Damp state house played part in toddler's death
The mother of a toddler whose death has been blamed in part on the poor condition of the family's state house says she repeatedly asked Housing New Zealand to fix their family's cold, damp home before her two-year-old daughter got sick and died.
Latisha Bourne said there was mould on the walls and floors and a cold draught in the room where her now-dead daughter Emma-Lita Bourne slept.
"I kept ringing up. Everything in the house needed fixing. We needed carpet, drapes to try and keep the warmth in. There was hardly any sunshine in the house."
Bourne said she hoped no parent would have to go through the pain she has felt at losing a child.
"I'm really angry. What can I do now. It's too late. She's gone."
The coroner's report into the toddler's death, which was released on Thursday, says the poor condition of the state house in the South Auckland suburb of Otara was a contributing factor to Emma-Lita's death.
The girl died in Auckland's Starship Hospital in August 2014.
Coroner Brandt Shortland said in a report released on Thursday that Emma-Lita died from a brain haemorrhage resulting from a clot.
Emma-Lita had also been suffering from a pneumonia-like illness during the days leading up to her death, Shortland said in his report.
This sickness could not be ignored as a contributing feature of her death, he said.
"I am of the view the condition of the house at the time being cold and damp during the winter months was a contributing factor to Emma-Lita's health status."
Bourne said she wants standards in damp and cold homes to improve, in order to prevent another family experiencing such a tragedy.
She was still numb as a result of the experience and still struggled to deal with the grief.
"I still think about her every day. I cry every now and then.
"I felt like half of me wasn't all there. I just didn't want to talk to anyone. People ask me if I'm alright but I'm not alright. I'm OK now I get a lot support."
Bourne said prior to moving into their state house in 2007 she and her partner had been living in a caravan.
Emma-Lita was the fifth of her six children, and she now has five surviving children aged between aged between eight months and 13 years old.
Housing New Zealand (HNZ) said the severity of the health risks posed by the damp, cold and leaky living conditions that the family lived in flew under the state housing provider's radar.
HNZ general manager of tenancy services Kay Read said at the time Emma-Lita died the family was on the social housing register.
The register and the family's priority rating was managed by the Ministry of Social Development, Read said.
The priority rating assigned to the family was not sufficiently high for them to appear on HNZ's radar, she said.
In December 2014 the family was confirmed as eligible by the Ministry of Social Development for fast-track priority due to the rheumatic fever risk to the family.
The coroner's report said one of the other children in the house was taking medication for rheumatic fever when Emma-Lita died.
Read said within four days of the family being prioritised they were offered another home by HNZ that met their needs.
However, the family declined to take the house offered in December and waited until April this year to move to a four-bedroom home in Otara.
The property where the family now lives is insulated, carpeted in the bedrooms and hallway, has thermal quality drapes throughout the house and a heater in the lounge.
Their old house, which the family had moved into in March 2007, had not been occupied as HNZ assessed how to meet its standards requirements, Read said.
"While Housing New Zealand's role is to provide a home, there are a number of agencies involved in supporting our tenants' wellbeing.
"We have a close working relationship with our support partners - nevertheless this tragic case highlights the importance of providing a joined up service to ensure the wellbeing of our families, and we must continually strive to improve in this area."
The house Emma-Lita and her family lived in at the time of her death was described in the coroner's report as "very cold and not getting much sunshine".
There was no carpet in the house, only floorboards, Coroner Shortland said.
When it rained the family had to use a bucket to catch the drips from a leak in the hallway ceiling.
"In my view the house unfortunately was unhealthy for this family.
"It is entirely possible the condition of the house had contributed to the pneumonia-like illness that Emma-Lita was suffering at the time of her death."
HNZ gave the family a heater but the high electricity costs made it impossible to use within the family's budget, Shortland said in his report.
Read said HNZ's aim was to house tenants in warm, dry, healthy homes and to do that as quickly and efficiently as possible.
The state housing provider also worked to educate tenants on how to maintain a healthy home.
However, with the average age of HNZ homes sitting at 43 years, there were properties that were old, cold and difficult to maintain, she said.
HNZ has a portfolio of 68,000 homes , with more than 30,000 in Auckland.
HNZ is investing $3 billion over three years in new build and upgrade programmes to support the health and wellbeing of tenants, Read said.
"I was extremely sorry and saddened to hear of Emma-Lita's death, and the underlying health condition that had arisen as a result of the family's living conditions.
"The loss of a child is indescribably sad.
"In housing some of this country's most vulnerable families, we take our responsibility to provide, warm, dry, safe homes extremely seriously."
Shortland said in his report that Emma-Lita's death was a tragedy for the family and was the result of an "unpredictable medical event".
Despite doctors' and the family's best efforts they were unable to save the toddler, he said, adding that there were no suspicious or untoward circumstances surrounding Emma-Lita's death.
However, the family's housing situation could not be ignored as a contributing factor.
'GOVERNMENT NEEDS TO TAKE IMMEDIATE ACTION'
Green co-leader Metiria Turei said the coroner's finding into the death of Emma-Lita showed the Government needed to take immediate action to put in place a warrant of fitness for all state houses.
"Their deferred maintenance is one of the reasons why the state housing stock is in such poor condition that children's health and ultimately their lives are being put at risk."
She said HNZ's response was a failure.
"Giving a family like that a heater and even expecting them to pay the power bill is simply ridiculous."
The homes themselves needed to be warm and dry and safe for children.
Social Development Minister Anne Tolley said she did not know the circumstances of the case, but she stressed the importance of the rheumatic fever programme combined with efforts on insulation good housing and overcrowding.