It took the deaths of baby twins Chris and Cru Kahui to expose that up to 11 whanau members were living in two state houses and collecting an alleged $2087 a week in welfare.
Social Development Minister David Benson-Pope last week announced an inquiry into the legitimacy of these benefits while Prime Minister Helen Clark said she'd also asked the minister to "direct his department to analyse whether there were clusters of households of beneficiaries."
Ms Clark dismissed former Cabinet minister John Tamihere's suggestion that social service agencies should be contracted to pay benefits, so families could be micro-managed, and neglected or abused children stopped from slipping "below the radar".
Child abuse is not a new phenomenon. Today's prison population is made up in large part of adults who were raised amid violence, poor education and bad parenting.
But does growing up in a family where alcohol and substance abuse, domestic violence, welfare or poverty prevail guarantee a ticket to failure?
And what's the secret ingredient needed for individuals to break free?
Auckland psychologist Michael Marris reckons kids are hard-wired not to be bad and no amount of bad intervention will deter them from eventually making good. "The most unlikely people from the most awful circumstances can achieve really well and there's no obvious reason. I've observed this over a long period of time and though it goes against my wanting the reason to be psychological, I believe a lot of our world is driven by our genes.
If you're hard-wired for good, you won't change."
Marris says he's seen families where every person but one "was a nightmare, and this one member somehow doesn't get trapped in the mould. There's never, as far as I've seen, been an identifier."
So not all damaged people go bad. Take Alan Duff, one of this country's most successful novelists, founder of the Books in Homes project and a sought-after commentator.
Getting Duff to talk about himself is difficult but he vehemently believes what's missing in families like the Kahui's is love. "We have to love our children to bits," is his message.
Duff's non-committal about what spurred him to turn away from the path of crime he was going down, as a teenager, to the comfortable life he now lives in Havelock North - husband of Joanne, father of four loved-to-bits children. Was it his love of rugby? The fact he was secretly writing fiction while working as a labourer?
"No, mine was different. It wasn't a cycle of anything, I just grew up. I came from an educated family, and I was intelligent," says the grandson of Oliver Duff, founding editor of the Listener, whose first wife, Jess Whitworth, had her own novel published and was a close friend of Janet Frame.
He's annoyed at people who blame domestic violence on modern society. "We were never okay back in the old days. My grandmother had to be rescued from appalling conditions - sexual abuse, alcohol - that was back in the 1910s."
Alan Duff's Pakeha father, Gowan, was a forestry research scientist who married Kuia Hinau. They lived in a state house in Rotorua with seven children. Alan's mother left the family when he was 10. In an interview in 1993 Duff said: "My parents had problems for as long as I can remember, because she liked to drink and had a low tolerance, and was very fiery ... It was an anarchic, violent household. I can remember all the thumping and the smells. Course there was plenty of happy times, but if you keep doing that piss it reduces everyone. It'd reduce the royal family."
Duff ran away from home when he was 11. At 12 he was sleeping in parks, hiding while his father searched for him. A welfare report when he was 13 said he was heading for a criminal career. He spent a year in a boys' home, then a year in Waikeria Borstal for breaking and entering when he was 15. Later, in Britain, he spent time in prison.
The turning point, when he came out, was working in sheet-metal insulation. "I started realising I really could work - but I was still really f*****d up." Eventually he realised he was "a very good person" with low self esteem, "which I had to get over".
Duff came from the sort of broken family he wrote about in Once Were Warriors, yet from birth he was taught the importance of education. Now, he tries to do the same for other youngsters. In 1995 he formally launched the Books in Homes programme to encourage socially disadvantaged children to read. Many of these kids are Maori who've never owned a book.
"Educated Maori don't go round whacking their kids," says Duff. "If we want to stop the abuse, why don't we have compulsory parenting courses in schools? Values courses at high schools which teach these kids that no matter what your parents and grandparents have done, that's not the way to bring up your children."
Mike Te Whiu laughed when he saw the movie of Once Were Warriors, because it was all so familiar.
One of five children born in Otara, Te Whiu remembers the all-night parties, booze, violence, "going to bed with the door bolted and the bed pushed up against the door to try and sleep, then getting up in the morning to mess, looking for loose change under the furniture".
When he was 12 his parents separated and his grandparents took him to live with them in Titirangi.
"They saved me," Te Whiu says.
But success didn't come instantly. He left school at 15 to work in forestry, then on the Mangere bridge construction, and in a butchery. Fifteen years later he passed School Certificate English and mathematics. Today he runs a successful excavation business in West Auckland, and has also been a courier driver for 20 years.
He's been happily married for 29 years to a woman he met when he was 18 years old, and they have three children.
If he'd remained in his Otara situation, would life have turned out differently? Or does he think he could have climbed out of the welfare trap? Te Whiu's not sure. On reflection, he thinks even if his grandparents hadn't "kidnapped me", he would have made something of his life, " 'cos I always kept out of trouble. I even applied to join the police force."
But he sees what's happened to relatives who still live in South Auckland and he doesn't approve: "They're all on benefits, six kids all on benefits. It's shocking. It shouldn't be like that but it's bred into you, all their parents on the dole. It's just easy money."
What do they say about him, then? Te Whiu laughs: "Flash house, Pakeha wife."
Christine Rankin, former chief executive of Winz, is arguably as colourful and outspoken as Duff. She also comes from a dysfunctional background, a family she now describes as a "hideously violent and horrible environment".
She was born in Greymouth, one of four children terrorised by their coal-miner father.
Rankin left school with only three passes in School Certificate. Her first child was born when she was 18 - she married the father five months later. After her second son was born the marriage fell apart and Rankin was a solo mother on the domestic purposes benefit.
"But I always felt bad about it," she says. "I was actually brought up with a strong work ethic, so I felt I didn't have a right to be on welfare."
The turning point in Rankin's life, she says, was "quite profound".
She took a part-time job in the Takapuna office of Social Welfare and for the first time encountered what she calls "transformational leadership".
It was the days, Rankin recalls, when everyone in the civil service was automatically promoted after two years. "Here I was, with no self esteem, and suddenly I had people telling me how fantastic I was. It was so powerful. No one had ever, ever said that to me in my life and I felt like a fraud. I was sure I'd be found out but the more they told me this, the harder I worked to prove them right."
These days, as head of the For the Sake of Our Children Trust, Rankin tries to reach parents "like me, who never believed in themselves, and were cast aside by their parents.
"It only takes one person to make a difference."By Deborah Coddington Email Deborah