Child abuse 'culture shift'

Parents who cannot keep their newborns safe are increasingly being dobbed in by their family and the public.

After the murder of 3-year-old Rotorua girl Nia Glassie in 2007, there has been a sharp rise in the number of newborn babies removed from their parents, with scores ending up in foster care every year.

Nia's case, and the deaths of twins Chris and Cru Kahui in 2006, sparked public outrage after family members kept silent and authorities failed to connect the dots.

Figures released under the Official Information Act show that, in 2008, after Child, Youth and Family was criticised for its handling of a string of child abuse deaths, the number of babies removed from their mothers more than doubled in just one year.

More than 140 babies under a month old are now being removed from their mothers every year.

Last month, Oriwa Kemp, one of the people jailed in connection with the Nia Glassie case, had her newborn child taken by CYF.

The agency said the sudden rise was linked to increases in drug addiction among parents and better co-operation with other agencies, particularly with police. In 2008, police started referring to CYF every domestic violence callout in which a child was present.

But it also comes as more people report concerns about babies before they are even born, with referrals rising steadily in the past five years. Today, an expectant mother is nearly twice as likely to be reported to Child, Youth and Family as in 2008.

Most reports came from police and health professionals. However, family, neighbours and the public at large were also more likely to raise the alarm about unborn babies at risk of abuse, the figures show.

Child advocates say the growth in tipoffs is proof of a "culture shift" among the public and official agencies.

"There is more awareness and concern now about the sheer vulnerability of newborns," Children's Commissioner Russell Wills said. "It is in that first year of life that you are most likely to be seriously harmed or killed by someone in your family."

Dr Wills said a typical case would involve an expectant mother who endured regular physical assaults at her partner's hand. This would trigger depression and drug or alcohol abuse, sparking concern among her friends, family or midwife.

"We deal with hundreds of these cases every year."

Merepeka Raukawa-Tait, former Women's Refuge chief executive, said the sharp rise in babies being removed was not surprising. However, she believed CYF had become over-zealous about putting children into foster care.

Most children removed from their parents ended up in foster homes, with only a small number going to other family members, she said. "I think they are going about it the wrong way."

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett said New Zealand removed fewer children from their mothers than many other countries, including Australia, despite receiving more reports. "I think the balance is about right."


Babies At Risk

In the past year there were:

26 babies taken from their mothers at birth

157 babies taken within their first month of life

37 removed babies given to extended family, with the rest ending up in foster homes or as wards of the state

1800 referrals to CYF concerning the safety of unborn children, mostly from police or health services but increasingly from the babies' families or the public

153 babies abused or neglected in the first month of their life

Source: Ministry of Social Development 

The Dominion Post