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Dr Muriel Newman

A Priority for Change

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Nia Glassie’s crime was two-fold. Firstly, and tragically, she lived in the same dysfunctional household as a bunch of boozing, dope smoking, layabout no-hopers who got a kick out of torturing her when they were bored. Secondly, she had a woman as a mother who brings total shame on the honoured tradition of motherhood. Rather than being prepared to protect and defend her child to the death, she stood by and allowed her to be killed.

Nia was kicked in the head, smashed against walls, spun on a clothesline, stuffed into a clothes dryer turned on high, and dropped from the ceiling to the floor. When she cried too loudly, the radio was turned up so the neighbours wouldn’t hear. The abuse that led to her eventual death went on for months.

Last week Nia Glassie’s mother, Lisa Kuka, was found guilty of manslaughter for failing to protect Nia or seek medical attention. Lisa’s boyfriend Wiremu Curtis and his brother Michael were found guilty of murder. Oriwa Kemp, Michael Curtis’s partner and Michael Pearson, Nia’s cousin, were found guilty of abuse, and the father of Wiremu and Michael Curtis, has yet to be tried on charges that he too abused Nia.

The toddler’s nightmare started when her mother, a 34 year old Te Puke kiwifruit factory supervisor and mother of six, met 17 year old Wiremu Curtis at a party. They quickly moved in together, with three of Lisa’s children, into a one-bedroom flat in central Rotorua. But the home turned out to be too small, so they moved to 13D Frank Street, a three-bedroom house in the Rotorua suburb of Koutu.

In that house lived three-year-old Nia, her sisters, Esther 8 and Jesse 10, her mum Lisa and partner Wiremu, Wiremu’s brother Michael and partner Oriwa Kemp and their daughter Tahlia, Lisa’s older sister Louise and her son Michael Pearson. Lisa was the only one who had a job. Lisa’s two older daughters did not attend school.

Neighbours have described the household as violent and volatile, with fighting and screaming commonplace. Police described how a “pack mentality” prevailed within the house, escalating the violence and abuse. All in all it was the very last place any responsible parent would want to leave a young defenceless child – the opposite of the safe, loving and stable environment that children need and in which they thrive.

Social research on this issue is clear: the safest home environment in which to raise children is the traditional two-parent married family. That is not to say that parents in other family types don’t raise their children well – they do. Or that children raised in a married family are always safe, because some are not. But on the balance of probability, children raised in a traditional married family have better life outcomes than those that are not.

A glance at the backgrounds of those involved in Nia’s killing demonstrates how family instability and dysfunction can span the generations.

Nia’s mother Lisa Kuka is one of nineteen children to separated parents. She had six children to three different fathers, with one being taken off her by Child, Youth and family for non-accidental head injuries. Wiremu and Michael Curtis were brought up in a violent household with a father who was a member of the Black Power gang. The family split up when Wiremu was 5, with Michael, now a Black Power associate, going to live with his father. Michael’s partner Oriwa Kemp, whose mother was an alcoholic, dropped out of school and had their baby at age 15. William Curtis, Wiremu and Michael’s father, was passed from relative to relative when he was a toddler. It is said that he had no sense of family and joined the Black Power gang at age 14.

According to the Police investigating the case, violence is an entrenched part of life, not only in that family, but in the whole neighbourhood. A third of all adults are beneficiaries and nearly a half of homes are headed by single parents. Nearby is Ford Block, the notorious state housing estate that inspired Alan Duff’s great novel, Once were warriors.[1]

There are pockets of deprivation in similar beneficiary communities all around New Zealand. The over-arching reliance on welfare leads to a breakdown in personal responsibility and family stability. It fuels a culture in which child abuse and neglect, violence and crime, drug and alcohol addictions, and an over-arching lack of educational aspirations, flourish. There is habitual financial mismanagement, with benefit money spent on alcohol, drugs, cigarettes and gambling, rather than family necessities. Ambition and hope for a better future are virtually non-existent.

This week’s NZCPR guest, John Sax, established the “For Sake of the Children Trust” in 2005 to raise awareness of the plight of abused children in New Zealand. He wanted the Trust to become a force for positive change. In his article “Re-defining Compassion” he explains that to understand why child abuse has been increasing so rapidly in New Zealand it is important to look at social research which clearly shows that children brought up in a family relationship other than marriage, are at a significantly greater risk of abuse:

“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. 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”. To read John’s article, click the sidebar link

With Nia Glassie’s mother already having had a child removed by Child Youth and Family, one could have expected her to be on a CYF “watch list”. But that is not how the system works, as the following parliamentary question explains: “If Child, Youth and Family Services sees fit to remove a number of children from a mother because of serious neglect or abuse, does the Department automatically monitor the care and protection of further children born to that mother and consider their removal?”

The Minister replied: “Child, Youth and Family is not mandated to monitor and intervene in the lives of children and their families unless a care and protection concern for a specific child or young person is found. Where concerns for the safety and well being of a child or young person come to the attention of Child, Youth and Family, through ongoing involvement with siblings, or notifications by a member of the public or police, then an assessment of the risks to the child or young person would be undertaken.”[2]

In other words, there is no system in place for the state to monitor at-risk parents who have more children – unless a complaint is lodged. Yet, as in the Nia Glassie case, neighbours who may be concerned about child abuse are sometimes reluctant to report the family to CYF for fear of retaliation and reprisals.

Dr Patrick Kelly, the clinical director of the child abuse centre at Starship Hospital, has long advocated an interdisciplinary, community-based approach to child welfare. It is a model that works well in the unit attached to Starship Hospital.

If community based “Family Centres” were established around the country, with social workers, police, health and education professionals working in teams to reduce child abuse in their community, then New Zealand’s rates of child abuse would plummet. Instead of authorities having to wait until a crime has been reported before they can step in, help could be provided early to support the family and prevent the abuse occurring in the first place. This is along the lines of the approach used by Plunket and a small number of highly successful mentoring services that are already operating.

In Nia’s case, given that she was living in a “problem” household, a “Family Centre” worker on a routine visit would probably have spotted that intervention was needed. The fact that Nia’s two sisters were not going to school, should have alerted authorities in any case.

Dr Kelly believes that the health sector can play a greater role in tackling the child abuse crisis and advocates a home visiting programme to address violence, substance abuse and maternal depression; training doctors, nurses and midwives to identify signs of abuse; establishing a national system to alert health professionals to families where abuse has occurred; and using paediatricians to assess all children under 2 referred to Child, Youth and Family to help determine whether abuse has occurred. [3]

There is massive support right across the country to address the child abuse problem. For while it might not personally affect us, seeing a wee girl like Nia suffer and die so violently and needlessly, touches us all.

That’s why the challenge to the new government is such a big one. For years, governments have shied away from getting to the heart of the child abuse crisis because that means tackling the incentives in legislation that is leading to increasingly higher rates of family breakdown – especially amongst Maori families which feature disproportionately in the child abuse statistics. According to data from the 2001 Census on the rates of marriage – recognising that marriage leads to a safer family environment for children – the statistics tell a worrying story: While 79.5 percent of partnered non-Maori couples were married only 58.8 percent of Maori couples were married. And by 2006 the rates of marriage had fallen to 78.6 percent for non-Maori and 54 percent for Maori.

Unless the incentives in the domestic purposes benefit in particular, are changed to stop encouraging single parenting, all the good intentions in the world will not halt the rise in child abuse. And with the problem being an intergenerational one, whereby children raised in fragmented and abusive homes will tend to repeat that behaviour themselves, addressing this problem must surely rank at the highest end of the new government’s priority list.

1.Sunday Star Times, The Street of Shame
2.Parliamentary Question 15274 
3.Herald, Doctor’s four-point scheme to halve child abuse deaths