Stay staunch, Paula Bennett
She was only six months old and her name was ‘‘Serenity’’ – a terrible irony in the month that Paula Bennett launched her new crusading plan to save other children from Serenity’s fate.
Serenity Jay Scott-Dinnington was murdered, dying from traumatic head injury inflicted by Mathew Shane Ellery at her home in Ngaruawahia, on April 26, 2011. He pleaded guilty last week.
In so many ways, Serenity’s death was typical of how 10 New Zealand children are killed each year.
When I first analysed figures in the Auckland Star in 1982, the risk of a Maori child being battered to death was twice that of their Pakeha equivalent. Now it’s nearly three times.
In a typical five-year period, 17 Maori children under 15 died after vicious assaults.
When Paula Bennett spoke in August, 2010, to a meeting of iwi leaders, she updated my figures and said: ‘‘I am haunted by our neglected and abused children.
‘‘I’m talking about the many thousands, who through no fault of their own, live lives of desperation and neglect. You know the names of some.
‘‘Their innocent and gorgeous faces are on the news as the ones most hideously abused by those that should care for them.
‘‘But behind those faces are thousands more. And unless we intervene and do things differently, thousands more will come through next year, in five years and in 10 years. I don’t even want to start adding up those numbers. Because behind those numbers are children.
‘‘And let’s be honest, they’re our children, our kids. Each of them has a name. Each of them has a whakapapa. Each of them has whanau and families.
‘‘The plight of these children is our nation’s shame. Let’s be clear here, in New Zealand we know that Pakeha hurt and neglect Pakeha kids. Pacific hurt Pacific.
‘‘And there are Maori who are beating, abusing, neglecting and in extreme cases even killing their children, at a rate higher than we all want.
‘‘For me it’s not about comparing ethnicities, it’s about addressing this most serious of issues at all levels and for all ethnicities. So leaders, I appeal to you all today, because our babies are being hurt.
‘‘Last year, 56 Maori children were hospitalised because of abuse.
‘‘Of the nearly 21,000 of substantiated cases of neglect and abuse 11,003 were Maori and four died.
‘‘Those four dead Maori children account for half of all the child deaths by abuse last year.
‘‘Only a quarter of New Zealand’s children are Maori, yet half of the children who are killed through family violence are Maori.
‘‘When I talk about the 21,000 substantiated cases of abuse, I’m talking about sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect.
‘‘Every five days, a child under two is hospitalised because of abuse.
‘‘Every year, eight children are killed by those who are supposed to love and care for them, often their own family members.
‘‘Those deaths and that serious abuse, is unimaginable.
‘‘I need you as respected leaders to go back to hapu, iwi and your whanau . . . and say it’s time to face up to this. It’s time to face up to the fact that Maori children and Maori babies are being beaten, abused and killed and it’s time it stopped.
‘‘It’s time to look within iwi and hapu and have a back up whanau for children in care.
‘‘It’s time to introduce ‘ whanau finders’. It’s time to recognise the young women who are heading for a life of desperation and poor parents – and turn it around.
‘‘Let’s call it like it is. Yes, we have a mountain to climb but if we walk together I believe we will reach our goal.’’
If you think this brilliant speech got a standing ovation, it didn’t.
Nor have new statistics shown that the terrible tide is turning.
Let’s hope Paula’s plan breaks the pattern and saves lives.
She explained to MPs: ‘‘There will be changes to protect children born to parents who’ve previously abused or even killed a child.
‘‘Currently, it’s only when those abusive parents have a subsequent child and come to the attention of Child, Youth and Family that the child’s safety is assessed.
‘‘If Child, Youth and Family believe the child is unsafe, it has to prove that to the Court.
‘‘We will reverse that burden of proof. The parent will have to prove that their child is safe in their care. ‘‘Let’s call it like it is.’’ (On January 6, Serenity’s mother gave birth to a child fathered by Ellery, the man who killed Serenity. Child, Youth and Family took the baby less than 48 hours later.
Her 6-year-old son Travis has been in CYF care since the incident last year.) In the mailbag: ‘‘Great to see some action on the terrible death, abuse and neglect rates of our children.
‘‘But it’s still ambulance at the bottom of the cliff stuff.
‘‘Until New Zealanders and everyone involved with children learn the basic fact of child psychology, damage will continue to be done.
‘‘Overseas, it’s accepted wisdom that breaking a baby’s bonds of attachment to its mother or first caregiver is the most damaging thing that can happen in its whole life. Enlightened child experts now feel that deprivation of loving attention, comfort and understanding of a baby is responsible for many problems in older children – problems ranging from ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), depression, panic attacks, phobias, eating disorders, anxiety and substance abuse.
‘‘So children and young adults with these problems are not innately troublesome or born with a pre-disposition to these problems. They simply didn’t get the emotional food for the brain – those hormones of loving connection.
‘‘And when a baby is parcelled around in unofficial adoptions and fostering which are allowed in this country, the child does not get this attention and commitment that every child needs for its healthy emotional development. So farming children out to extended family in what may be temporary relationships is bad for babies too.
‘‘The figures show some stepfathers can be a danger. The other basic fact that most people seem to be unaware of, which is linked to these facts, is that the more a baby is cuddled, the more emotionally stable and happy it will be and that the more a baby is left to cry the more cortisol builds up in the brain and can cause permanent emotional harm leading to depression and all the problems listed above. And for too long all mothers have been warned that they are ‘ spoiling their babies’ when they cuddle or comfort them.
‘‘We need posters in supermarkets, hospitals, buses, trains, waiting rooms saying: ‘Cuddling your baby is good for him’ and: ‘ leaving her to cry is bad for her’, to start supporting parents, and encouraging them to trust themselves. Then maybe we could start to see confident happy mothers and happy children. We need a child-friendly society.’’ – Valerie Davies