The Southland Times
How we made Mãori the face of child abuse in NZ
OOur Truth, Tā Mātou Pono is a Stuff project investigating the history of racism. Part one focused on Stuff and its newspapers, and how we have portrayed Māori.
ne child is only 5 weeks old, but has 20 fractures on his tiny body. A 3-month-old has eight broken ribs and a fractured skull before she dies of a brain haemorrhage.
A toddler has a skull fracture, two black eyes, and a broken leg when he dies. A 2-year-old girl suffocates to death, struggling for 10 minutes as her father pushes her face into a pillow.
A girl, dead after being swung by her ankles as punishment. Another has a broken arm and a brain injury before dying of pneumonia.
Few crimes have the capacity to haunt us like violence against a child.
Stuff and its newspapers have covered dozens of cases over decades, with a focus on those that leave us with unforgettable, shocking images.
Media coverage is why many of us have preserved a space in our long-term memories, a list, if you will, of children’s names that may include: James Whakaruru, Lillybing, Chris and Cru Kahui, Nia Glassie, and Moko Rangitoheriri.
All of those names, notably, belong to Māori children. They all suffered abuse before they died.
Unlikely to feature on your mental list of names, the children described at the beginning of this story, all of whom were Pākehā.
As Stuff reckons with its fraught history of covering racial issues, we must examine how our coverage of child abuse – one of this country’s most grave and intractable social crises – has continually elevated particular names into the national consciousness.
Has our coverage sought to reflect the reality of this issue, or has it distorted reality to align with the views of a predominantly Pākehā readership?
The answer is: our reporting has amplified child abuse among Māori whānau and minimised violence in Pākehā families. We’ve failed Pākehā children and not applied the same scrutiny to Pākehā perpetrators as we have to Māori.
This analysis formed part of the national Our Truth, Tā Mātou Pono project, which found Stuff and its newspapers have been racist. Collectively our team of reporters discovered we’ve contributed to social stigma, marginalisation and negative stereotypes against Māori.
We’ve used a monocultural lens that hasn’t served our journalism principles well, or the children of Aotearoa.
For every Nia Glassie, there is a Sarah Haddock-Woodcock, who was murdered by her Pākehā father after a prolonged series of gruesome beatings.
For every James Whakaruru, there is a Kelly Gush, who was kicked to death by her mother’s partner.
For every Chris and Cru Kahui, there is a Dominique and Nikkita Hingston, who were strangled to death by their father.
Data shows Māori are overrepresented in child abuse statistics. The intersection of race and violence is a matter that rightly deserves serious journalistic scrutiny.
But examining our coverage shows we’ve not only disproportionately covered Māori victims, we’ve done so in racialised ways.
Our newspapers and the ‘roll call of death’
The roots of our reporting likely started at the very beginning, when our newspapers were formed.
As outlined in Our Truth, Ta Matou Pono, several were founded by prominent settlers during, or shortly after, the New Zealand Wars.
Early editions contained portrayals of Māori as inherently violent and uncivilised. Over time, we depicted Māori using a range of negative stereotypes, including laziness, a reliance on welfare, and prone to drinking and drug use.
If there is an obvious turning point in our coverage of child abuse in more recent times, however, it was in 1999.
Near the end of that year, James Whakaruru was beaten to death by his mother’s partner. As the Sunday StarTimes reported, the only unbruised parts of his body were the soles of his feet.
The killing outraged the country, and the newspapers dutifully covered the aftermath.
Besides a handful of mentions in editorials and opinion pieces, the fact Whakaruru and his killer were both Māori did not warrant emphasis. But that would soon change.
In July 2000, 2-year-old Hinewaoriki Karaitiana-Matiaha – or as she was known to her family, Lillybing – was taken to a hospital in Masterton and declared dead on arrival.
She, like James Whakaruru, had sustained grotesque injuries inflicted on her by extended family members.
In the eyes of the newspapers at the time – in particular, The Dominion, The Evening Post and The Press – the two killings were connected. Perhaps not physically, but thematically.
Both were cases of Māori
Today, national correspondent Charlie Mitchell looks at how our organisation has portrayed child abuse. We explain how we’ve stigmatised Māori whānau by focusing on and amplifying child abuse cases about Māori children while minimising abuse in Pākehā families.
children, killed by abuse from Ma¯ori caregivers.
The proximity of the events then fed a narrative, repeated by the newspapers, that fatal child abuse was a Ma¯ori problem.
The shift in tone happened almost overnight, beginning in earnest on August 1, 2000, while the details of Lillybing’s death were being unravelled by the police and journalists alike.
The Dominion led its front page with the provocative headline ‘‘Child abuse rife among Maoris – CYF’’.
The story cited data from Child, Youth and Family (now Oranga Tamariki) in the year prior; the total number of confirmed cases of child abuse among Ma¯ori was slightly lower than among Pa¯keha¯.
A story citing the same data appeared in The Evening Post on the same day, also on its front page.
Both stories claimed Ma¯ori children were ‘‘five times more likely’’ to be abused than Pa¯keha¯ children.
The statistic was not correct. At the time, around 25 per cent of children were Ma¯ori, and 75 per cent Pa¯keha¯: three times higher, not five.
The figure lowered even further when comparing Ma¯ori to non-Ma¯ori as a whole.
An analysis by the Ministry of Social Development later showed Ma¯ori children were around 2.5 times more likely to be abused than non-Ma¯ori. A review of literature predominantly published in the early 2000s showed the rate of maltreatment among Ma¯ori was consistently double that of nonMa¯ori.
A rate two or three times higher than other groups is still significant, and the essence of the claim – that Ma¯ori are overrepresented in child abuse figures – was accurate.
But the inaccurate ‘‘five times more’’ figure was not corrected, and served as a springboard for fevered coverage in the months afterwards, seemingly used as permission to cover Lillybing’s death in a racialised way.
Turning child abuse into a Ma¯ori problem
The following day, The Evening Post led its front page with a story headlined ‘‘Hine’s ‘Once Were Warriors’ hell’’.
Likening Lillybing’s home life to a scene from the 1994 film, it contained lurid accounts of incest, alcoholism, and violence. An accompanying editorial cited the ‘‘five times more likely’’ figure in its condemnation of Ma¯ori for child abuse.
‘‘Is this how Maoridom celebrates its warrior ancestry?’’ the newspaper asked. ‘‘By practising on its tamariki?’’
That same editorial described a ‘‘roll call of death’’, which included five names:
James Whakaruru, Lillybing, Anaru Rogers, Delcelia Witika, and Craig Manukau.
Nothing linked the cases other than they were incidents of fatal child abuse involving Ma¯ori which had occurred within the previous 11 years.
Nevertheless, the names would enter newspaper lore, repeated time and again for nearly two decades afterwards as signifiers of child abuse.
The Waikato Times, similarly, described its own ‘‘roll of shame’’ in an editorial published around the same time. It included the names above, and more: Veronika Takerei-Mahu, Hohepa Vercoe, and Mereana Edmonds. Again, all were Ma¯ori.
Ten days after the first story appeared, a feature in The Evening Post, headlined ‘‘Once Were Precious’’, cited the inaccurate ‘‘five times more likely’’ statistic. Although the story shared perspectives from Ma¯ori on the issue of child abuse, it leaned heavily on stereotypes reminiscent of those featured in our newspapers more than a century earlier:
‘‘But ugly questions are also asked: are Maori more violent? Are they naturally bad parents? Is the warrior culture still alive?’’ the paper asked.
In another editorial that month, The Press – commenting on a dispute about child abuse
As recently as last year, we opened an editorial . . . with the names of six children killed by abuse. All were Ma¯ori.
statistics between two Ma¯ori MPs and the head of Women’s Refuge – said: ‘‘New Zealanders have again had the message reinforced that some prominent Maoris are not prepared to acknowledge the child abuse that is defiling their race.’’
In its own editorial, the Sunday Star-Times added: ‘‘It’s the problem that almost dares not speak its name, but we must if the slaughter and shocking abuse of Maori children is to be halted.’’
In the course of a month, a unified editorial line became clear across many of our newspapers: child abuse was a Ma¯ori problem, for which Ma¯ori must take responsibility, and it stuck in our national conscience.
Pa¯keha¯ families we didn’t focus on
While this was happening, other horrific child abuse cases were barely mentioned.
On October 1, 2000, Nelson woman Rosemary Perkin ended the lives of her three daughters, Alice, 8, Maria, 6, and 23-month-old Cherie, and herself.
It received limited coverage outside Nelson, and was soon forgotten by the media. In the two decades since it happened, Perkin has been mentioned in our newspapers about 40 times; Lillybing’s murder, which happened at the same time, about 460.
Less than a year later, a similar case occurred near Motueka. Pauline Hingston went to collect her two daughters, Nikkita, 5, and Dominique, 6. Their father, Frank, had strangled them, before killing himself.
Both crimes echoed another several years earlier in Whanganui, when Alan Bristol killed his three daughters – Tiffany, Holly, and Claudia, aged between 7 and 18 months – and himself.
Similar, too, were the 1999 murders of Nicholas and Christina Han, aged 4 and 2 respectively, who were stabbed to death by their father, Robert Han, who also killed their mother.
There are many more examples we barely reported on. These crimes were reported differently to the murders of James Whakaruru and Lillybing. Why?
In its coverage of the Perkin murders, the Sunday Star-Times described the perpetrator as ‘‘a loving mother who always put her family first’’.
In an editorial, The Southland Times described her as ‘‘that poor woman’’. A headline in the Nelson Mail, quoting a neighbour, was ‘‘They were lovely people’’, referring to the Perkin family, including Rosemary.
The murders were described as abuse only once, in a Nelson Mail editorial, which said it ‘‘arguably amounts to one of the worst cases of abuse in years’’.
When Frank Hingston murdered his daughters, it was portrayed as a tragedy that descended upon a tightknit community. The case has been mentioned 35 times since. Not once were the killings described as child abuse.
Two murder cases involving sisters Saliel Aplin and Olympia Jetson in 2001, and Coral-Ellen Burrows two years later, received considerable media coverage. All three girls were killed by their mothers’ partners.
What news reporting we did was never in the context of their ethnicity. There were no editorials demanding Pa¯keha¯ leaders take responsibility for fatal child abuse.
The news firestorm
Between 2000 and 2006, more than 40 children died from neglect, abuse, or maltreatment.
Among the worst cases was Sarah Haddock-Woodcock, a 3-month-old from Pu¯ta¯ruru in Waikato who died of a skull fracture in 2005. An autopsy found she had eight broken ribs, severe internal bleeding, and a brain haemorrhage.
Her Pa¯keha¯ father, Joshua Woodcock, was later convicted of her murder. Despite it being one of the most despicable acts of child abuse in recent memory, it garnered almost no coverage in our newspapers outside the Waikato Times.
Other victims in this period included Daniel Marshall, Kelly Gush, Molly MacRae, Britney Abbott, Cameron and Krystal Fielding, Wenda Zeng, Gabriel Harrison-Taylor, Kalin St Michael, Alyssa Little-Murphy, Will Mercer, Caleb Moorhead, and Thomas Schumann. Their names are rarely mentioned in the context of our fatal child abuse record.
The issue of child abuse didn’t ramp up again in our newspapers until the 2006 deaths of infant twins Chris and Cru Kahui, followed by the 2007 murder of Nia Glassie.
Their deaths kicked off a media firestorm that lasted years.
Much like the consecutive deaths of James Whakaruru and Lillybing, the cases were connected by our newspapers, and their names entered the canon of abused children.
The attention on the Kahui case was prolonged, in part due to the length of time between the twins’ deaths and the court acquitting their father, Chris Kahui, of murder. Since they were killed, they have been referred to 815 times in our newspapers (including editorials and letters to the editor).
The same was true for Nia Glassie, the victim of child abuse we’ve mentioned more than any other. Her name has appeared in our newspapers 850 times.
The renewed focus on child abuse came with a racial valence.
In a front page news story after the Kahui twins were killed,
The Press published a ‘‘roll of shame’’, listing 13 children killed by parents or caregivers, nine of whom were Ma¯ori.
On June 27, 2006, page 2 of The Dominion Post contained three stories about the Kahui twins, all angled on their Ma¯ori ethnicity.
In the Sunday Star-Times, a news story described the Kahui killings as ‘‘the latest Maori child abuse case’’.
It quoted a column in the same newspaper by Michael Laws: ‘‘These are sick perversions from a Maori subculture which is protected on a daily basis by their ethnicity.’’
The Dominion Post, in an editorial on July 31, 2007, described the injuries sustained by Nia Glassie, the Kahui twins, and Whanganui toddler Jhia Te Tua, who was murdered in a gang shooting.
‘‘What the three incidents have in common is that the children are Maori,’’ the newspaper said. ‘‘That is an unpleasant truth, but one which should not be shied away from for fear of being labelled racist.’’
While it refers to Pa¯keha¯ also killing their children, it provides no examples, and says a culture of dysfunction ‘‘will not change till Maori tolerance of abuse ends’’.
Similarly, the Taranaki Daily News, in its own editorial, framed Nia Glassie’s murder in the context of ethnicity.
‘‘But where is the famous whanau we always hear about? What is the value of this nurturing, caring extended Maori family unit when so many of the maimed and killed children are Maori?’’ the paper asked.
‘‘It’s not Maori bashing. We’ve always been taught that Maori have this incredible family bond that goes beyond the pakeha convention of mum, dad and two kids – a net that is both wide and strong.’’
Between 2005 and 2012, at least 76 children died from neglect, abuse or maltreatment. Most of them – Ma¯ori and non-Ma¯ori alike – received little or no national media attention.
Among them was Cash McKinnon, a 3-year-old Palmerston North girl who was killed by her mother’s partner, Sean Donnelly. Coverage of the case was mostly limited to the Manawatu¯ Standard.
Another was the killing of 16-month-old Riley Osborne from Kerikeri. His mother’s Pa¯keha¯ partner, Kyle Skerten, was convicted of manslaughter. The case received no coverage in any of our major newspapers.
In 2010, EIT researcher Raema Merchant looked into how newspapers covered victims of child abuse.
She found that between 2000 and 2007, the media as a whole covered twice as many cases of Ma¯ori child abuse as it did non-Ma¯ori. The actual number of child abuse cases was similar.
The frequency of media coverage, she concluded, had created around 21 ‘‘household names’’. Most of those names were Ma¯ori, and were identified as such.
‘‘In the eight-year sample of newspapers I did not see any reference to an abused child specifically identified as Pa¯keha¯ or European,’’ Merchant said at the time.
All children matter
In more recent years, there has been a subtle change in the way we’ve covered child abuse.
Stuff’s Faces of Innocents project drew attention to previous cases of fatal child abuse we had not reported in detail. In many cases, those children were not Ma¯ori.
It has also become more common to see references to structural factors such as colonisation and intergenerational poverty as drivers of child abuse.
While these changes contribute a more nuanced understanding of the issues, there is still some way to go in addressing how we cover child abuse.
As recently as last year, we opened an editorial published on Stuff with the names of six children killed by abuse.
All were Ma¯ori. Among them was Delcelia Witika, who had been killed nearly three decades earlier, and has been cited in our coverage many times in the years since, only ever as a signifier for Ma¯ori who kill their children.
This raises several uncomfortable questions for us as journalists: Why have we deemed some children more deserving of coverage than others? And why are those children disproportionately Ma¯ori?
While we commit to resolving those issues and righting past wrongs, perhaps we should update our mental lists to also include; Alice, Maria, and Cherie Perkin, Sarah Haddock-Woodcock, and Riley Osborne, and many others, both Ma¯ori and non-Ma¯ori. Their lives are all important and their deaths should always be remembered.
Our Truth, Ta¯ Ma¯tou Pono is a Stuff project investigating the history of racism. In 2021, part two of the series will focus on Aotearoa and how our racist past has made us who we are today.