Stay staunch, Paula Ben­nett

Central Leader - - NEWS -

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

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