New Zealand's greatest shame

16:00, Nov 17 2012
JJ Lawrence
JJ LAWRENCE: The two-year-old died at his home in Auckland in November 2011.

New Zealand's greatest shame is starkly characterised by the list of defenceless children killed by those supposed to be caring for them.

James Whakaruru, Delcelia Witika, Lillybing Karatiana-Matiaha, Coral-Ellen Burrows, Nia Glassie, Chris and Cru Kahui: all young, vulnerable, blameless and killed by immediate family members, stepfathers or others who ought to have been looking after them.

James Joseph Ruhe Lawrence, known as JJ, is now added to that list, killed by his mother's boyfriend, Joel Loffley.

In an average year, 10 New Zealand children die in similar circumstances, with depressingly familiar hallmarks: natural father in prison; young mother's boyfriend left in charge; drugs, poverty, inadequately controlled anger; family violence, along with horrific and merciless beating.

Some will cry for sterner vengeance against those convicted, others will seek to legislate against families deemed most likely to repeat this ghastly sequence of events, arguing for the removal of their right to have children in the first place. Neither suggested remedy reflects well on the values that we like to think underpin our society.

It would be more constructive to address the chaotic lifestyles of people like JJ's mother, Josephine.


Invariably those who end up in the desperate circumstances started out with some hope, potential and redeeming qualities, before bad choices eroded these. Usually, couples like Lawrence and Loffley become parents without having the skills to carry out such an important role. However, those of us who deal with people in similar circumstances on a daily basis know that most lives such as theirs can be turned around. We need to make sure that such parents develop the skills necessary to look after children, love them and keep them safe.

The key is to identify all those in the same situation as Lawrence and Loffley and enable them to develop what they currently lack: the maturity, patience, strength, stability and coping skills to become caring and functional parents.

It's a big challenge, but not impossible. With intensive, expert guidance, even those with the most problematic backgrounds can change and become caring, loving parents of functioning and productive future citizens. Although working with these families is often challenging, not for the faint of heart and requires considerable focus, it is based on scrupulously developed theories and methods that are proven to work. Early intervention home visits are critical.

With sufficient community and political will, it would be possible to find the resource necessary to provide such services to the parents of all vulnerable children and to assist these parents to learn the skills they need to adequately care for and bring up their children, and ensure that JJ Lawrence is the last name on that appalling list of shame.

This would make sense from a financial perspective, as well as a moral one. Young children who are regularly abused typically suffer long-term trauma so bad that their brain development is permanently impaired, leading to lifelong difficulties associated with profound social and economic costs, including policing, imprisonment, mental health, healthcare and drug addiction, as well as repeating the cycle of inadequate parenting, neglect and abuse on their own offspring.

The cumulative negative consequences of child abuse imposes a long-term cost on New Zealand that is equivalent to around $2 billion per annum. In saving the life of the next JJ Lawrence by providing nationwide, well-monitored, effective early intervention, we would also save ourselves, as taxpayers.

Why we as a society have not already done so when the solution is readily apparent, is difficult to fathom. At least the government's White Paper has some encouraging signs. In addition, the minister of social development has repeatedly stated how passionately she is motivated to solve this major blight on our society. Whether she will be able to steer her government colleagues and her department to the right solutions is not easy to predict, particularly when past governments over the three preceding decades have repeatedly failed in this respect.

If the minister can adequately resource early intervention to the point where it will effectively prevent child abuse, and ensure that JJ Lawrence is the final name on New Zealand's list of shame, that would be an outstanding legacy for her, and perhaps some sort of memorial to his short life.

Libby Robins is director of the Christchurch-based Family Help Trust.

Sunday Star Times