Team makes life difficult for child abusers

BLAIR ENSOR
Last updated 05:00 28/06/2012

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They are the police who deal with society's most vulnerable - children often beaten or sexually attacked in their homes.

The Wellington District Child Protection Team has investigated babies with burns and broken bones, children bashed with household items, and young boys and girls who have been sexually violated.

Figures show that, in the past year, the specialist detectives and investigators have dealt with about 15 reports every week of child abuse or concerns about abuse, launched more than 375 inquiries and arrested 118 people.

Last Saturday marked a year since the team joined forces with Child, Youth and Family at Koru House, Petone.

Detective Senior Sergeant Neil Holden, who took over as the head of the unit in November, said there had been some "inadequate responses" to child abuse in the past and Koru House was a leading example of police working to make change.

Working under the same roof as CYF staff had made the relationship more effective and efficient, he said. Last year the two organisations met 270 times.

"We are keeping a check on their processes and we expect them to check on ours, and they are doing so. We are sort of watchdogging each other.

"There's some real strength in that transparency between the two agencies."

Mr Holden said child abuse remained a major problem faced by every section of society. The issue was being addressed, however, and the public's perception was changing.

"Nationally, we are seeing more cases reported to us but we don't think it is a case of more abuse. I think there is more acceptance ... to report abuse.

"Our workload is very high, but every case gets a priority assessment. If it is urgent we drop things and get on to it," he said.

"We would love more staff, but the New Zealand police have responded to this extremely positively in the last few years."

Koru House was designed as an inviting place for children and their families – everything in it is purposefully planned, down to the colour of the walls.

It houses 29 police staff – including 22 investigators – working alongside four staff from Child, Youth and Family.

"It does take a special breed of investigator and police officer to be working in here," Mr Holden said.

"They are really impressive, motivating and inspired New Zealanders who are only working in this area because they really care. They are really motivated to make a difference.

"A lot are family people themselves ... and so it strikes a chord with them to want to make a difference."

GIVING HOPE TO YOUNG VICTIMS

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The Wellington District Child Protection Team was formed in March 2010 with police dedicated to Wellington, Kapiti, Hutt Valley and Wairarapa.

The team of specialised interviewers and detectives was to have started a year before, but as police prepared to launch, they discovered serious failings in the way child abuse cases in the Wairarapa had been handled.

Resources were diverted into an investigation in 2008 called Operation Hope, which found more than 100 files had not been allocated to officers, files were not investigated on average for five years and, in some cases, victims lived with their alleged abusers for that entire time.

Police doubled the number of staff planned for the team as a result of that investigation.

In June last year the child protection team moved into Koru House, Petone, which was designed with child victims in mind.

There are no police cars and no uniforms but there are toys and bright rooms. All agencies are housed in the same building, meaning less travel for victims and better communication.

ALCOHOL A MAJOR FACTOR

Detective Sergeant Kylie Schaare has dealt with some of the most horrific cases the unit has seen in the past 12 months.

In one instance, an 8-month-old baby was beaten black and blue by his mother and suffered extensive bruising to his eyes, ears and face.

Alcohol was a major factor in the bashing, which was apparent in a lot of physical and sexual abuse cases the unit dealt with, Mrs Schaare said.

It is estimated the unit deals with incidents involving non-accidental injuries – bruising, cuts, broken bones and burns – to babies, about once a month.

"It just breaks our hearts. We just want them to be safe and loved. I go home every night knowing there are kids in my area and someone is sexually abusing or hitting them. It's not OK."

COMPLAINTS URGED

A case involving a 9-year-old girl allegedly sexually violated by a family friend highlights the need for people to make complaints to police, Detective Sergeant James Patea says.

The young girl told her mother about the incident earlier this year and, when police investigated, it was found the man had allegedly sexually abused another five girls. He is currently before the courts.

Figures show only about one in 10 victims of sexual violence make a complaint. By coming forward, the girl and her mother had potentially stopped the man abusing others, Mr Patea said.

"I want to praise the courage some parents have in bringing in the victims."

PARENTS CAN ACT TO STOP UNDERAGE SEX

Misguided parenting could be behind an increase in underage sex cases that the unit is dealing with, Detective Sergeant Rachael Casbolt says.

Too often the unit was dealing with cases in which parents were allowing girls under the age of 16 to have sex with older men in the family home, she said.

"Maybe people don't realise they are actually party to their own child having underage sex.

"Is a 13-year-old girl able to make an informed decision about having sex with somebody? Parents can use the law to say 'no' and stop it happening.

"I just think we need to get back to parents knowing what their job is.

"Parents are there to guide their children. It's about making the right decisions about things and maybe not letting them grow up too quickly."

- The Dominion Post

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