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Dr Muriel Newman

An avoidable tragedy

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“Nia Glassie died in Starship Hospital on 3rd August 2007 aged three years. She had been on life support for 13 days. She had such severe brain damage that she was unable to breathe without life support. The medical evidence at the trial established that the horrific injuries and swelling to her brain were consistent with blows, and possibly, kicks to the head…” Coroner’s Report, Wallace Bain August 20111

The death of Nia Glassie was sickening. It exposed the darkest side of human behaviour – the killing of a defenceless child. If it was a one-off event, it would be bad enough, but the fact that it occurs over and over again is a cause of deep concern to every New Zealander.

In the report on Nia Glassie’s death, released last week, Coroner Wallace Bain called the case “chilling”. He hoped that no-one else would ever have to endure such “horrendous” evidence again. He explained that New Zealand has a huge child abuse problem – “one of the very worst records in the Western World” – but that successive governments had failed to improve the situation as these horrific cases “just keep coming”.

Dr Bain stated that 70 percent of parents who abuse their children were abused themselves. He explained that such intergenerational abuse goes hand in hand with third and fourth generation welfare dependency and he identified a number of critical factors that should raise the alarm bells for those responsible for the care and protection of vulnerable children. Prime amongst them was having a single mum dependent on the domestic purposes benefit.

In particular Dr Bain believes that “all children in the care of solo parents in receipt of a benefit should, as a condition of receipt of a benefit, be required to cooperate with Well Child provider or similar services that can provide oversight and monitoring as to the safety of children”.

In other words, the Coroner makes the strongest possible recommendation that since the children of parents on the DPB are at serious risk of poor outcomes in life, they must be monitored on a regular basis to ensure they are being kept safe and well. He wants to see meeting this requirement becoming a key condition of benefit receipt.

Dr Bain points out that the overwhelming majority of children who die of abuse are Maori and in his report quotes Merepeka Ruakawa-Tait, the former Head of the Women’s Refuge, who provided an insight into why this might be so. She explained how Maori women “…allow free-loaders in the guise of men unable or unwilling to work to live with them. The home becomes a danger zone and these men have no biological ties with the children and they can be cruel and abusive. They are usually low skilled with low intelligence and have criminal records, other children to other women and low self esteem.” She said that young Maori women seemed incapable of seeing these men for danger that they are. She also commented that in spite of the rhetoric about loving their children, Maori – especially Maori leadership – undervalue children.

Dr Bain made a series of recommendations ranging from the mandatory reporting of child abuse – particularly by professionals dealing with children – to the establishment of an 0800 number for the public to anonymously report abuse.

But probably the most important recommendation is the one for the compulsory monitoring oversight of the care of children living in single parent households where their parents are in receipt of a domestic purposes benefit. I say this is probably the most important recommendation, because in this politically correct world that we live in, it is crucial that the danger that the DPB poses to children – by funding a lifestyle that puts them at serious risk of abuse – becomes better understood.

Single parenthood and welfare have long been identified as risk factors for children. But politicians have largely done nothing. In June last year the Ministry of Justice reviewed the research and reported that the most vulnerable children in society are born to mothers who are young, single, and on welfare. They found that in 2007, 53 percent of all New Zealand teenage mothers were Maori and that during the period from 2002 and 2007, the birth rate for Maori teenage girls increased by 27percent.2

The report explains that the children of teenage mothers show significantly more behavioural problems than those born to older mothers. At preschool level these children demonstrate higher levels of aggression and lower impulse control. As adolescents, they experience higher rates of delinquency, grade failure, early school leaving, and unemployment.

Just last week these issues were discussed at the New Zealand Psychological Society conference, where it was reported that the number of five and six-year-olds who are now being suspended from school for bad behaviour has reached a five-year high. It was reported that many new entrants had never been to preschool, they lacked boundaries, did not know how to behave appropriately, and in some cases did not even know how to hold a pen properly. In many cases their parents were young, and had neither parenting skills nor the motivation to learn them.3

The reality is that young uneducated and unskilled teenagers do not make good parents. They are still children themselves. Those that do have babies all too often lack the support of the biological father. Without a committed father, raising a child – especially boys – can be extraordinary difficult. Yet in spite of all of the evidence of teenage parental failure and the roll call of children who have been abused and died, our present welfare system does little to discourage teenage parenthood.

In fact, it could be claimed that we almost encourage it by ensuring teenage mums are given a benefit, housing assistance, and in many cases, full-time child care and tailor-made schooling in the new government schools for teenage parents that are being set up around the country. These specially designed schools enable the mothers – and fathers – to continue with their education, while their children are cared for next door. While ensuring that young parents finish their education is a very good thing, there is a major concern that this policy is inadvertently sending out the wrong signals: if you are a girl with limited education and little hope of a decent future, why not get pregnant? If you do get pregnant and have a baby, the government will not only provide you with an income and accommodation, but with full-time care for your baby with a cool education throw in. It’s no wonder that the teenage birth rate for young Maori is soaring.

The problem is that raising a child is one of the most difficult tasks that we are ever likely to face. It is a major challenge for committed parents in stable relationships with strong support networks, let alone isolated young girls. Yet for decades, our welfare system has paid these young girls, who are amongst the most vulnerable women in society, a benefit so they can have children on their own – unsupported by the father of their child. Is it really any wonder that we have a child abuse crisis – especially when so many were abused as children themselves?

Without strong support and good parenting skills too many single parents on the DPB struggle to raise their children well. All too often they will replicate the disastrous upbringing that crippled their own future. By failing to teach their children the fundamental values of society, to set boundaries, or even to provide basic learning skills, these mothers set their own children on a path to failure.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator is Professor Peter Saunders, a social policy researcher and writer who recently returned to England after a decade working for the Centre for Independent Studies in Australia. Peter has studied welfare systems around the world, including New Zealand’s, and laments the overarching social breakdown that is being caused by badly designed social welfare systems that undermine not only the family, but the basic values that underpin any decent society.

In an article Brits Recoil from Teaching Respect for Authority at Home or School reflecting on the recent British riots, Peter asked why it is that most young people don’t break the law. He explains how most of us are governed by external and internal constraints – external constraints revolve around the fear of being caught and the consequences if we are. The effectiveness of the Police and the whole criminal justice system are clearly crucial in this.

Internal constraints on the other hand are the product of early socialisation by our parents. Between them, our mothers and fathers teach us right from wrong, set boundaries, and instil in us the values of society. But when a child is raised in a broken family, the consequences can be disastrous, as Peter explains:

“About one-third of British children grow up in single-parent families, most of which are female-headed. Despite repeated protestations to the contrary, this is not a viable or desirable way to raise children, especially boys.

“The problem has little to do with money. A middle-class friend who is a single mum told me last week how she is finding it impossible to control her 14 year-old boy. He recently called her a ‘f..king whore’ and threatened to knife her when she attempted to punish him. She is a teacher. Boys need adult male role models, and (although it is unfashionable to say it) paternal authority. It should come as no surprise to learn that societies that fail to socialise their young properly become unhappy, chaotic places.”

The long term consequences of poor parenting are now all around us. That’s not to say that parents don’t try to do their best – if you asked even abusive parents, most would say that they only want what’s best for their children. The problem is that they themselves have never known what good parenting looks like and the dysfunctional lifestyle the welfare system creates only makes the problem worse.

That’s why the Coroner’s suggestion that the children of single parents on the DPB should be actively monitored is an important step in the right direction. But, more reform is urgently needed. The welfare system as it stands is leading to the death of vulnerable children like Nia Glassie. This situation simply cannot be allowed to continue.