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Dr Muriel Newman

Tinkering with Welfare

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It is disappointing that two government initiatives announced over the last week aimed at reducing New Zealand’s appalling rate of child abuse, appear more focussed on criminalising law-abiding citizens than changing those government policies that are at the heart of the child abuse crisis. The first is a change to the Crimes Act, being promoted by the Minister of Justice Simon Power, that will criminalise people associated with families with at-risk children if they don’t report their concerns to authorities.1 The second is a longer term Green Paper project, led by Social Development Minister Paula Bennett, that will look at the introduction of ‘mandatory reporting’, whereby teachers, doctors, and other professionals associated with children will be criminalised if they fail to alert authorities to suspected ill-treatment.2

The grim fact is that New Zealand has one of the worst rates of child abuse in the world. Every five days a child under the age of two is hospitalised with a preventable injury. In 2010 the Department of Child, Youth and Family received 125,000 notifications of potential child abuse – the highest level ever – up from 30,000 in 2002. Of those, 41,683 required further action. On average, 10 children a year are killed by a family member. In 2009, 16 children died at the hands of those who were supposed to be keeping them safe. But rather than focussing on the factors that are overwhelmingly associated with the abuse of children, namely the dysfunctional life-style that accompanies single parenthood and intergenerational welfare dependency, it appears easier for politicians facing an election to blame the people close to at-risk children for not reporting the possibility of abuse to the authorities.

When tabling the Crimes Amendment Bill (No. 2) in Parliament, the Justice Minister Simon Power stated, It will no longer be an excuse to say you were not involved in the abuse. Standing by and doing nothing makes you involved, and this bill makes it clear. The Bill will double the maximum prison term for child abuse from five to 10 years and will require adults who are closely connected to children to take ‘reasonable steps’ to protect them from injury or face jail.

Developed as a result of the stonewalling of the Police investigation into the deaths of the Kahui twins in 2006 by the ‘tight 12’, the proposals will mean that adults who live in a household where children are at risk of abuse will face a jail sentence if they fail to take sufficient steps to protect them – and so too will others associated with the family who do not live in the household. This raises serious concerns about the criminal culpability of friends and confidants of someone living in an abusive home where there are children – if they do not report the potential for abuse to the police or social services.

When a household has criminal gang connections, a situation that is not uncommon in homes where there is violence against women and children, the problems this bill could cause to otherwise ‘innocent’ confidants is thrown into sharp relief. On the one hand there is a vindictive criminal bully who may threaten to kill anyone who reports their violence to the authorities, and on the other hand is a vindictive government, that is now threatening to throw them in jail unless they become a “whistle-blower”.

While the Minister would no doubt say that such concerns are far-fetched, it clearly depends on who you are and where you live. In a revealing exposé of the dark side of the township of Kawerau, senior Herald journalist Simon Collins outlined how the town was ruled by a criminal gang, “We have one gang in our town, the Mongrel Mob… Every Mongrel Mob man creates a line – that is the number of children they can produce. So they will have a couple of girlfriends and they might have a wife, and they will have mistresses, and they will be in on-and-off relationships.”3

It is the unconditional availability of the Domestic Purposes Benefit that enables this to occur. When I was a Member of Parliament our Select Committee inquired into such matters and we were told that in extreme cases, such men may well have fathered over 30 children. What’s more, they usually managed to avoid almost all financial responsibility leaving the taxpayer to pick up the cost – and the pieces.

In his story, Simon Collins spoke to residents who described how babies as young as six months old in the town were wearing gang patches. A 20-year-old mother explained, “We have sex because there is nothing else to do”. A pregnant 15 year-old said: “We are breeders”.

Of the 41,683 notifications of potential child abuse in the year to March 2010 that needed further investigation, 19,416 were Maori children and 13,204 were categorised as Pakeha. While Maori comprise only a quarter of New Zealand’s children, they nevertheless make up almost half of all substantiated cases of child abuse and a half of all child abuse deaths. Given the disastrous impact that abuse can have on the lives of children, it is little wonder that Maori are seriously over-represented in all negative social statistics including criminal offending, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, educational failure, and long term welfare dependency.

Child abuse is a learned behaviour. It is estimated that 70 percent of parents who abuse their children have been abused themselves. That means that children being brought up in an abusive home are far more likely to grow up to become abusive parents than children brought up in a home where they are loved and cherished. If one child in a home is abused, it is highly likely that their brothers and sisters will have been abused as well, calling into question the government’s ‘family first’ child care policy.

Under Section 81 of the Children, Young Persons, and their Families Act, when a child is removed from their home to be placed in care, the legislation requires that as a first option the child is placed within their wider family or whanau. Yet because of the intergenerational nature of child abuse, it is likely that the child may well continue to be at risk.

Of the 4,400 children in State care on 30 June 2009, 43 percent were in whanau care. With around five children a day being “re-abused” within six months of the offending being discovered, the Minister of Social Development has questioned the merits of this controversial “whanau first” child care policy and has included it as a discussion point in her Green Paper project.

Last October, the Chief Coroner opened the inquest into the deaths of Chris and Cru Kahui. It is hoped that out of such inquiries will come some lessons – things that can be done differently so as to prevent such tragedies from occurring in the first place. In reading the reports, what stands out are the statements from government officials about how the child protection service would have conducted ongoing monitoring of the Kahuis – if they had been informed of the family’s history of violence. Yet a hospital social worker assigned to the family warned that the children could be at risk of harm in a referral that she marked as “urgent”.

The fact that her referral appears to have not been passed on to the nurse who visited the children once they had been discharged from hospital is indicative of the systemic failure that can be identified in many child protection disasters.

That was certainly the case in the horrific incident of the 9-year-old ‘tortured’ girl, who was found by police hiding in a wardrobe late last year, with injuries to almost every part of her body – her scalp torn from her head as a result of being dragged by her hair. In addition to her teacher raising concerns about her wellbeing almost daily, it turns out that some 12 government agencies were also involved with the family!

Many people have already expressed concerns about the government’s plan to criminalise the friends of a family with at-risk children. Welfare commentator Lindsay Mitchell believes it is a step too far – see her comments on Breaking Views here – and Plunket is not convinced prosecution is the right approach either, as clinical advisor Alison Hussey explains, “We’re quite good at criticising people, we’re quite good at telling people when they’ve done wrong, but we’re not so good at supporting people.”

Plunket is the largest provider of support services for the development, health and wellbeing of children in New Zealand. Established by Dunedin doctor Sir Truby King over 100 years ago, Nelson-based freelance journalist and writer Nigel Costley – this week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator – has looked at some of the key influences that shaped Plunket’s founder and the organisation in his article Herbert Spencer’s influence on Sir Frederic Truby King.

“The Plunket Society, formed in Dunedin 1907, was founded on the principle of ‘self help’. Its aims and objects were to uphold the sacredness of the body and the duty of health, with the Plunket nurses duties performed with a view to conserving the health and strength of the rising generation, and rendering mother and offspring hardy, healthy and resistive to disease. Once the success of King’s methods was demonstrated – the mortality from infant diarrhoea fell dramatically in babies under his care – politicians were falling over themselves to throw money at Plunket.”

While criminalising those who not report their concerns about the safety of children to authorities may have the appearance of getting tough on child abuse, it is not dealing with its causes. That would require substantial changes to a welfare system that has significantly failed society.

While criminalising those who not report their concern to authorities may have the appearances of getting tough on child abuse, it is not dealing with its causes. That would require significant changes to a welfare system that has significantly failed society.