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John Sax

Re-defining Compassion

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In the wake of the Nia Glassie case, New Zealanders across the country are asking “How on earth did this happen?” The death of the gorgeous three year old and the details that have emerged during the trial have left us, as a nation, shaken to the core and in a state of disbelief.

Unfortunately Nia Glassie is not an isolated incident. Not only does her name join a list of recent high profile child killings – James Whakaruru, the Kahui twins, Delcelia Witika, Lillybing, Coral-Ellen Burrows – but the statistics on child abuse in New Zealand present a shocking figure.

As a nation we are faced with a huge problem. There has, as a result, been an uproarious cry for more CYF workers, for more money and for more social policy to “fix” this problem. But the reality is that there has been an increasing amount of bureaucracy thrown in this direction for years and the numbers have not been declining. This presents us with another question, “Why”? Why have these “solutions” not been working? Is it just a matter of not enough resources? Or is it that the “solutions” are not going to the root of the problem? Policy, money and workers in this area seem to be doing little more than bailing water out of a leaking boat.

We need to ask why we are so drastically failing our children. And more importantly, what we can do about it. The prospect of finding meaningful solutions to New Zealand’s appalling incidents of child abuse is remote unless we get honest with ourselves and our children as to the cause. We need to look at exactly where these statistics are coming from, the environment that a large number of these children are living in, and then look at what is causing this environment and what we, as a society, can do about it.

Drugs, alcohol and poverty are generally purported to be the breeding ground for child abuse but the statistics also hold another common element. Global social scientists tell us that on average there is a 1400 percent increase in child abuse and a 1600 percent increase in child murder when children are brought up in a relationship other than marriage – live-in boyfriends, stepdads, de facto relationships and so on.

It is in many of the poorer sections of our society, where drug and alcohol dependency is also a problem, that we are seeing large numbers of solo mother households often with drop-by or semi-live-in boyfriends. A recent police drive-by took a friend of mine through one of the areas of Auckland where a large number of fragmented families are living. Call after call that night took him into houses where mothers lived alone with their children, but with boyfriends who often stayed a few nights a week, in order to avoid de facto status. The police officer he was with explained that such neighbourhoods were largely comprised of households like these – solo mothers living on the benefit, who were discouraged from lifelong commitments since such permanent relationships would prevent them from receiving the very means they were using to support themselves and their children.

Unfortunately we find ourselves now in a society where social policy – as compassionate and heartfelt as it is – not only discourages the very unions that could provide the safest environment for children, but, by its very nature, encourages a cycle of generational poverty, and drug and alcohol abuse.

In fact, most of our social policy is now 180 degrees out of sync with the very results we hope to achieve. Through the sickness benefit, we pay people to think sick, act sick, be sick, when we should be paying them into wellness. The unemployment benefit pays people into unemployment rather that paying them “into employment”. The domestic purposes benefit pays women into solo motherhood rather than encouraging lifelong commitments. It also pays men and women to walk out of their relationships and their commitments to their children when we should be encouraging and supporting them so they can stay.

When our focus is wrong, it is not surprising that such policies can be life trashing rather than life giving. When we rob an individual of their dignity, self-worth, respect, and sense of contribution, we rob the family, community, and our nation. These are the environments where we are seeing generation after generation with drug and alcohol problems, trapped in a cycle of poverty.

I don’t believe any responsible individual or society would condone leaving children with the so-called caregivers of the horrific child murders we have experienced in recent time – not to mention the tens of thousands of children that are abused every year. And remember the monster caregivers” – that are “breeding monsters – did not design the system that is helping to destroy them and their children.

It is imperative that we as a society listen to the cry of those damaged children – the thousands of children living on the streets (38,000 according to estimates by Chief Youth Court Judge Andrew Beecroft), and the more than 60,000 (and rapidly rising) reported cases of child abuse; as well as the thousands of solo mothers whose plight is desperate.

In re-looking at the drivers of social behaviour we need to consider not only “success focused policies” that encourage employment, wellness, family and commitment, but we must also clearly understand that a government can never redistribute love. Giving unconditional love is not only the responsibility of parents, but it is an entitlement that children should expect. Governments can redistribute taxes, but they cannot provide warm hands, a warm heart and encouraging words.

That’s why social policy – introduced in the name of compassion – that compromises the ability of parents to provide love and commitment to their children, is now so damaging to the social fabric of society. And the Nia Glassie case highlights how urgent the need to change our social thinking has become. The focus must be on developing a new policy road map based on incentives that put children first, in order to ensure that every child born in New Zealand is given the best possible chance to become the greatest human being that they can be.

Having said that, we must not villanize the individuals we find in unfortunate circumstances – we must stand together as a community. We need to change the messages we are sending and, through both our policies and our community interaction, stand next to each other and say “We believe in you”, “You are valuable to our society” and we must encourage each other when times get hard, with a “You can do this.”

I am not proud of the ugly legacy we have handed to our children, but with a re-focus on what we know works and doing everything we can to discourage negative outcomes, it is my hope that we may usher in a brighter era, if not for children then our grandchildren.