OPINION: James Whakaruru and Nia Glassie had two things in common. They were both killed by adults entrusted with their care after short, brutal and terrifying lives and outsiders who knew they were in danger failed to protect them.
In the case of 3-year-old Nia, neighbours who heard or saw her being tortured and beaten before she was killed in 2007 did not report the abuse. In the case of 4-year-old James, beaten to death over two days by his mother's partner in 1999, a host of agencies working with the family did not act to remove him from obvious danger.
The systemic failure of social workers, police, the departments of courts and corrections and other agencies to protect James was laid bare in a report by then Children's Commissioner Roger McClay in June 2000. Yet in the 12 years since, there have been numerous cases of children known to be in danger being killed or subjected to sickening abuse after falling through the gaps.
Social Development Minister Paula Bennett's White Paper on vulnerable children includes steps that, properly implemented and resourced, will help ensure better reporting and information sharing by state and non-governmental agencies dealing with kids at risk.
It proposes mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse in all but name. Agencies working with children will be required by law to have policies on identifying and reporting possible abuse and neglect and professionals will have a clear responsibility to act.
The White Paper also proposes a central database of vulnerable children to give professionals working with them a comprehensive picture of their lives. Doctors, teachers, social workers, police and other agencies will have access to the database and be able to enter information. Details from a new child abuse line to take and triage calls from the public will also be fed into the database if concerns are found to warrant further attention.
The database will also include information on adults who have abused or neglected children, allowing those accessing it to see whether a child they are concerned about is in contact with someone who poses a danger to them.
Such a database is long overdue. There have been too many examples of one agency or professional having contact with a child in danger, but not acting to protect them.
In some cases, they have assumed someone else is dealing with the abuse. In others, they have had doubts about whether the mistreatment is actually occurring and, unwilling to subject a possibly innocent family to a police or Child Youth and Family inquiry, have said nothing. Being able to see that others have raised concerns will allow informed decisions to escalate a case.
The rates of child abuse in New Zealand are a national shame. Every five weeks, a child is killed by someone they should be most able to trust with their safety. In the year to June 30, CYF dealt with 3249 cases of physical abuse, 1396 of sexual abuse and 4766 of neglect.
The measures in the White Paper will not stop kids being sexually abused, beaten and killed, but it might help identify many of them before it's too late.
- The Dominion Post