Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

CYF ordered to investigate dead infant's family

Ngaire Kura Tukiwaho in the High Court at Rotorua yesterday. Photo / Daily Post
Ngaire Kura Tukiwaho in the High Court at Rotorua yesterday. Photo / Daily Post

The Government has ordered an urgent investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of a 2-month-old boy who was smothered by his drunken mother as she slept.

Ngaire Kura Tukiwaho, who had lost a child to cot death in 2008, placed Tahi Elvis Edwards across her shoulder in the back seat of a car on January 5 last year. She went to sleep - and woke later to find her baby's face had turned blue.

In the High Court at Rotorua yesterday, the 30-year-old, who has three other children, used the sleeve of her grey tracksuit to wipe her nose and swollen eyes as Justice Graham Lang sentenced her to imprisonment for two years and one month for manslaughter.

Last night, Social Development Minister Paula Bennett said she had asked Child, Youth and Family to investigate. "There are just too many unanswered questions around this family," she said.

"It is quite clear there was a history of serious dysfunction in the home, with a mother who did not put her children first and a father who'd had two children previously removed by CYF," says Ms Bennett.

"I think most New Zealanders would be deeply concerned to hear a baby was suffocated to death in the back seat of a car while his drunk mother slept."

Yesterday in court, Tukiwaho's lawyer, Harry Edward, read her statement, where she described the death as "unforgivable" and "selfish", and said it had been a "major wake-up call" to resolve problems with alcohol.

The court had earlier heard how the tragedy had unfolded.

The previous morning, Tukiwaho had begun drinking beer at her sister's house, returning later in the day.

"It seems you drank at the address more or less continuously for about 12 hours," Justice Lang said.

Over this time, she was intermittently breast-feeding the baby and, for the most part, entrusted his care to two children in the house.

After Tukiwaho and her partner returned to their home some time after 11pm, and the baby was put to bed, a fight broke out and she was struck in the face, leaving her with a swollen cheek and black eye. She put Tahi back in his pram and returned to her sister's house around midnight.

Other people she did not know were there, so she decided to sleep in a car, first leaving the baby in his pram outside, and then taking him into the back seat. It was later found Tahi died as a result of probable accidental asphyxia associated with an unsafe sleeping environment.

When police spoke to Tukiwaho, she acknowledged she knew about the sleeping risks.

"Your son was completely dependent on you for everything and, at just 2 months of age, he had no means of fending for himself," Justice Lang said.

"You failed him completely in the manner of which you tended to his sleeping arrangement on that night.

"He trusted you for his security and you failed to provide it. The price that he paid was his death."

Three years earlier, police were called to a house where Tukiwaho was found intoxicated and her 1-month-old son, Hoani Benino, was dead in his cot.

A coroner that found his death was caused by sudden infant death syndrome.

Early in 2010, Tukiwaho became pregnant and was provided with information about sudden infant death syndrome and the importance of safe sleeping.

Throughout her pregnancy with Tahi, and also while she carried her other children, she drank excessively at least once or twice a week.

On at least one occasion she drank to the point of vomiting.

She has three other children, two of whom are in the custody of Child, Youth and Family, and the other is in the care of the child's father.

Outside court, Mr Edward said he did not believe the tragedy resulted from a systemic alcohol problem in society.

"Whether her condition was a symptom of trauma from the earlier death, I don't know ... but certainly alcohol was a feature on that occasion."

Tukiwaho will undertake alcohol treatment programmes in prison and these will be considered at the time of her parole, which she will be eligible for after serving a third of her sentence.

Beneath pictures of Tahi on her Facebook page, Tukiwaho posted in March: "i ben gud just keeping myself out of trouble till my nxt cort date. i havnt had a beer for so long and i feel pretty gud hehehe."

- additional reporting: Daily Post

- NZ Herald

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