Saturday, 4 August 2007


Marc My Words: Child Abuse Part Of Wider Problem

Friday, 3 August 2007, 10:32 am
Press Release: Marc Alexander

Political comment
By Marc Alexander

In the wrong hands an article on child abuse could be rolled up as a weapon
If there was a standard theme throughout the last week or so, it was the issue of child abuse. Again. Yes, we are horrified by the inhumanity exposed within a family who saw fit to throw blocks of wood at three-year-old Nia Glassie in a sand-pit; strung up like a rag-doll on the clothes line; and tossed into a tumble dryer like a woolen sock. This is our outrage du jour. We’ve had them before and, despite the ridiculous optimism of Sue Bradford’s determinedly anti-family ‘Anti-Smacking legislation’ to “send a message”; it has conclusively proved its lack of worth. Abusive parents over-whelmingly ignored both her "message" and the subsequent law change. Nia's abuser's actions carried on unperturbed and brought to a halt by the embarrassment of being caught.

It’s easy for the mainstream to tut-tut. And boy did we! The public loves a cause –and if we can toss in as bit of Maori bashing along the way then so much the better. Unfortunately issues like child abuse can be quickly trivialized amid the simplistic sloganeering and thirty-second sound-bites demanded by our attention spans. It maybe hard to imagine, especially while we’re caught up in the maelstrom of anger and the media spotlight, but in a month most people will have moved on to other distractions. That would be a pity because our future apathy will condemn many more children to the same sorts of abuse. Our past peaks of outrage have done little to stem the abuse. Remember “Lillybing?” - killed by her family in 2000. What about Delcelia Witikia who was killed by her mother and step-father at age two? Mereana Edmonds, six, who was kicked to death by her mother? The list rolls on without us ever reaching the tipping point.

What we desperately need is perspective on what the problem is really about. Sadly our bureaucrats mistake strong words and a commitment to spend money on more useless inquiries and advertising campaigns to be the same as doing something. It’s the ‘just say no’ approach to violence which inspires no-one but the terminally naive and the criminal who take their cues by what is done rather than said. And we can safely put Helen Clark’s government in that camp because it is her administration that has not only presided over the biggest rise in violent crime ever, but also, in response, elevated a ‘tick the box’ mentality to every issue (aided by glossy brochures and feel-good homilies) to high art. What we are really left with is the substitution of result with spin to salve the public wounds. And if we can have the PM glisten with a tear of feigned emotion, well then… camera, lights, and... ACTION. We now have a photo opportunity.

We also have the mayor of Rotorua (where the latest of two cases were highlighted); who held a public talkfest to assure concerned residents that there would be answers, but then went on to say that he wanted to tackle the issues “in a generic way.”

Unfortunately the problem is far from generic. Child abuse is a persistent aspect of an overall violence within particular but easily identifiable families. But before we touch on what we should do, we need to know the extent and breadth of the problem.

The Department of Child, Youth and Family Services reported 1284 cases of proven sexual abuse cases against children as young as twelve weeks in 2002, which represented an alarming 7% increase over the previous year. What can you expect however, when Internal Affairs reported that 250 pedophiles were released just in 2003 alone, and that five child offenders are released each week?

Then there was the study which identified forty-nine per cent of school kids as having been punched, kicked, beaten or hit by other children; fifty-four per cent had been ‘ganged up on’; and three per cent were sexually molested.

All but one of the child homicides between 1998 and 2001 were at the hands of a family member. Between 1997 and 2001 two-thirds of all cases of infanticide were committed by biological mothers. Women’s Refuge claim to see over 10,000 cases of suspected child abuse a year. Meanwhile, Starship hospital reports that one child per month shows up with brain damage as a result of “non-accidental causes.”

And the violence is not confined to children but in these dysfunctional families, can often run the other way. Dawn Rangi-Smith, manager of Women’s Refuge in Timaru, has seen a number of cases where it is the children abusing the parents. Amongst examples include a mother thrown through a plate-glass window by her son, and another mother so ashamed of being beaten by her child she couldn’t even tell her own sister’s.

It’s difficult not to conclude that the rise in family abuse corresponds to a decline in the traditional family amongst those most entrenched in welfare dependency and a penchant for crime.

If we look at the difference in rates of abuse among children under 10 years old by sex, we find few differences, but at age 14-16 females are much more likely to be abused than males. In 2003, the rate of substantiated child abuse among 14-16-year-old females was 8.0 per 1,000, over twice the rate for males (3.9 per 1,000). These age and sex differences have been consistent over the last six years – see below.

Substantiated cases of child abuse or neglect, by age and sex, years ended 30 June ‘02 and ‘03
Age group Rate per 1,000 children
2002 2003
Male Female Total Male Female Total
0-4 years 7.5 7.3 7.6 7.2 7.5 7.6
5-9 years 7.3 7.6 7.5 7.4 7.9 7.7
10-13 years 6.4 8.3 7.4 6.6 8.4 7.6
14-16 years 3.7 7.4 5.6 3.9 8.0 6.0
Total 6.5 7.7 7.2 6.5 8.0 7.4
Source: Ministry of Social Development, CYRAS. Revised data for 2002

In terms of ethnic difference, Maori children are more likely than non-Maori children to be assessed as abused or neglected. In 2003, the rate per 1,000 was 11.9 for Maori and 5.9 for non-Maori. While the corresponding rates are not available for Pacific children, they are not over-represented among children assessed as abused, accounting for 11 percent of such children in 2003, about the same representation as they have in the child population – see below.

Substantiated cases of child abuse or neglect, by ethnicity and sex, years ended 30 June, 1998-2003
Rate per 1,000 children 0-16
Maori Non-Maori
Year to 30 June Male Female Total Male Female Total
1998 11.8 13.9 13.0 4.6 5.5 5.1
1999 12.3 14.3 13.4 4.5 5.5 5.0
2000 11.1 13.2 12.3 4.7 5.6 5.3
2001 9.4 10.9 10.2 4.9 6.1 5.6
2002 9.7 11.4 11.8 5.5 6.5 5.7
2003 10.8 12.5 11.9 5.1 6.5 5.9
Source: It must be noted that both 2001 and 2002 rates have been revised. Ministry of Social Development, CYRAS

While it may be tempting for some to roll out the Maori blame game, I suspect there will be no shortage of culprits to point an accusatory finger at. After all, guilt is often in the eye of the beholder. Apologists of neo-Maori tribalism will claim that colonialism is at fault, others will pin it on Maori culture, gang-culture, poverty, lack of inclusion, and/or the ever faithful standby's of drugs, gambling or booze. Ahh...if life were only so simple.

People forget that while Maori were responsible for the torture and torment of Nia, her rescuer was also Maori. In fact it was the mother's own sister, Louise Kuka, who stepped in to remove Nia and two of the other children (Esther, eight and Jessie, ten years old) away from the house. While i have seen many condemnations - all of which i concur wholeheartedly with - lets not also forget to applaud the actions of the sister. Now... solutions?

We need intervention not adverts - and there are a range of practical remedies on offer. First for consideration should be ensuring that privacy issues are sensibly calibrated to protect the rights of the law-abiding, not criminals. If a doctor, school-teacher or police have reasonable grounds to believe a child has been abused the police should then have access to whatever information is needed to ascertain the measure of that threat.

We can strip identified and proven abusers (including wife or husband beaters) access to their children at the time of conviction, and include a suspended sentence as a post-release condition of for life. That way even after completion of a sentence the possibility of going back to prison for even mild transgressions remain as a deterrent.

Penalties for child abuse to be increased through multiple additional charges to be served consecutively. For example in the Nia Glassie case which sparked the latest focus on child abuse, those responsible should not only be charged with assault but also with intent to kill (on the grounds that a reasonable person would ordinarily conclude that doing what they did incurred a high probability of causing death); and grievous bodily assault. Given that Nia will probably have permanent brain damage, new charges that relate to diminishing the quality of life should be introduced as well.

Those proven to have physically abused children to the extent where a sentence of incarceration is warranted should be offered sterilization either surgically or chemically.

We should dispossess our government bureaucracies of the funds they have wasted over the years with little to show for it but instead re-channel increase in funding to non-government agencies who have a proven track record of helping families most at risk. That means paring the functions of CYFS to emergency only services working with police, hospitals, schools, and NGO's. It means dis-establishing the useless Families Commission and sending Cindy Kiro, the Children's Commissioner on an early retirement plan. All the money saved from such bureaucratic nonsense can then be provided to where they will do the most good. Plunkett, Family Help Trust, Project Early, and all the many worthwhile organizations who do more on the smell of an oily rag that all the government appointed managers, administrators and seat fillers.

Another measure that we should introduce is ‘conditional welfare’ on all families identified as incubators of violence. It would work like this: Any parent who allows their child to play truant from school will have 20 per cent per child of their welfare payments withheld. The money will then be spent either on the new location where the child will be relocated to or, in the absence of any threat to the child’s wellbeing, on ensuring rent/electricity etc is paid.

These people do not have a right to misuse the money earned and forgone by taxpayers to help them. We can make such payments contingent on how they behave specifically in respect of their duty to look after their children. Acceptance of family payments designed to help care for children, will be held to the standard for which they were intended. Neglect therefore, will invite one the most appropriate non-government agency to decide how that money should be spent in future. Parents or guardians who blow the money on booze, drugs or gambling, can expect taxpayers to insist that their money be more wisely spent.

But as much as we want to deal effectively with abusive, dysfunctional families, we must also ensure support and increasing empowerment to conscientious and dependable families. The worst of all possible outcomes would be if good families were penalized.
So, will it work?

Certainly the last thirty years has shown overwhelmingly that removing the need to meet any obligations for welfare handouts has produced exactly the results we now decry. The relatively small number of families disproportionately responsible for much of the abuse, crime and violence have learned that what they do invite no consequences worth changing their behavior for. It has been our insistence that nothing be given in return that has given an incentive to intolerable behavior. Conditional welfare will promote the behaviors we want and keep in check those we don't.

The problem of child abuse is part of a much wider problem of family abuse. The real tragedy is not that there are no answers but that we fail to assert them.


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