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Dr Muriel Newman

Breaking Through

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21 July 2007

Breaking Through

Early last year a little boy was brutally beaten to death by his mother and her partner:

“The child’s blood was also found throughout the house. In two rooms – the living area and his bedroom – the blood had splattered so high it hit the ceiling”.

Graphic photographs taken during his post-mortem showed three year old Ngatikaura Ngati’s body had suffered repeated beatings. His left arm was so badly damaged that it had swollen to twice its normal size. When pathologists cut it open they found all the tissue had already died from the beatings he had suffered.

The investigating Police Officer Richard Middleton said, This is as bad as anything I have seen on a child or any human”.

Ngati’s mother had given him to childless relatives when he was a month old. They raised him as their own. But shortly after his third birthday, his mother wanted him back: “she was claiming a benefit for more children than were living with her and she was afraid of being caught out”. Three months later, the little boy was dead. (See From Happiness to Hell, Herald )

This shocking case highlights the malevolent nature of child abuse in New Zealand – a vicious crime committed by a mother and her partner who were so hungry for benefit money that they placed their dependency on government welfare above the safety and happiness of their child.

For that reason, the second defendant in this case – and in most other child abuse cases in New Zealand – should be the State. The worst child abusers in this country are the government which has knowingly cemented in place social policies that create the environment for child abuse to flourish. Their social welfare policies lead to the disintegration of marriage, family and community as benefit recipients become hooked, realising that they are significantly better off if they stay single and on welfare.

Through unconditional state handouts to vulnerable women with children, whole communities have been created where the two-parent family has vanished, where work is rare or non-existent, and where social degradation – squalor, alcoholism, drugs, violence, crime – is commonplace.

Just last week, the Herald on Sunday reported on child abuse cases at Auckland’s Starship Hospital, stating that last year’s child abuse admissions were the worst on record. It also claimed that the figures for head injuries for Maori children are the highest in the world. (See Doctor Decries Staggering Level of Child Abuse )

Yet the Government’s response to this national crisis is a shameful silence.

In contrast, the Howard Government in Australia has invoked a state of emergency to deal with their child abuse crisis – which is at a level similar to ours. They have introduced controls on dysfunctional families that include compulsory health checks on all at-risk children, linking benefit payments to school attendance, and quarantining 50 per cent of welfare payments to ensure that funds are used for children’s welfare, not booze, drugs or gambling.

The opposition Labour Party, recognising the seriousness of the problem, has pledged to put in place even tougher measures if they become the government, withholding all welfare payments from families that do not do the right thing by their children.

New Zealand remains the only country in the world that has wide open access to the sole parent benefit. Here, girl can get pregnant as teenager and literally have a benefit income for life. She can remain on the Domestic Purposes Benefit just so long as she doesn’t work, doesn’t marry, and from time to time has another baby to keep her eligibility current.

Yet life on a benefit is the very worst incentive that any government could possibly dangle in front of vulnerable young girls as it creates a perilous home environment for their children. Maori girls in particular are susceptible to the government’s anti-marriage welfare ‘bait’ with figures from the Ministry of Social Development showing that Maori teenage parents are on a benefit at a rate of 85 per 1,000, more than eight times higher the non-Maori rate of 10 per 1,000.

Just last week the Ministry of Social Development released a report showing that the number of children living in financial hardship in New Zealand has – incredibly – almost doubled in two decades from 12% in 1982 to 23% in 2004, with sole parent households with children being by far the worst off. (See report )

That is why the government’s refusal to fundamentally reform welfare, in order to move sole parents off benefits into supported work and a decent life, borders on being criminally negligent.

In contrast to a situation here, politicians in the US took action over a decade ago: “The designers of welfare reform were concerned that prolonged welfare dependence had a negative effect on the development of children. Their goal was to disrupt intergenerational dependence by moving families with children off the welfare rolls through increased work and marriage.… Ten years after welfare reform became the law those who have enjoyed the greatest benefits are the most disadvantaged single parents with the most significant barriers to employment. In particular, young, never-married mothers with low levels of education and young children”. (see The Impact of Welfare Reform by the Heritage Foundation )

Figures from Statistics NZ confirm the dramatic move in New Zealand away from childbearing within marriage. Historically, only around five percent of babies were born outside of marriage. But largely as a result of the introduction of the Domestic Purposes Benefit in the seventies, the trend changed and by 1990 the rate had increased to 35 percent. As of last year, 47 percent of all babies born in New Zealand were born outside of marriage, which means that almost a half of all newborns in this country are being born into family structures that put them at an increased risk of child abuse.

That is not to say that all children born into de-facto relationships will be harmed; of course they won’t. Nor that all sole parents do a bad job; on the contrary many do an exceptional job and raise great kids. But just as there are no guarantees that children raised in two-parent married families will be happy and safe, on the balance of probability married families represent the safest of all environments in which to raise children, with un-married families the most dangerous.

Encouraging marriage is the approach that has now been taken by legislators in the United States in order to improve the outlook for children. It is also the conclusion that has been reached in “Breakthrough Britain: Ending the Costs of Social Breakdown”, a new report produced by the British Conservative Party’s Social Justice Commission. This report, which builds on last year’s “Breakdown Britain”, finds that the breakdown of the two-parent family and the decline of marriage is at the heart of the collapse of values in British society. It proposes a number of strategies to strengthen families and encourage marriage through adjustments to the tax and benefit systems. (To read the report, click here )

The report also discusses the significant contribution made by the voluntary sector, which works at the coalface of social dysfunction, and it recommends that it be liberated from the domination of state control.

According to this week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator Peter Allen, who founded and headed the Prince of Wales Trust, the situation here in New Zealand is dire:

“During my eleven years of involvement with some of the country’s most complex young people I saw many valuable youth initiatives destroyed by the government’s youth policies and bureaucratic pressure. Unfortunately their loss is becoming increasingly apparent as we see more youth crime, assaults on elderly people, property damage, theft, drunken behaviour, increased drug abuse and more truancy from school than ever before.

He goes on to warn, “This Government’s destructive social policies have created divisions between cultures, within families, and across communities, and until there is a full realisation that the problems are politically motivated – and the people of this country demand appropriate action – the situation will continue to deteriorate”. (To read his article click )

Peter is right. Many of the complex social problems that we face in New Zealand – like the dreadful child abuse crisis – are being caused by politically motivated government policy. But until the public demands action, there will be no breaking though and as sure as night follows day, more and more innocent children like little Ngatikura Ngati will die.

The poll this week asks: Do you favour the introduction of policies to encourage marriage in New Zealand? Go to

Reader’s comments will be posted on the NZCPR Forum page click to view .

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