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Dr Muriel Newman

You Reap What You Sow

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27 January 2007

You Reap What You Sow

Cheyenne Petersen, just 18 months old, was carried into the bush by her P-addled mother Natasha – and left to die.

More than 12 hours after dumping Cheyenne, Petersen eventually led police to her body. It was obvious the wee girl had tried to find a way out of the bush. Dressed in a purple T-shirt and floral shorts, she was nearly 50 metres from the spot where she had been left the day before by her mother, her pants were soiled and her ghostly-white body battered and bruised. Shoeless, Cheyenne lay drowned in a shallow creek, with water covering her nose and mouth.

Several years ago, Child Youth and Family seized her two other children, boys now aged 8 and 9, after complaints of regular neglect. Custody was given to their father.

In 2005, Petersen fell pregnant again, but no father was listed on Cheyenne’s birth certificate.

After 15 years of drug abuse – including convictions for possession of morphine, needles and syringes, and various cannabis-related offences – some thought Cheyenne’s arrival would finally provide Petersen with the motivation she needed to kick her addiction. Instead, her drug use spiralled out of control. What later emerged was that the long-time drug addict had been smoking methamphetamine for days leading up to the tragedy, and on March 7 was suffering from persecutory delusions.

Petersen was sentenced to two-and-a-half years’ imprisonment for manslaughter. The Crown had argued she should receive at least five years’ imprisonment, but she will be eligible for parole in just 10 months. (See The drug addled road to a child’s abandonment by Stephen Cook )

Cheyenne died, but most abused children live. Their lives blighted by people who should be protecting them. It is from the ranks of these abused children that the majority of tomorrow’s violent criminals emerge. Not all abused children end up as criminals, of course. Many overcome enormous obstacles to lead amazingly productive lives. But the cards are stacked against them.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator Christine Rankin, the Chief Executive of the For the Sake of the Children Trust, puts it this way:

“The 10-12 child murders that occur annually in New Zealand are the tip of the very ugliest iceberg. Beneath these babies whose lives have been cut tragically short, (usually after months and years of brutality at the hands of their so called caregivers) is another time bomb. Thousands of New Zealand children are beaten and sexually abused (often both) every day of the year. I believe that a high proportion of these babies go on to become our criminals, rapists, paedophiles, murderers, and why not! They grow up very angry surrounded by daily violence often fuelled by drugs and alcohol”. To read Another One Bites the Dust, click here .

Last week the Government announced that it intends to screen these angry children from the age of three. Under their “Inter-agency Plan for Conduct Disorder and Severe Antisocial Behaviour”, the parents of children identified as being likely future criminals, will be targeted for parenting courses (for more details click here ).

In a bizarre twist, Helen Clark’s Labour Government is now attempting to address a problem created by the Kirk Labour Government thirty years ago. That was a time when radical feminists were allowed to take control of social policy. Their objective was to empower women and marginalise men. Their method was, on the one hand, to introduce a generous welfare benefit for women who left their husbands and, on the other hand, to ensure that the sole custody of children was awarded to mothers. By giving women legal control over the children – and by default over the father of the children – and the financial means to live independently from men, Labour’s feminists thought they would achieve their purpose.

The problem was that by undermining the traditional married family they created the social conditions in which child abuse would flourish: chaotic households where drugs and alcohol and violence are commonplace, and where children are not regarded as the number one priority. Their achievement establishes the Labour Government as the worst child abusers in the country.

Despite its intrinsic faults, marriage has always been the bedrock institution of civil society. It is the glue that binds mothers and fathers together for the common purpose of raising their children. While women tend more to a nurturing role, fathers have traditionally protected their women and children from harm. In removing fathers from the family, through incentives embedded deep within the Domestic Purposes Benefit, the government has taken away a cornerstone of stability and safety for women and children. It is no wonder that child abuse has now reached epidemic proportions.

Over the years generations of girls with limited educational prospects have grown up knowing that the Domestic Purposes Benefit offered an independent income. The money is good and, apart from having to have a baby, there are no strings attached – no need to have to rely on a partner. The number of women on the DPB who have never been married has now swelled to record proportions. Many are career beneficiaries who treat children as their meal ticket. Having more children enables them to boost their income and ensure that they never have to work. Their children have no role models of working parents, and instead of fathers to guide and protect them, for many there is a procession of transient partners.

Having created an intergenerational cycle of unmarried mothers and fatherless, aggressive children, the Labour Government is now claiming that state parenting courses will solve the problem. That is simply disingenuous.

Labour has no intention of actually trying to solve this problem. Not once does the background paper identify welfare dependency, sole parenthood or fatherlessness as risk factors for children. In the days before the Department of Social Welfare became stricken with political correctness, advice to the government categorically stated that that key risk factors in a child’s development were sole parenthood, benefit dependence, and family instability. It acknowledged that 44 percent of de-facto couples separate within five years compared to 11 per cent of married couples. It recognised that sole parenthood is the strongest predictor of infant mortality, childhood injury and hospitalisation. And it warned that children from backgrounds of family disruption are the major victims of child abuse and neglect.

Labour’s Inter-agency Plan background paper does not even acknowledge that the very best time to intervene with an at-risk family is as early as possible – if not before the baby is born, then certainly straight after. By the age of three a child is already established on its life’s path.

The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, a longitudinal study following 1,000 children born in 1972, states it this way: “Broad personality traits are laid down by age three: under-controlled toddlers grow up to be impulsive, unreliable and anti-social; inhibited three-year-olds are more likely to become unassertive, depressed adults; well-adjusted three year olds tend to become well-adjusted adults. Socially isolated children are more likely to develop health problems as adults.” (See Show Me The Child, Listener )

In other words, if Labour was genuine about wanting to improve the situation, it would implement a three-pronged strategy. Firstly, it would screen pregnant women on the DPB to make sure that this most vulnerable group have proper support systems in place from the day their babies are born.

Secondly, with the latest benefit statistics showing that in spite of an abundance of jobs, few women have left the DPB of their own accord to take up work, the Domestic Purposes Benefit should be phased out and replaced with a system that supports sole parents into employment and independence from the state.

And thirdly, it would accept that marriage is the safest social institution in which to raise a family, and it would stop trying to undermine it.

The poll this week asks: Do you think it is time to phase out the Domestic Purposes Benefit and replace it with a system that supports sole parents into work and independence from the state?

Go to Poll

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