Sex, conservatism and just one of NZ's abandoned babies

Laura Toailoa says making sex taboo doesn't encourage young mums to talk about their fears and problems.
MAARTEN HOLL / FAIRFAX NZ

Laura Toailoa says making sex taboo doesn't encourage young mums to talk about their fears and problems.

On a Thursday in November a dead baby boy was found in a reserve locals said was normally earmarked for "dodgy types".

The suburb was Mangere, a bustling Auckland area, with its own bridge, close to the Auckland International Airport, and bracketed by the Manukau Harbour and Tamaki Estuary. A little bit industrial, and rough around the edges. A warm community locked between. Everyone was shocked.

After the boy was gently removed from the area by police, one resident remarked: "I feel bad for whoever it was that left the baby."

Police and crime scene investigators carried out the body of the baby found at the reserve in Mangere Bridge, Auckland.
JASON DORDAY / FAIRFAX NZ

Police and crime scene investigators carried out the body of the baby found at the reserve in Mangere Bridge, Auckland.

Despite canvassing schools, local centres, hospitals and community groups police were unable to locate the mother or father. The baby had no obvious injuries and it was impossible to tell if it had died during birth. It was believed to be of Maori or Pacific ethnicity. 

READ MORE: 
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Memorial to be held for baby found dead in south Auckland reserve
Mangere community rallies for abandoned baby, will pay for burial costs

Final forensic tests this week shed no light on the baby's identity, and seven months after the discovery, police confirmed the matter had been referred to the coroner.

Detective Senior Sergeant Karen Bright updates media on the search for the mother of a dead baby.
FAIRFAX NZ

Detective Senior Sergeant Karen Bright updates media on the search for the mother of a dead baby.

Mangere's local board population is about 66,000, mostly young people and their families. Elderly make up just a sliver of its residents and its dominant ethnic group is Pasifika. By a huge margin too: 60 per cent.

When the baby was found wrapped in clothing emblazoned with the words "SAMOAN CULTURE- OUR PRIDE AND JOY", 21-year-old Laura Toailoa was struck by the grim irony. The Samoan student grew up in the neighbouring suburb of Manurewa, and remembered the sticky subject of sex in her culture.

Amid the speculation about who had left the baby there and why, Toailoa was one of the first to acknowledge the issues ran much deeper. In an essay penned for a local Pasifika magazine, she asked: Why aren't we talking about sex?  

Reverend Peter Sykes of the Selwyn Anglican Church in Mangere East says there are "larger societal issues at play" in ...
KYMBERLEE FERNANDES / FAIRFAX NZ

Reverend Peter Sykes of the Selwyn Anglican Church in Mangere East says there are "larger societal issues at play" in the abandonment of a baby at a Mangere reserve.

"I found the image of the clothing a sad joke – brightly coloured with a positive slogan. So loud and assertive of national and cultural pride. Tied to an issue commonly brushed under the rug," she said.

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"Talking about sex, I'd say it's taboo in Pasifika culture. The only mention I hear is 'don't get pregnant'. Sex, especially regarding young people, is taboo.

"We assume it's wrong, given how even kissing or holding hands is made a big deal of. I know the older generation also had sex young. So it's this awkward thing where they know it happens, it happened for them, but it's just forbidden to talk about.

Clothing found with a dead baby in Mangere Bridge, Auckland.
NZ POLICE

Clothing found with a dead baby in Mangere Bridge, Auckland.

"It's hard because, since sex is not allowed, it's like we don't have the right to seek help. That's the impression I get anyway."   

GUESSING AT REASONS

Maternal care groups are hesitant to speculate that the mother abandoned her son because she had depression. The stigma of having PND is bad enough without sending the message that this is what happens to people who have PND, they say.

Tiara Baillie with her two daughters, Chloe Cotter, 3, and Nikita Cotter, 1.
DOMINICO ZAPATA / FAIRFAX NZ

Tiara Baillie with her two daughters, Chloe Cotter, 3, and Nikita Cotter, 1.

Maternal Care Action Group spokeswoman Kristina Paterson is keen to speak about PND, particularly about what she sees as the gaps in diagnosis and PND care, but she agrees with others – child abandonment is exceedingly rare.

"She may have experienced unwanted pregnancy. She may have experienced pregnancy denial. If she did, we cannot know the reasons behind that. By assuming it is PND, we can actually increase the stigma ... and discourage mothers from coming forward for help because they are worried about what people associate PND with.

"That doesn't mean people with PND don't have thoughts about abandoning or hurting their child or themselves but in most cases, they do not act on them.

"We need to be very clear about what it is and what it's not. There are some myths and assumptions around it.  A lot of women with PND don't come forward for help because they are terrified they will be labelled and treated as an unfit mother and lose access or custody of their children."

Pregnancy denial is a rare condition affecting one in roughly hundreds in varying degrees: from completely ignoring the pregnancy, to acknowledging it but not allowing herself to have any feelings about it, to having dissociative actions following childbirth.

It's thought to occur mostly in young people becoming mothers for the first time, who have a lack of social support around them, and who may have a mental illness or psychosis.

Paterson said, in her experience, Pasifika cultures discouraged talk about depression associated with pregnancy.  

"It is not something that Pacific cultures will talk about easily or admit. It is such an issue, that we are aware of crisis teams that will not phone or visit a Pacific Island women experiencing suicidal ideation, but rather encourage her to visit them," she says.  

"They're aware that 'outing' a Pacific Island woman with thoughts of suicide or symptoms of depression by phoning or visiting might actually put her at greater risk of suicide simply because of the whakamaa associated with it in that culture."

Counties Manukau police Detective Senior Sergeant Karen Bright lead the investigation into the baby's identification and says she was heartened by the Mangere community's response. Some leaders took it upon themselves to door knock and make inquiries. A vigil was held, and a memorial is planned.

"The community has taken a real interest. People wanted to help, people were interested, but it was all with a view to help find the mother and help her and resolve this. Everyone's focus was on trying to help," Bright said.  

"It was really quite heartening to see the positive and caring response that come out of it. It was a real mix of emotion. It is a shocking thing, but there definitely was a feeling of worry for the mother and certainly that was at the forefront of our minds.

"The assistance we received early on and the ongoing interest the community still has about the outcome of this case, really shows how much those in the Mangere community care about each other and what goes on in their local area.

"One of our priorities was to make sure (the mother) got some help, so I certainly hope that she has been able to get some support. It's really, really sad. I guess it is part of the job but it is such a sad case and something like this does stick with you."

She was disappointed at being unable to solve the case, and still encouraged the mother to come forward and speak to police in confidence.

"My hope is that even after all this time, when it comes up again that the mother might consider coming forward. It's a real shame to not be able to resolve it."  

'LIKE THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER'

Reverend Peter Sykes was at a community-organised vigil on a wet Sunday evening after the infant was discovered. Now, the Otahuhu Mangere Youth Group is trying to hold the vigil annually to remember the newborn.

"The whole cruel thing of leaving this unnamed, unknown child in the morgue – it's disconcerting," Sykes says. 

Local leaders like Sykes, chief executive of Mangere East Family Services, are determined the unnamed baby should not be forgotten. Efforts are underway by local politicians to create a memorial space for the newborn boy in the Mangere area.

It's an issue close to Sykes' heart.

His centre was founded after a baby was left in a cardboard box at nearby Massey Homestead. That was 24 years ago, though he said babies being abandoned isn't common in the area.

"It's the edge of a larger problem. There are larger societal issues at play, it's not just a personal crisis," he says. "It does act as a reminder that there are extremely vulnerable families out there.

"In a way the child has become sort of a symbol like the Unknown Soldier. We want to have that sort of sacred space as a memorial to other lost and abused children."

He says the Mangere area doesn't have a civic memorial in the area where people could go to remember.

Sykes recalls another case in Mangere in April 1998. Claire Hills was tied and burnt to death at the top of Mangere Mountain. Her killer has never been identified.

Sykes had a memorial board at his centre for Hills. He says it is important to have a place for people to go and remember them.

"You're sort of holding onto those people, hoping that they're not lost or forgotten."

'IT DOES GET BETTER'

Tauranga mother-of-two Tiara Baillie, 21, had a shocker of a year. Her partner left her weeks out from the birth of their second child, she had an emergency Caesarean resulting in her winding up in intensive care, and then following her youngest child's birth she broke both her legs at a trampoline park, and her grandmother died.

"Everything just crumbled around me. I felt like I had just failed my girls by becoming a solo mother," Baillie says.  

"Nothing seemed to be looking up at that time. I was like, oh s..., now I need to do everything myself and how hard is it going to be now? From then on I was like, I'm not sure I can cope. I knew I wasn't doing that well."

Despite her insistences that something was wrong, Baillie – a teenager at the time – felt ignored by people who dismissed her complaints as 'baby blues'. She feared a doctor would do the same and initially resisted seeing one out of fear.

"In my head I was like, I'm pretty sure this isn't just baby blues. I kept telling people I don't feel 100 per cent, and they'd just say, oh, it's baby blues. My midwife brushed me off, it wasn't until six or seven months after Nikita's birth where I just spilled everything onto one of my best friends and she just dragged me to my GP, literally."

At her worst Baillie considered leaving her children with her mother, and never returning for them.

"I wasn't coping. I was constantly in tears and always upset and not wanting to do anything with them. The majority of the time I did not want to pick them up, I just didn't want them. I do look back and I was like, s... I was really at rock bottom. On the odd occasion I feel like I still am."  

Baillie has a message for other mothers who are struggling: it does get better. After initially taking anti-depressants, she has since come off them after discovering the pleasure of working out at the gym.

She began studying, and is looking forward to her family's future.

"I wanted to try and better our lives," she says.  

"It definitely does not seem like it at the time, and it felt like it would go on for years, but it does get better. Try and find a friend who you can tell everything to."

*Mothers with postnatal depression seeking help and information can contact 0800-002-717 or visit www.mothershelpers.org.nz

NOT THE FIRST TIME 

2016: Chinese overstayer Yuiuo Qin left her young son with an associate and failed to return for him.

2015: 20-month-old boy left at Manukau Work and Income office with no explanation.

2013: A 14-month-old baby was found in a pram on a central Christchurch street in the middle of the night.

2012: A newborn baby girl's body was discovered wrapped in a towel, next to a fence in a Hutt Valley backyard when a woman was hanging up her washing. The baby's mother was charged over the death.

2012: A baby was found in a pram in an Opotiki church yard in the middle of the night.

2011: Dead baby girl found in a South Auckland roadside creek.

2011: Baby boy's body discovered buried in an Otahuhu backyard. Kulukora Akau'ola was later jailed for the baby's manslaughter.

2010: Two-year-old girl abandoned at McDonald's in Otara.

2009: Baby Grace found by a cleaner in an aircraft toilet after the plane landed in Auckland from Samoa. Her mother, Karolaine Maika, was convicted of child abandonment.

2009: Newborn baby left at Middlemore Hospital after the teenaged parents attempted to hide the pregnancy from their parents.

2007: Chinese overstayer Yuiuo Qin left her infant daughter in the care of her landlord and never returned.

2006: A newborn baby girl was thrown out a window at Studholme Hall, Otago University. Her mother, Samoan scholarship student Patricia Siaosi, was charged with infanticide.

1993: Baby girl found in a cardboard box at Massey Homestead, Mangere.

1962: Keith Mitchell found abandoned in a Palmerston North phone box.

WHERE TO GET HELP:

Lifeline (open 24/7) - 0800 543 354

Depression Helpline (open 24/7) - 0800 111 757

Healthline (open 24/7) - 0800 611 116

Samaritans (open 24/7) - 0800 726 666

Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Youthline (open 24/7) - 0800 376 633. You can also text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email talk@youthline.co.nz

0800 WHATSUP children's helpline - phone 0800 9428 787 between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day at www.whatsup.co.nz.

Kidsline (open 24/7) - 0800 543 754. This service is for children aged 5 to 18. Those who ring between 4pm and 9pm on weekdays will speak to a Kidsline buddy. These are specially trained teenage telephone counsellors.

Your local Rural Support Trust - 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)

Alcohol Drug Helpline (open 24/7) - 0800 787 797. You can also text 8691 for free.

For further information, contact the Mental Health Foundation's free Resource and Information Service (09 623 4812).

 - Sunday Star Times

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