Pakeha child abuse ignored - researcher

04:00, Jul 26 2011
Paula Bennett
TOUGH DECISIONS: Social Development Minister Paula Bennett.

Pakeha kill just as many children as Maori do, despite Maori being the "face of abuse" in the media, according to a researcher.

Social work lecturer Raema Merchant said focusing on Maori parents diverts attention away from the fact Pakeha can harm children too.

"I'm not denying it's a problem for Maori, but if we're just focusing on Maori we're ignoring the Pakeha side," she said.

"It's almost as though Pakeha are putting their heads in the sand and saying there is no Pakeha child abuse."

Her master's thesis at Massey University found about half of the children killed in New Zealand died at the hands of a Pakeha abuser.

Almost 9000 children were victims of physical abuse between 2000 and 2008, yet only 21 became "household names"' in the media, she said.

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Just one-third of child deaths were reported in the press, and they were predominantly Maori cases.

Merchant urged the public and media to focus on real problems of child abuse, rather than making Maori the "face of abuse".

"The real danger I have seen from a social worker point of view is that there are a lot of children being abused but as far as the public are concerned they only seem to know about the ones that are Maori.

"Child abuse is a problem for all people, not just for Maori."

Merchant is already planning her next thesis, which will look at a bigger issue: whether focusing on Maori child abuse victims leads to skewed views by health professionals and the public.

This could lead to a lack of awareness of abuse occurring in Pakeha families, she said.

Merchant found physical child abuse was largely related to poverty, poor housing, inter-generational abuse, poor parenting and drugs and alcohol abuse.

Her research comes after a recent poll revealed half of New Zealanders believe child abuse has an ethnic connection.

Research New Zealand conducted the survey on how New Zealanders view the causes of child abuse, asking respondents to rank the factors they believed most contributed to the problem.

Just over half the 503 people polled said child abuse was a cultural issue, while parental experience and economic factors shared equal status at about a third each.

Child Matters chief executive Anthea Simcock said abuse was not just about one culture.

"Child abuse is right across the spectrum."

On average, one child is killed every five weeks in New Zealand, and most victims are less than a year old.

MINISTER SAYS PARENTS NEED HELP

Mums and dads would get preferential treatment for drug and mental health problems under a radical plan to address the nation's shocking child abuse rate.

The government is braced for criticisms of suggested changes to the current system, where state assistance is allocated on individual need rather than whether dependent children are involved.

Mandatory reporting, a re-think of the whanau-first policy when children are removed from their parents' care, and sharing information despite privacy concerns will also be on the table when the government releases its Green Paper next week on improving children's lives.

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett launched the review in April, saying she was incensed by the number of child abuse cases and wanted a national debate about how the problem should be tackled.

It will be launched in Auckland on Wednesday and there will be eight months of public consultation before a formal White Paper is released and the Children's Action Plan is adopted next year.

Bennett said she was aware many of the topics in the Green Paper were controversial, but tough choices were needed to reduce child abuse.

She said she does not agree with some of the recommendations, but wants them discussed.

Barnardos boss Murray Edridge, former All Blacks hooker Norm Hewitt and former Families Commissioner Sandra Alofivae have been appointed to help lead public debate on the issues.

The more contentious topics include a legal requirement for professionals – including doctors, teachers and nurses – to report suspected child abuse cases, and monitoring at-risk children from birth in a national database.

Former Children's Commissioner John Angus has said there are already enough reports of child abuse, and dealing with the cases properly was preferable to encouraging more reporting.

He said mandatory reporting would swamp Child Youth and Family.

Child abuse expert Patrick Kelly said many health professionals were not qualified enough to detect it.

Bennett said suggestions of greater information sharing between government agencies also extended to other family members and non-governmental organisations.

"We want to see children protected and in a safe environment, to do that we need to share information a lot more readily, and that does mean occasionally we'll be sharing information on children who are not in danger.

"So is middle New Zealand ready for us to step into that area a bit?"

Putting parents ahead of other Kiwis in line for government services will also attract criticism.

"The example you could use is that mental health services be prioritised to mothers and fathers with small children.

"Does that mean other people wait longer?

"Should they be able to jump the queue because they have young children?"

It could also apply to drug and alcohol treatment, welfare, education and the rest of the health sector. Services are currently allocated based on need.

Bennett acknowledged that many people, particularly the elderly, would be put out by that.

"I get daily correspondence [from people] who are appalled and disgusted at those beautiful faces that they see, unfortunately week after week, who have been severely damaged or even killed at the hands of people who should be loving them.

"I suppose I'm saying to those people; what are you willing to give up for me to spend more resources on those very families?"

Three questions asked by the Green Paper: What priority should government give to the families and whanau of those caring for children when allocating services that impact on the children they are caring for? What services do you think should be included in this policy? When should adults who care for children be prioritised for services over others?

Sunday Star Times