David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Police lift game on abuse inquiries

Police are working to make sure abuse sufferers do not become victims of bureaucracy. Photo / Getty Images
Police are working to make sure abuse sufferers do not become victims of bureaucracy. Photo / Getty Images

The police force has pledged not to let children suffer because of its failures.

The promise is supported by details released through the Official Information Act of changes made since damning criticism in 2010 of its failure to investigate abuse against children.

A subsequent investigation revealed a backlog of child abuse investigation files across the country.

Officers in some districts had gone as far as hiding the files in cabinets or with generic codes inside the filing system to disguise the fact they were not being worked on.

The change has been led by Detective Inspector Tusha Penny, who was instrumental in exposing the problems inside the force.

"We have got to work to make sure victims of neglect and child abuse never again become victims of bureaucracy," said Ms Penny, national manager of sexual violence and child protection.

Ms Penny - who worked for seven years as an investigator - blew the whistle in 2006 by showing current commissioner Peter Marshall an email from an over-burdened investigator with more than 100 active investigations.

At the time, she said investigators struggled to understand how child-abuse inquiries were "scraping" for resources while abuse that went too far received plenty of resources - when it became a murder investigation.

An inquiry into the problem revealed widespread issues across the country and was supported by a damning Independent Police Conduct Authority report, that demanded change.

Ms Penny was appointed to oversee the change after Mr Marshall told her: "We are never going to be this wrong again."

Ms Penny said: "It was heartbreaking. Not only had we let officers down but we had let victims and their families down."

The change to the way child abuse was investigated had been so successful it was now being used for sexual violence policing. The systems were being adopted by other government departments.

When the issue emerged, police did not know how many child-abuse investigations it was dealing with nationally. Now, the information is available at the touch of a button.

The Herald sought details of the changes made by police. Documents show it has fulfilled 30 of the 34 recommendations made by the Independent Police Conduct Authority.

Police also put in place systems to review changes and pick up issues before problems occurred.

About 230 detectives were dedicated to investigating child abuse, with a senior officer in each police district overseeing the work.

The officers work off a national "investigation plan" which helps set a high standard of investigation across the country. Constant review allowed Ms Penny's team to spot problems and make changes, releasing an updated plan in August.

While many of the changes required broad system changes, they also focused on details.

A specific designation for child abuse investigations - 6C - has been created, meaning complaints about abuse cannot be buried among other crime. The generic designation of LF9999 has also been dropped.

Issues had emerged around workload and capacity. Police have yet to meet a recommendation that binds officers to holding no more than 10 investigation files.

It is monitored nationally, and overloaded police will be supported by other districts.

"I hope that it gets to a point where every victim of abuse in this country has the confidence and trust to come to us and know that we will do our investigations and get them justice."

- NZ Herald

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