For shame

by Pamela Stirling / 08 July, 2006

Infant abuse has been one of the dark secrets of this nation for so long that it is little wonder the myths abound. But we do nothing to help our tiniest and most vulnerable citizens if we allow these myths to stand unchallenged.

It is not true, as claimed this week, that child homicide is some ugly manifestation of traditional Maori culture: 30 years ago the homicide rates of Maori and Pakeha were identical. Nor is it true that child abuse results from a macho, sexist culture: Spain with its machismo and Italy with its braggadocio both rank in the five OECD countries with the lowest rates of child murder. It is not genetic: the blood lust of the Vikings is nowhere evident in the enviable child-nurturing records of their Scandinavian descendants. It is not simply a result of stress: was the Depression any less stressful than today? It cannot be blamed on violent television: the Canadians watch much the same TV programmes as their American neighbours and yet it is only the Americans who join us in the shameful ranks of the OECD's worst child abusers.

And although there is a clear association between comparative poverty and abusive, neglectful childhoods, it is not, as claimed this week, as simple as saying that Maori families have "been blocked from getting ahead": Lillybing's killer once sat with me in the room where the little girl had died and talked quite openly of how her partner had quit his well-paid job as a truck driver. They expanded their income through benefit fraud.

So, what accounts for the fact that New Zealand has now fallen to third-worst in the OECD for child homicide? And that Maori children are twice as likely to be abused? One of the most telling indicators is that the parents of abused children are almost always younger than other parents. And almost always isolated from any real family support. Simply to talk of the whanau protecting children is the most dangerous myth of all.

Despite Pita Sharples's magnificent leadership and forthright acknowledgement of the problems this week, the Maori Party has, with all due respect, not helped in the past. Co-leader Tariana Turia has objected to talk of the "problem" of teenage pregnancy: "When Cabinet ministers sat around tut-tutting the fact that the fertility rate for Maori females aged 13 to 17 was more than five times that of non-Maori, I objected to their analysis of our fertility as a problem." Maybe, she said, "one of our policy goals in the Maori Party should be to go forth and multiply!".

Not if, as now, 41 percent of all Maori children live in one-parent families. The excellent advice of Merepeka Raukawa-Tait to young girls should be plastered on billboards: "Don't go with any drongo. Don't get into a relationship with anyone who hasn't got a job or isn't interested in getting out of bed in the morning."

To sit with people like Rachaelle Namana, convicted of the manslaughter of Lillybing, is to realise the immense tragedy of someone with all her needs - a state ward at 12 - feeling that she was doing what "Maoridom" wanted by having children and taking in other whanau babies such as Lillybing. Rachaelle felt pressured even to breastfeed her step-niece. The resentment, still palpable in that room, set the scene for the agony visited upon that tiny child.

Drugs and alcohol - the "Tight Twelve" label of the Kahui family might as easily have referred to intoxication - are a huge part of the problem. But so is the way that violence in homes is normalised. If smacking is so effective, why do we not allow physical punishment of adult child abusers? The emphasis must be shifted from harsh, coercive discipline to firm, authoritative "training" of children.

What is now clear is that there are young New Zealanders with lives so blighted by violence and neglect in their early years that subtle changes in brain structure mean they are extraordinarily impulsive and quick to vent rage. This is biology.

But it is not destiny. There is compelling evidence that investment in intensive home visiting in the early years really does work. And the greatest benefits are for single, impoverished teenage parents. The all-party accord must harness every resource to ensure that all new parents - especially those potentially explosive, dangerous ones - are supported to become enriching families. If we fail to act now, we are storing up woes for generations to come.

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