Restructuring of 1980s sowed the seeds of child abuse

It’s been another week of outrage and breast-beating at the serious assaults conducted against another innocent toddler – in Rotorua this time.

Three-year-old Nia Glassie is in hospital with serious brain injuries after suffering on-going horrific abuse allegedly at the hands of extended family members while her mother was at work.

It seems as though commentators have been competing to see who can express the greatest indignity.

The charge was led by the likes of Wanganui Mayor Michael Laws who presumably feels better after venting his spleen squarely at Maori.

United Future leader Peter Dunne chimed in saying, “It’s time to stop pretending that the kind of child abuse suffered by Nia Glassie and the Kahui twins is not a Maori problem”. According to Dunne it’s about time Maori leaders sorted it out.

A quick glance at the figures seems to confirm child abuse as a Maori-centred problem. Maori children are more than twice as likely to die from abuse as non-Maori children. However, doctors at Auckland’s Starship Children’s Hospital see many cases of child abuse each year from all ethnicities with only a tiny minority catching the media eye.

If we can’t identify the problem then we will never get to a solution.

Labour MP Shane Jones acknowledged the symptoms of the problem when he said Maori families who abuse their children are “gripped by a poverty of spirit and an impoverished morality”. True, but hardly helpful.

The Rotorua meeting co-ordinated by the mayor and involving community agencies suggested that families on benefits be required to check into a social agency to get their benefit. That would not have done Nia Glassie any good because her mother was working and the suggestion is more a reflection of the depth of community prejudice around solo parents.

How is it that somehow beneficiaries are the problem? Social Development Minister Steve Maharey welcomes the idea. Beneficiary bashing has always been a popular sideshow for politicians as well as taking attention away from the source of the problem.

So rather than add to the media meltdown of lazy prejudice, crypto-racism and dog-whistling politics, let’s identify the source of the problem and propose a solution.

Child-abuse deaths for Maori were on a par with the rest of New Zealand in 1987. In the period 1978 to 1987 the number of children aged 0 to 14 per 100,000 killed was 0.92 for non-Maori and 1.05 for Maori. A few years later it spiralled out of control. For the period 1991 to 2000 the figures were 0.67 for non-Maori but 2.40 for Maori.

This dramatic increase has obvious roots. The number of Maori in paid work dropped by 15 per cent between 1986 and 1991 while total unemployment fell just 6 per cent. Maori unemployment peaked at a staggering 26 per cent in 1991 while the non-Maori rate was just 9 per cent.

These were the people tossed out of work and into dole-queues as the economy was restructured to suit the wealthy by Labour and National in the 1980s and 1990s.

After being forced out of work they were labelled bludgers and when benefit levels were slashed by National in the early 1990s their alienation was complete. Somehow it was all their fault. The majority of Maori families have struggled ever since. So often the children who grew up in these families in the 1990s have become the dysfunctional young parents of today with all the symptoms to match.

In one sense it isn’t a problem of poverty itself but of growing up in families which were quickly moving backwards. They were going down without hope while the middle-class made steady progress in the opposite direction.

There is no secret about any of this. Increased child abuse, along with poverty, profiteering and corporate greed, has its origin in economic policies.

We need a reality check here. The statistics relating to child abuse should be carved into slabs of granite along with the names of those who drove these families into poverty. Names like Peter Dunne and Michael Laws, MPs at the time, would be included. These should then be cemented in public display outside the Labour Party, National Party and Business Roundtable offices around New Zealand along with pictures such as those of the Kahui twins and Nia Glassie.

The solutions are a change in our economic priorities to, firstly, one of full employment and decent wages over 40 hours for any breadwinner to bring up a family. Anything less is to visit the same abuse, lack of dignity and respect on Nia Glassie as did her caregivers.