New report reveals hidden costs

Child abuse and neglect in New Zealand costs the country about $2 billion a year, a new report has found.

Every Child Counts - a coalition of non-government agencies that includes Barnardos, Unicef, Plunket and Save the Children - commissioned it because it felt more New Zealanders would listen if an economic cost was put on the problem rather than relying on social justice arguments. Economic forecaster Infometrics did the financial analysis.

The report found obvious and hidden costs. Abused and neglected children needed healthcare, welfare and justice services. Later in life, they required ongoing health, special education and counselling services. Sometimes the consequence for the wider community was crime.

Another significant cost was that the victims often became unproductive members of society.

The report found children who witnessed adult violence at home were more distressed than if they were hit by parents.

Already this month two children have died after being seriously injured at home. Three-year-old Palmerston North girl Kash McKinnon was found badly injured at her home last Wednesday and later died in hospital.

A two-year-old Kaitaia girl was found on August 8 at home with serious head injuries and later died in Auckland's Starship Children's Hospital.

Tinisha Walker, aged 17 months, was seriously injured at a house in Whangarei on August 11 and flown to Starship, where she is still critical.

The New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse says 39 children were murdered between 2000 and 2004. Unicef's 2007 overview of child wellbeing in rich countries placed New Zealand and the US as the worst countries for deaths of under-19-year-olds by accidents, murder, suicide and violence.

The report recommended more money be spent on preventing abuse and neglect, rather than remedial services afterwards, which was more expensive. It acknowledged, however, that governments have been increasing spending on preventative measures. Last year's budget allocated $166 million on education and preventative services for children, compared with $16m in 2004-05.

Every Child Counts will use the Infometrics report to lobby MPs to establish an all-party parliamentary group for children.

Barnardos advocacy manager Deborah Morris-Travers said the economic analysis showed that failure to support families and prevent maltreatment of children was extremely costly long term. "It comes down to us needing a fundamental shift in priorities and in mindset so hopefully we appreciate that if we do get it right for children we all benefit.

"The case for re-prioritising, as a nation, is extremely strong. It's quite clear from the report that if child abuse and neglect costs approximately $2b a year then anything we can do to prevent child maltreatment will save large amounts of money in the future."

She said putting a dollar cost on child abuse would hopefully enlist more community and political support. "We wanted to be able to get an assessment of what maltreatment was costing us. And we wanted to be able to speak to a wide cross-section of New Zealanders using a different language. We know the social justice arguments are really strong, but for some people that is not as strong as the economic argument.

"New Zealand doesn't rate well compared with our OECD counterparts. We have the worst child death by maltreatment rate in the world, so it's about identifying a range of different things we can do to better support families and build stronger communities so children are not vulnerable to maltreatment.

"Today's children are tomorrow's decision-makers - the people who will have to get the economy going and pay taxes to support older people."

Sunday Star Times