Inside Story: Dealing with child neglect

By Carly Gibbs

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The case of a Merivale mother convicted of neglect for sending her daughter to school smelly, hungry and riddled with head lice and scabies, shocked the community. But child neglect is not uncommon in Tauranga, reports CARLY GIBBS.

Standing outside the lemon house with baby-blue foundation, all was quiet. Deserted.

On the side of the concrete driveway, an empty brown pushchair with teddy bear lining, sat abandoned and wet from the rain.

Behind the house were two plastic chairs on a lean.

The grass was wild.

The only sign of life was white net curtains that unsuccessfully tried to escape out open windows.

This is Sian Corbett-Pitman's house and she was nowhere to be seen when Bay of Plenty Times Weekend knocked on the door this week.

The 23-year-old who repeatedly sent her 5-year-old daughter to school with lice, scabies and open sores, has become a talking point for child neglect in this country.

Her story made national news and now health officials and parenting tutors say more needs to be done to protect our most vulnerable.

In the paediatric ward at Tauranga Hospital, doctors see cases of neglect weekly.<inline type="recurring-inline" id="1003" align="outside" enforce-sites="no" />

Paediatrician Dr Vivienne Hobbs, snakes her lime stethoscope around her neck, and leads us through the children's ward bedecked in flashing Christmas lights, and decorations. On the surface everything is bright and cherry.

Reality is different.

Scabies and lice

Hobbs got the call about Corbett-Pitman's daughter, when a nurse rang asking to admit her.

The little girl, who on June 13, showed up to school by herself, with painful sores and covered in diarrhoea, is one of the worst cases of child neglect Hobbs has heard of.

"It's certainly one of those stories where it took it into the abnormal,"' she says.

Corbett-Pitman, of Merivale, was sentenced to 12 months' intensive supervision and 100 hours' community work after she admitted a charge of neglect of a child in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering. She sent her daughter to school smelly, hungry, riddled with head lice, open sores and suffering scabies.

But she isn't the first to let a child suffer, says Hobbs, who pregnant with her third child, has a special interest in child protection.

Paediatricians at Tauranga Hospital see a couple of children a month for child abuse, and see neglect "at least" twice a week.

Many more cases are likely to go un-referred, she says.

"There's the emotional, abusive, and then there's medical neglect and that's parents who don't bring their kids back and forward to Plunket appointments, or don't give the children the treatment they need to get their condition better."

Weekly, Hobbs sees sickly kids not getting enough to eat and not wearing enough warm clothing. Any doctor that sees a child and is worried about their welfare has to report it to Child, Youth and Family and that includes looking out for unborn children. In one month this year, the Bay of Plenty District Health Board sent 40 referrals to Child, Youth and Family.

Scabies and lice are common infections for school-aged children and they can happen in any family, she stresses.

"We would never send a [Child, Youth and Family] referral away for it. My kids have just had scabies, it's really, really common and most parents would take their kids to the GP, get the creams and treat the family."

Not treating it crosses the boundary, and failing to do it could be due to a perceived cost (it's free for under-sixes to see a doctor during the daytime at all but six Tauranga practices), or some families have run up debts with their GPs and might not want to go back. As a result, kids end up with an infection and need to go to hospital for intravenous antibiotics.

In Tauranga, an average of two children a week, are assessed for concerns around sexual violence.

Hobbs has treated children for bruising and worst of all, seen toddlers who have been raped.

"In an ideal world, I wish I didn't have a job because that would mean everyone was being kept safe," she says, apologising for getting emotional.

"In New Zealand we don't put our children first. "I think the Government's Green Paper for Vulnerable Children, could be good way of getting kids voices heard a bit more."

How has it come to this? New Zealand, to which the phrase "a great place to bring up kids" again exposed as a land of neglect and indifference towards its littlies.

Failed in very basic needs

Hilary Price, chief executive officer of Tauranga foster organisation Homes of Hope, says the path is complicated.

What's not complicated though, is that neglect is abuse. Individuals and families are more isolated nowadays, and this results in limiting resources, and lack of accountability.

Many children referred to Homes of Hope have been failed in very basic needs - regular baths, clean clothes, and poor diet. This results in lesions and poor teeth.

"I don't think any person can presume to know the answer for those decisions or lack of decisions," she says. "Ignorance, or lack of will to, role modelling or does it just amount to lack of concern or laziness? Yes, it is very easy to get highly emotive about the problem but if we get into the blame game then you just go around the mountain. We all stuff up. I'd like to meet the perfect parents. They don't exist."

All children are at risk from neglect, including those from middle class families. Some parents have undiagnosed mental health problems and/or are guilty of selfish living and selfish choices.

Hope is a firm believer we need a children's act, a children's minister and a children's department.

"For too long the rights of children have been superseded by the rights of adults."

Some really sad cases

Make no mistake, many families don't live in a perfect world.

Project Majella, which falls under the umbrella of the Catholic organisation, St Vincent de Paul Society, sees families at their most vulnerable.

Formed in 2002 Project Majella has given assistance to 250 "in need" Western Bay mothers, in the past two years.

Project co-ordinator Carol Devoy-Heena, says many parents aren't negligent as such, they just don't know how to ask for help. "They're not deliberately neglecting their children but it is a lack of parenting skills."

Many families are also "very, very poor."

"They haven't got bed linen or they haven't got enough, or it hasn't been changed frequently in hot water. They're got an old rug or something (instead of sheets)."

Majella gives packs out, which includes two changes of bed linen for newborns. She tells the story of one Tauranga family, where the baby is sharing a bed with its 24-year-old mother, two sisters are sharing a bed, and the older son is sleeping in his mother's room on the floor due to epilepsy. The family have no curtains and have stuck up duvets. All recently suffered a bout of scabies, school sores, and the boy also had hand, foot and mouth disease.

"It's all education at the end of the day. She [mum] is trying to do her best. It's not a perfect world unfortunately. There's some really sad cases.

"Mums in a certain situation will get into baby groups and share things and learn from one another, go off to Plunket. Whereas women in other social circles might not do that."

Tauranga Region Kindergartens principal Peter Monteith, says it's not unusual for parents to seek parenting advice from teachers.

Monteith says questions asked usually have an educational or behavioural bent, but they can also be about care.

There is an expectation on parents to know what to do, he says.

"With the breakdown of the nuclear family, grandma and granddad are not always around and [some] parents are struggling on their own."

Mums teaching mums-to-be, is one answer, says two parenting tutors at Tauranga Girls' College.

Jane Baker and Pam Foyle run early childhood classes, which while mainly designed for those wanting to make a career in education, also work to serve girls who will one day be mothers.

While most kids have good role models, there are some who are victims of a social strata. And a maxim of the year-long course is that no one automatically knows how to be the best parent or mentor.

"Every school should have a course like this, for the boys as well. Because the boys are actually in a cycle of role modelling as well. Where do they get it from if they don't get it at school?," says Foyle, a mother of three and grandmother of one.

Students at Girls' College, doing the childcare course, are given one of two $3000 mechanical dolls to take home for a weekend, which simulate a real baby. The "baby" will cry at arbitrary times day or night - and the only way to settle it down is with a key. Students wear a hospital band with the key attached, and can't take it off. They never know how long they will have to hold the key in, before their baby stops crying.

Having no time for kids

Anyone needing to be convinced how important it is to guide parents needs look no further that Mount Maunganui Parenting for Men co-ordinator and ante natal instructor Dave Halligan.

Halligan, who also works as a youth mentor, says not engaging with children and showing them they are important does massive damage later on.

"It blows my socks off, actually. They really want to talk to someone, they want to be engaged, just to measure themselves. A lot of the 'bad boys' I've worked with have never been spoken to by any male adult with respect.

If parents don't turn up voluntarily to parenting classes, you can't get at them. "All you can see is the results in the symptoms of their children."

It takes a village to raise a child and an outsider to notice if something wrong is happening. "It takes a lot of people to input into that child - the teacher, sports coach, aunty, uncle - and there's less of those type of people around," Halligan says.

Also absent can be mum and dad.

Tauranga child psychotherapist Augustina Driessen says neglect can be as simple as parents having no time for their kids. She says parents need help from the beginning and really want their child from the start of their pregnancy.

Babies can feel stress in the womb and many are born at a disadvantage from day one, she says.

"You cannot spoil a baby, you are simply meeting their needs. There's a lot of negligence, a lot more than we realise. How many do they get in Starship [Hospital] with abuse? And how many don't get there? There are a lot that we don't know about and the agencies can't cope. Look at how many babies have been killed in New Zealand this year. It's got to be stopped."

Driessen says having an empty wallet is no excuse for negligent parenting.

"They have television, alcohol, cigarettes and they are so called 'poor people.' I look at Indonesia and they are very poor but have a love for their children; their first commitment is their child. I think here in New Zealand, it's all about money, money, money. It's all about instant gratification and so many children's needs are not met."

Veteran principal Geoff Opie of Otumoetai Primary agrees. He says high flyers focused on their careers, who put their children in before and after-school care and/or gave material possessions instead of time, could be accused of neglect. "Time is imperative when it comes to kids," he stresses.

Poverty is playing a larger role and stress on parents was passed down to children, he says. "If they are happy they learn well. You don't have to be a millionaire to build relationships."

But Tauranga dad, and former parenting coach and police officer, Lance Potaka, believes some mothers are too busy concentrating on men, parties, drugs and alcohol.

"They are too busy in their own little world to be parents. Their priorities are wrong and it's all about me, me, me. They give birth then carry on living the way that they lived, and the children just happen to be there."

"You would think parenting is common sense but a lot of people are too young to start with.

"Every successful Government has had [child neglect] on it's plate and we haven't broken the cycle yet. They try to educate them and it's always after the fact. In the past, I've worked with a 16-year-old with two children.

"Education is the only way we can break the cycle."

TRAIL OF SHAME

Between June 2007 and June 2011, Child, Youth and Family received 150,747 notifications, which found: 52,988 cases of emotional abuse, 22,630 cases of neglect, 13,561 cases of physical abuse and 6029 cases of sexual abuse.

The total number of notifications in that time period is 547,853. Up until August 31, 2011, a total of 3851 children and young people were in Child, Youth and Family care.

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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