More new babies taken from mothers

Custody orders have doubled in five years

BY REBECCA PALMER
Last updated 10:53 02/03/2009

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Dozens of newborns are being taken from their mothers every year because of fears for their safety.

Child, Youth and Family took 66 at-risk babies less than a month old into its care last year and 15 of them were taken the day they were born.

In more than half of the cases, older brothers and sisters were already in care, figures provided to The Dominion Post under the Official Information Act show.

The number of custody orders involving newborns has more than doubled in the past five years. In the 2003-04 year, 32 were taken into state care.

Those taken last year include the newborn daughter of convicted baby-killer Tania Witika, who gave birth in Christchurch. CYF obtained custody when it heard she was pregnant.

The horrific death of Witika's daughter Delcelia, 2, in 1991 was one of the worst child-abuse cases to go before New Zealand courts. She and her partner at the time were each sentenced to 16 years' jail for Delcelia's torture and death.

The rise in newborn custody orders coincides with a doubling in care and protection notifications involving babies still in their mothers' wombs. Last year Child, Youth and Family received 215 notifications from people worried about the welfare of unborn children, compared with 96 five years earlier.

Nearly half the alerts came from health professionals. Police, family members, courts, schools and others also reported concerns.

Social Development Ministry chief executive Peter Hughes said the agency had been working to create an environment in which abuse and neglect were not tolerated. "In recent years, we have made significant progress in raising awareness of family violence and this is reflected in the increase in the number of notifications."

He said no child was taken from its parents unless concerns were of "an extreme nature". They could include history of family violence, mental health problems, addiction, neglect and previous abuse of children. "Removal of children at such a young age is the last resort."

Children's Commissioner Cindy Kiro agreed improved awareness was a big factor behind the increased numbers. "It's part of a bigger pattern of increasing notifications, particularly off the back of high-profile cases like Nia Glassie." Nia, 3, died in Auckland's Starship children's hospital in 2007, after repeated abuse that included being tumbled in a clothes drier, spun on a clothesline and kicked in the head.

Dr Kiro said the health sector had become more proactive in watching for signs of abuse and reporting them.

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She suspected most of the health notifications came from hospitals. Pregnant women who had been abusing alcohol or drugs were more likely to experience complications.

The number of notifications involving unborn children was likely to keep growing, she said.

Paediatric Society president Rosemary Marks, who works at Starship, said most, if not all, district health boards now had a family violence co-ordinator. "We have had a real emphasis on training health professionals to be aware and to ask people about family violence."

That meant there was an opportunity to help if a pregnant woman said her partner was abusing her. "We can intervene earlier and hopefully interrupt the cycle of violence."

 

- The Dominion Post

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