Editorial: Find practical way to save our children

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Paula Benett. Photo / NZ Herald
Paula Benett. Photo / NZ Herald

Another baby, 2-month-old Hinekawa Topia, has died in hospital of a head injury police do not consider accidental.

Another round of hand-wringing ensues. Social Welfare Minister Paula Bennett reminds critics that she issued a Green Paper on Vulnerable Children six months ago and it is open for discussion until the end of February. Labour's spokeswoman Jacinda Ardern repeats a call for a cross-party study of abuse as an issue of child poverty.

All of this, of course, leaps far ahead of the known facts in the latest death which is under police investigation. The officer in charge of the homicide inquiry warns against leaping to conclusions. But it does no harm to be reminded yet again that this country must do something about its high rate of child abuse and that it should be a subject beyond political point-scoring.

So far the Government has spurned Labour's request to be included in a study of child poverty, which is to be undertaken by a committee of ministers.

The Government sounds serious in its undertaking to do something for children in impoverished circumstances, just as it must want to reduce the country's incidence of child abuse. But it will be wary of confusing the issues.

Not all children in poverty are abused, not all abuse occurs in poor households. There may be a heavy co-relationship between them but each problem deserves dedicated attention. Neither should be happening in a small society with well-developed social services, good accessible schools and reasonable levels of income support.

Obviously the adequacy of each of those will need to be examined in any serious inquiries into child poverty and abuse, and each provides familiar territory for political argument. But objective inquiries would not simply advocate more public spending on existing benefits. It would come up with practical ideas, not more of the same.

The Government's Green Paper on child abuse contains familiar ideas that sound practical - early intervention, mandatory reporting, information sharing - but it is easier to agree on these things in the abstract than to carry them out in dealings with real people. To recognise a baby at risk is one thing, to remove the baby from its parents, quite another.

Everyone is wise in hindsight; it takes a brave agency to rescue a child before serious damage has been done.

The best the authorities can do is take action as soon as a child is admitted to hospital with a non-accidental injury.

All hospitals now have a staff member appointed to act in these cases, main hospitals have resident social workers. The case is brought to the attention of the Child Youth and Family Service and the district health board. They examine the child's circumstances and safety needs and agree on a plan to meet the needs.

That screening system has been credited with success by the Children's Commissioner, Dr Russell Wills, who helped shape it when he was a hospital paediatrician in Hawkes Bay. The number of babies suspected of being assaulted has steadied since its introduction and begun to decline.

But still we get cases such as Mikara Reti, killed last January by a blow to his liver, aged 5 months, Serenity Scott in April, dead of brain injuries, also 5 months, baby Afoa, a week old, whose body was found in a makeshift grave in June and James "JJ" Lawrence, 2 years old when he was killed in November.

Every possible way to prevent these things should be considered. No civil liberty should stand in the way of a practical precaution, no ethnic sensitivity must restrict useful discussion, no political agenda should apply.

All New Zealanders care for these children and all want them to be raised safely and well.

- NZ Herald

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