Dita De Boni 's Opinion

Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Remembering Nia

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The great and the good of Plunket assembled in Rotorua this week to hear about the organisation's good works and challenges.

A thousand women laughed, cried, danced and stuffed themselves with delicious food as they also feasted on a bevy on local and international speakers, including Mary Gordon, who founded the world famous Roots of Empathy programme (where school children learn about babies in the classroom by watching one in action).

We also heard from Dr Simon Rowley, who made the 6 o'clock news by saying that the prolonged use of daycare in young children can potentially cause high levels of the stress hormone cortisol to do some damage to growing brains. Naturally the 6 o'clock news found plenty of stridently daycare-using Mums to refute that possibility.

There was quite a bit at this conference about how genes can play their part in ensuring a life of difficulty or resilience, but of course genes are not destiny if that primary attachment - mother and child - is strong.

A child needs to have a secure and loving connection with his or her mother in the first years of life to ensure his or her optimal development, regardless of what's written in the DNA.

If not the baby's mother, it can be its father, grandmother, or any guardian that looks after the baby on a consistent basis.

But certainly, the evidence shows that the more "primary" caregivers the child has, the more potential for problems there is.

All this of course, is good stuff and the main driving force behind many women (and men's) love for, and involvement with, Plunket.

However, as a conference attendee, and someone who thought in general the offerings were thought provoking and interesting, I was also disappointed that the organisation turned away from talking about things that have really gone wrong in the care of young children in the last two years.

Not to say that anyone in Plunket is to blame, but surely a conversation about our good works cannot paper over the cruel fact that between 6 and 10 children die of child abuse every year in New Zealand, with several hundred hospitalised from injuries inflicted by their "caregivers".

Yes, Rotorua is a fabulous place to hold a conference and the facilities were superb.

But the horrible, haunting fate of Rotorua toddler Nia Glassie hung over the conference like a cloud of smog that would just not lift.

And in an unhappy coincidence, I walked outside the conference one morning to find former TV colleagues of mine in Rotorua to report on the death of yet another young boy, just down the road.

These ghastly, horrible truths pervade the conversation on child welfare in New Zealand.

They can not be ignored, and unfortunately they generate thousands more column inches than the hundreds and thousands of happy and healthy New Zealand children who are fortunate and blessed to be brought up in such a great country, with a Plunket organisation that truly tries to keep tabs on each of them.

My suggestion for a conference theme would have been this. A real and honest conversation about child abuse and what further steps Plunket and all agencies working with children need to do to ensure an end to the horror.

Ditch "Working Together - Transforming the Future" which is a worthy but dull title if ever I heard it. What about simply "Remembering Nia"?

Post script: For those who have read this blog as meaning only mothers, and then other biological relatives can care for a child successfully, this is not the case at all. Any committed, caring adult that does the bulk of care for a child can foster this vital attachment - as far as I understand it.

I still believe optimally a caring, loving biological mother and father and extended family would be best if possible, but of course it's not always the case. The point is that the child needs one or two main caregivers, not a constant stream of them. And of course they must create a strong and loving bond - whoever they are.

Dita De Boni

Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni is a columnist, commentator and TV producer/journalist. She first wrote columns for the NZ Herald in 1995, moving to daily business news in 1999 for four years, and then to TVNZ in Business, News and Current Affairs. After tiring of the parenting/blogging beat for the Herald Online she moved back to her first love, business (with a politics chaser), writing a column for Friday Business since 2012.

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