More light needed on abuse's shadow

On the same day that the first part of the Glenn Inquiry into family violence was released, a man appeared in court charged with assaulting an eight-month-old boy.

The Hamilton infant died early yesterday. The circumstances of the case are not yet known, but it is another in a long list of tragedies that spurred businessman Sir Owen Glenn to set up the $2 million inquiry.

Its first part, the People's Report, features interviews with 500 victims, community and government workers, and even perpetrators of child abuse and domestic violence.

Despite its troubled gestation, including the resignation of several inquiry members, the report brings a renewed focus to a problem that is a cause for national shame.

The figures are stark - 87,000 family violence incidents investigated each year by police; 23,000 cases of child abuse substantiated by Child, Youth and Family last year.

Behind the statistics, the report includes the voices of partners, mothers and children; those who have been raped, bashed and emotionally abused. One commenter calls it "intimate terrorism". Abusers use tactics similar to those of the Taliban or al Qaeda but on a personal scale, including deprivation, repetition, subliminal messaging and shock tactics.

One of the main themes in the report is that family violence has become normalised in some families, with children growing up knowing nothing different and primed to repeat the cycle.

Another is that the agencies set up to help protect families and help victims, particularly the Family Court and Child, Youth and Family, are instead adding to their problems through dysfunction and poor practices.

Some aspects of the current system are working well, according to the report, with teachers and health providers winning praise. Police were also noted as having generally improved their attitudes and responsiveness to family violence.

The Glenn inquiry will make final recommendations in a second report due to be released in October, but its initial suggestions include an overarching government-led national strategy to lower family violence. This would include an overhaul of the court system, including a proposal to revisit the burden of proof in domestic violence cases so it rests with perpetrators to prove their innocence.

Justice Minister Judith Collins has flatly rejected that proposal, and rightly so. Presumption of innocence is a fundamental democratic right; it would be far better for victims to have better legal access and support.

The Government says its Family Court reforms, including more mediators, and its action plan to help protect vulnerable children, which received a $16 million Budget boost, will make a difference. The question is, how much?

Everyone acknowledges that family violence in New Zealand is shockingly high. The Glenn report's suggestion of a national strategy is a sensible one. At the very least, its formation would shine a much-needed spotlight on our darkest shadow.

The Nelson Mail