Reduce inequality, cut child abuse stats - Labour

Jacinda Ardern
Jacinda Ardern

Three young children have died after receiving injuries in the last three weeks - the most recent a six-month old girl in Wellington.

A man has been charged with assault over her death, and another has been charged with manslaughter last week after the death of a two-year-old in Hawera.

Meanwhile, police in Christchurch are investigating the death of a 15-month-old – they say it's the worst case of child abuse they've ever seen, the toddler suffering a prolonged and violent attack.

Anthea Simcock of child abuse prevention organisation Child Matters says parents aren't getting help when they reach tipping point, and there are a number of triggers that can lead to child abuse.

"You don't have enough money, if you don't have the skills to be a parent, if you have poor impulse control, if you've got a short fuse and you don't know what's normal behaviour."

Labour MP Jacinda Ardern says despite its promises, the Government has failed to make any progress. The latest Better Public Service report shows assaults on children rising year-on-year, from 3111 to 3114; while the police figures are worse, showing violent assaults on children up 3.5 percent in 2014 to a record 5397 – up 56 percent since National came to power.

State Services Minister Paula Bennett said the report showed child abuse had been "successfully flattened".

Ms Ardern says the problem's not new, enduring across both National and Labour Governments since the 1980s, but enough research has been done now that we know how to turn things around – if not right away, at least over time.

"If you look internationally… Norway of course, always top of the table. We're sitting down with the likes of Hungary. Worse than us still is the United States," she said on TV3's Paul Henry programme this morning.

"Common factors in those countries: if you have lots of adults who die from assault, you have children who die from assault; if you've got violence in your country, then you've got an issue; if you've got poverty, that is one of the clear links as well; and if you've got issues of drug and alcohol use."

The trick is, she says, to get involved before a baby destined to be abused is already born.

"They're not willing to go back and look as early as we need to. We need to be in there before a baby's even born. That's what we need to do. And we also need to make sure that we've got the workforce to do it.

"If there's anyone out there who says 'oh, that sounds expensive', child abuse costs us $2 billion [a year]."

Cutting inequality is also key, says Ms Ardern – something parties on the left claim the current Government has exacerbated with cuts to top tax rates, increases on regressive taxes such as GST and a failure to tackle rising house prices.

"If we fix poverty, we also know that we're going to start fixing child abuse as well. There are definitely things we could do on that front, absolutely. You start reducing inequality, you start reducing some of these other issues.

"Now people don't like to hear that, but internationally, that is part of the issue. They're linked."

Ms Simcock says blaming the Government isn't helpful.

"At the end of the day, it's not the Government who lives in every family and down every street; it is each and every one of us who has the responsibility to say, 'Who am I looking out for?'"

So in the short-term, until systemic problems like high rates of assault, drug and alcohol abuse and inequality can be fixed, Ms Ardern says we need to take advantage of existing resources like Plunket.

"One of the things we wanted to do was identify the say, 20,000 births a year where a little extra support would make a difference. Let's put those nurses in those homes every single week," she says.

"Plunket's already there – this is about scaling it up and doing something bigger. They do it in the US – they reduced the child abuse rates for those families where they did this. They've done it for 30 years, and they've made a difference… You can call it namby-pamby, [but it's] based on evidence and research."

And it's not as simple as just taking kids away from bad families – often it's not the parents doing the abusing, and having kids go through "14 different foster homes" as they grow up isn't ideal either.

"Ultimately, the best thing we can do is make sure that these kids are in the best environment possible, and if we can work with those families, that's what we should be striving for."

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