Hard and hurtful questions await

Last updated 10:57 06/09/2013

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OPINION: Editorial: We're sometimes reminded, even scolded, that it's easy to be wise after the event. Not always, it isn't.

When the "event" is a baby with a cut throat, the search for wisdom - not just an explanation but any lessons to be gained - is unlikely to be easy. But it must be ardent.

The heartrending injury to newborn Noklair Milton, the slashed wrists of her mother, Sucharitta, and the reproach that the father, David, has directed at Southland Hospital collectively invite suspicion of a catastrophic failure of care.

We need to be careful to remember that there is still much we do not know; so much that to stampede to any judgments at this stage would be not just unwise, but unfair.

But that is not to say that the health authorities need not front up at an early stage.

The Southern District Health Board did not do itself any favours with its initial non-response to Mr Milton's anguished account of how his wife, in extreme physical pain and a "zombie-like" state, was turned away when she asked for help at the hospital at 3am on Sunday. She was sent away, he said, with the advice that she had post-natal depression and mastitis, about which she should visit her GP on Monday.

By 5.30am that Monday, police were rushing to the family home.

When Mr Milton spoke out on Wednesday, the hospital declined comment, citing patient privacy. This is something of a default setting that is applied far too broadly when there is still scope to respond, even in a preliminary way, to issues raised by those affected.

In a matter of such acute and legitimate public interest, a less stonewalled response should have been expected. After all, it was two days after the much-publicised nightmare in Princes St that comment was sought. Surely, by then, it wasn't news to the administration that barely a day before that nightmare in Princes St, Mrs Milton had been a distressed presence at the hospital.

Late yesterday afternoon, the Southern District Health Board did announce an investigation. Of course it did. Chief executive Carole Heatly said that, if there was a failure to provide safe, high-quality care, then the board would take clear action to improve its service. Then, she added, that the board's ability to comment was limited by the need to respect patient privacy and the awareness of the ongoing police investigation.

Neither of which should get in the way of a timely account of what, at hospital level, is essentially a matter not of privacy, nor of criminality, but of medical procedure - and whether it was followed in this case.

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New Zealand has a wretched record in recent decades of brutality to children. Sometimes, at the end of all the scrutiny, the consensus, at least among the public, is one of parental monstrosity, the reasons for which remain rather lost behind the instinct for sheer revulsion. Other times the circumstances leading up to the wrongdoing do cry out more compellingly for sympathetic understanding.

Institutions are easier to fault than individuals, particularly those who are suffering as extravagantly as the Miltons, all three of them, now.

But institutions are made up of people, just as families are, and any organisation that relies on the insight provided by human judgment is susceptible to human failings.

Sometimes the best we can do is identify them and minimise the chances of them happening again.

- The Southland Times

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