­vi­ous and most damn­ing ex­am­ples of the epi­demic of mal­treat­ment and abuse of New Zealand chil­dren.

“They are the most hor­rific symp­toms of a much wider prob­lem.”

She wants the gov­ern­ment to “take a more fo­cused ap- proach and put the in­ter­ests of chil­dren first”.

As an ex­am­ple, Dr Tay­lor cites the gov­ern­ment’s cur­rent cam­paign to per­suade par­ents not to shake their ba­bies as a sign of New Zealand’s poorly fo­cused re­sponse to what she calls “this coun­try’s great­est shame”.

“Of course, shak­ing a cry­ing baby is to­tally wrong, and par­ents should be given prac­ti­cal strate­gies to deal more ap­pro­pri­ately with their baby when he or she cries.

“But pam­phlets and posters will not save in­fants in fam­i­lies at the high­est risk of child abuse.

“Nei­ther will so­cial work­ers in hos­pi­tals, who will sim­ply be­come in­un­dated and over­whelmed by the num­ber and sever­ity of cases they are faced with.

“We know that the high­est risk fam­i­lies are where mal­treat­ment and abuse such as shaken baby syn­drome is most likely to oc­cur.

“High qual­ity early in­ter­ven­tion pro­grammes have proven suc­cess­ful in work­ing with th­ese fam­i­lies to pre­vent abuse.

“If it wants New Zealand to climb off the bot­tom of the OECD child mal­treat­ment lad­der, the gov­ern­ment needs to fo­cus in­vest­ment on th­ese ev­i­dence-based pro­grammes.

“Screen­ing in hos­pi­tals is not enough. Hos­pi­tals screen a whole range of ill­nesses and then op­er­ate a form of triage to pro­vide ser­vices to the most se­ri­ously at-risk pa­tients.

“In a sim­i­lar way, the gov­ern­ment’s dif­fer­en­tial­re­sponse child pro­tec­tion sys­tem needs strength­en­ing so that spe­cial­ist sup­port ser­vices are avail­able to the fam­i­lies that need help the most.”

Dr Tay­lor says child abuse im­poses a huge cost on the whole com­mu­nity.

“Within the first three years of life, chil­dren who live in homes where vi­o­lence and mal­treat­ment are com­mon­place are at high risk of be­com­ing trau­ma­tised to such an ex­tent that their brain de­vel­op­ment is im­paired. When this oc­curs it cre­ates life-long dif­fi­cul­ties for the in­di­vid­ual and has a pro­found im­pact on so­ci­ety.”

She cites child abuse and ne­glect cost­ing the equiv­a­lent of around $2 bil­lion a year in polic­ing, im­pris­on­ment, men­tal health, health­care, drug ad­dic­tion and the other “neg­a­tive con­se­quences”. That is sim­ply money.

But, there’s much more – lost op­por­tu­ni­ties for young peo­ple and adults who have spent the early years of their lives as vic­tims of vi­o­lence, ne­glect, mal­treat­ment and abuse, and who lead blighted adult lives as a re­sult.

“Re-de­ploy­ing New Zea- land’s so­cial ser­vices bud­get to fo­cus more di­rectly on the 2 per­cent of fam­i­lies at great­est risk would, in the long term, dras­ti­cally re­duce this drain on our so­ci­ety as well as im­prov­ing our shame­ful rank­ings in in­ter­na­tional child health and safety in­dices, like those from the OECD,” she says.

She has grim ex­pe­ri­ence which goes with this ter­ri­ble ter­ri­tory. Can­ter­bury’s Fam­ily Help Trust – which she chairs – works in the homes of in­fants at the great­est risk of child abuse.

Its skilled so­cial work­ers fo­cus on the causes of dys­func­tion in fam­i­lies hit by poverty, crime, frag­ile men­tal health, un­em­ploy­ment, lack of ed­u­ca­tion, poor hous­ing, drug abuse, and his­to­ries of vi­o­lence and vic­tim­i­sa­tion, fam­i­lies where child abuse is most likely to oc­cur.

Fam­i­lies where chil­dren live at risk and too of­ten die as in­fants.

So, while mil­lions of dol­lars of our taxes go into a sweptup har­bour­side party cen­tre for world cup rev­ellers, Barnar­dos and other spe­cial­ists go short of money, risk clos­ing doors rather than open­ing them, and more chil­dren are killed.

To con­tact Pat Booth email off­pat@snl.co.nz or write care of this news­pa­per. All replies are open for pub­li­ca­tion un­less marked.

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