Dreaming of enough to eat

01:48, Jul 14 2014

Child poverty is being increasingly talked about in New Zealand. What does it look like in Taranaki? Helen Harvey reports. 

The little boy talked about the monsters.

He was frightened. He didn't know where his mother was and he was scared of all the people in his house. He thought they were monsters.

And they were for a 7-year-old, Marfell Community School principal Janet Armstrong says.

As she talks Armstrong becomes emotional. She pauses to get a tissue.

"It brings tears to your eyes because you know it's their reality. You know it's true. You see it and you can't do anything about it."


The good news is, the little boy is in a safe environment now. He's been moved from his family.

"But they love him. I know his family love him, but their best wasn't good enough for him and their priorities weren't about him. And that's poverty."

There are no children in Taranaki living in a cardboard box village under a bridge. None live on the streets scavenging in rubbish bins to survive. And none die from starvation. But there are children in Taranaki who don't have enough food to eat. Who live in damp, overcrowded houses. And who miss out on playing sport and doing other activities that most Kiwi kids take for granted.

New Plymouth children's worker Katy Bassett grew up in East Belfast, in Northern Ireland, so says she knows what poverty looks like.

"We (Taranaki) are not that."

But in Belfast it was a big issue, she says.

"So, there were more people showing you there was a different way to be. I went off and got a university education because people told me I could."

In Taranaki there's some denial that poverty exists, she says.

"When I would go around and give talks I would get quite a lot of negative reaction from people who would say, ‘Well it's not as bad as that. And there is not really any poverty'."

Taranaki has a choice. If people want more of the same, then things should just continue as they are.

"But if they want something different then they have to be more proactive."

And people have to be prepared to be more hands-on - teaching rather than condemning.

She has worked with young women who were doing the best they could in the only way they knew how. And it didn't take much to show them a different way, such as housekeeping skills and how to budget, she says.

"It's stuff that other people know, but if no-one has shown you, how do you know?

"For poverty to be addressed we need to stop labelling the person who it is connected with, that they somehow deserve this. They're not trying hard enough. That doesn't encourage people to look for help, if they think they are going to get that judgment put upon them."

There is more to poverty than just a lack of finance. It's also a lack of skills and a lack of parenting.

One Monday a school rang her about a wee boy she had been working with. They hadn't been able to contact a parent.

"His hand was puffed up with an infection and I took him up to the hospital and he had to be admitted and have IV antibiotics."

He must have been in pain all weekend, she says.

"But he wasn't distressed by it. That's just how life was. He had no expectation of anything else. That's the greatest poverty they have - they have no hopes or dreams."

Bassett always gets the children she works with to write up a hope and dreams sheet.

There is a lot of evidence to show children's lives can be turned around by just one interested adult, she says. Obviously, not all neglect is connected to poverty, but it certainly stretches people and they get to the breaking point.

"Poverty is grinding."

Then there is the emotional neglect as well, which leads to kids being really despondent, Bassett says.

That is the negative image of poverty - that people aren't trying, but in her experience they are in the minority.

"I think there is a growing group of people who previously would be making ends meet but who are coming into that poverty trap. Wages haven't gone up but everything else has gone up."

National statistics show 27 per cent of Kiwi kids are living in poverty, but there doesn't seem to be any figures for Taranaki. However, the number of children under the age of 15 in Taranaki for the 2013 census, was 23,136, so if the national average is applied to Taranaki it would mean 6248 children are living below the breadline.

Armstrong says it's not third-world poverty, but there is poverty in Taranaki and certainly in her community.

"We do have children who are going without, but there are two aspects of poverty."

There are families who manage on a low income, but meet their responsibilities towards their children and meet their needs, but the other end is where children's needs are not being met.

"Children who are perhaps not getting enough food, that are suffering health wise. Who come to school with sores that develop into impetigo. And what we are seeing in some of our children is that is recurring because health wise they don't have the immunity to fight it. That's the kind of poverty we're seeing."

There is no job description for parenting and people go on their own personal experience. They just follow how they were brought up, Armstrong says.

Some people don't have routines, such as parents getting up with children making sure they are clean, dressed properly, they're fed at at home or at school.

"We're finding out it's a call from us to say, ‘Where is so and so? Is he coming to school today?' and it's, ‘Oh yeah, yeah they'll be there'. And they'd have been asleep or recovering from heavy night the night before. It happened today."

Armstrongs believes the answer can be found in social policy.

But she calls the Government's $359m Investing in Educational Success (IES) policy a "sticking-plaster solution."

"They are not looking at the needs of parents, when they become parents. That wrap around support so they have the opportunity to know what it means to be a parent."

They need that fence behind them to say there is accountability, so they realise there are consequences if they choose to ignore these responsibilities.

"I just feel we have a service that lacks any teeth, any power. I've been quite vocal in my belief around FGCs." Family Group Conferences are a formal meetings where extended family come together to look at the needs of the child.

Sometimes solutions are found, she says.

"But I've seen many times where no consequences were carried out. The odd social worker follows it through. I get really disappointed and disheartened. Why bother going to this FGC?"

For some children their situation is inconsistent, Armstrong says.

"They might have all their needs met on some days and then something happens within the family whether it's a tangi or they have a big party the day before and we see the repercussions for that."

The Child Poverty Monitor website run by the office of the Children's Commissioner says poverty can cause lasting damage, such as doing badly at school, not getting a good job and falling into a life of crime. And children growing up in poverty also miss out on experiences other children have.

New Plymouth community constable Nelson Pulotu is tackling two of those issues with one after-school activity.

He has teamed up with Jacob Rapira from the Box Office Boxing Club and started the Youth Academy, initially for kids from Marfell, but now includes children from all over New Plymouth.

A lot of parents don't have the ability to network, to find out what is a good club for their children, how to get them there.

And then there is the cost, he says.

"There are a lot of families who struggle financially and extramural activities for their kids are not a priority."

The Marfell Community Trust pays for the children from its area.

The Youth Academy has children from six to 12 years old, which is great from a crime prevention perspective, because at that age they haven't started getting into any real mischief, he says.

"They might have done some signal crime, damage to outer areas or down the skate park where they might have tagged."

Pulotu has been told by people that working with children younger than 10 years old is just babysitting.

But he has seen children teaching children at the Youth Academy, he says.

"I don't think there is a too-soon age."

It's all about having positive role models, he says.

And the academy has already had a success story in relation to offending in Marfell.

"Two brothers came to me apologetic and embarrassed, because it was their sister responsible for recent offending and they disclosed it to me. I spoke to the sister and she said that the hardest thing was how disappointed her brothers were because they wanted to be part of this project."

The project is about teaching the kids. It's certainly not a free ride, there are expectations.

"You don't go to school, you don't get to go to the programme."

The Youth Academy is a community development project in empowering the kids to make better decisions.

"If we get one kid to stay clear of a life of crime it's been worth it."

Pulotu did some research before starting the project, he says.

And Marfell rates as one of the 10 per cent most deprived communities in New Zealand.

So is Patea and Waitara West according to the 2013 deprivation index. And another seven areas, five of which are in South Taranaki, scored a nine.

But the good news is Taranaki children are doing well as far as their health goes.

Pediatrician Yvonne Anderson says there are some communicable diseases linked to poverty in New Zealand such as rheumatic fever, TB and meningococcal.

And in Taranaki the averages for these diseases are lower than the national average.

There was only one case of rheumatic fever in the region last year, she says.

But, there needs to be more input in education and housing in regards to Taranaki's children.

"And there needs to be an overall community recognition there is a problem."

A positive step is having free GP visits for children from July next year, she says.

"We are over-represented on the ward with children from lower socio-economic areas.

"That says it all really. We always find children from lower socio economic areas presenting later and more unwell."

Oral health is another good indicator in regards to whether children are really struggling, Anderson says.

And the news here is good as well.

A recent survey showed 83.1 per cent of Taranaki children saw a dental health worker in the past 12 months compared with 79.9 per cent of children nationally. And only 1.4 per cent of Taranaki children had teeth removed due to decay, which was much better than the national average of 3.8 per cent.

"But don't go away thinking we don't have poverty in Taranaki. We do."