Jim Hopkins on current issues

Jim Hopkins is a Herald columnist

Jim Hopkins: Abandoned at start of life's voyage

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The captain left the crippled Costa Concordia to it's fate... and we're doing the same to our children. Photo / AP
The captain left the crippled Costa Concordia to it's fate... and we're doing the same to our children. Photo / AP

The captain goes down with the ship. Or is the last to leave. That's the tradition. It's what captains do. And why they're condemned when they don't.

No one replays conversations between the Coastguard and the passenger in Cabin 73. But the whole world hears what the Coastguard commander told the Costa Concordia's captain, Francesco Schettino. Because he was the one who bore the responsibility. He was the one who jumped ship. He was the one who neglected his duty of care.

There is always a duty of care in every situation, at sea and on land. There is always a hierarchy of responsibility, and there is always someone who is ultimately responsible. That's where the buck stops - with the person, or people, on whom the duty of care clearly and inescapably falls.

We don't blame every motorist when a drunk driver kills somebody. We will - and should - censure those who saw that driver behaving erratically and chose not to sound any alarms, but theirs is a contributory negligence.

The crime belongs to the drunken killer. They were the captain of their car. They ignored their duty of care. They own the deed.

This is how it is. In every instance - except when we debate the "non-accidental" killing of children, as we are yet again, just two weeks into a new year.

Another baby has been killed, two-month-old Hinekawa Topia, tiny, vulnerable, entirely dependent on others in her world. Someone has ended her life. For whatever reason, they abandoned the duty of care.

But when the usual pundits were wheeled out to discuss this awful thing on the wireless, out came all the standard policy analyst waffle-babble - "social inequality," economic disadvantage," "intergenerational dysfunction," "cross-agency engagement," and, of course, "more funding".

For the pundits, the problem is universal. "It shames all of us." No, it doesn't. "It's everyone's responsibility." No, it isn't. "It takes a village to raise a child." Perhaps it does, but before we make that our mantra, it's worth remembering that a village is a small, distinct community where everybody knows everybody and everybody knows what's expected of them. And we don't have any - or very few - villages in New Zealand.

So it won't be a physical community that ends this ugliness. If we want that to happen, we must redesign our social landscape. That may work. And it may not, but if the murder of babies doesn't compel us to try, nothing will.

It starts with rejecting the grotesque notion that this is everybody's problem. That's just the establishment ignoring its own complicity in this matter. The vast majority of parents - and partners of parents - will never harm their children. But a small percentage of parents and partners will. And we know where the risk is. We know that the baby of a young solo mother faces greater risk of disadvantage or assault. This is not a condemnation. It is a fact, which the long list of dead children sadly confirms.

We also know that every action has unintended consequences. They're inevitable. Take the issue of disadvantage. Yes. It exists. It's also possible that it has been unwittingly entrenched by the policies that were meant to eliminate it. Insofar as there is an underclass in New Zealand, it is sustained and, arguably, made larger by the well-intentioned interventions of the state.

We must consider this as a possibility. It is within the state-sustained underclass that the greatest danger to children appears to exist. And even if it is doesn't, even if it is merely part of a larger problem, it is the part we can influence.

Forget colour. Consider circumstance. Multiple babies, different fathers, transient partners, a lifestyle entirely dependent on benefits paid by state agencies so haunted by the memory of the soup kitchens that they refuse to make anybody "pray" for anything. So they write the cheque and leave the bridge. They don't stay on board. They don't come to the rescue. They don't even know there's been an accident.

This is not Daniel Moynihan's infamous "benign neglect". It is malign neglect, a breech of the duty of care. It is the state failing the most vulnerable, the most helpless, the most dependant of its citizens. If money is paid for the nurture of children, then those who pay it must do everything in their power to ensure those children are nurtured. If they don't, they are complicit.

There's nothing wrong with asking people to perform certain tasks in exchange for payment they have freely sought. That's how the world works. It's the basis of every employment contract in the country. If it wasn't, all those astonishingly well-paid city council CEOs could bank their cheques and stay at home.

But they don't. And neither should those who pay the cheques to ensure the wellbeing of babies. Because they are a bigger part of the problem than we are, and until they change what they do, they will be like the captain who abandons his ship or the onlooker who sees the drunk driver but does nothing to prevent the accident.

- NZ Herald

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