NZ has the fourth-highest rate of child deaths from assault in the OECD. Simon Collins visited three communities to look for the root causes of that bad child abuse record.

It's 7.30am in the Hastings suburb of Flaxmere. Half a dozen children, some as young as 5, are already at Kimi Ora Community School tucking into spaghetti on toast.

Over the next half-hour, other hungry mouths arrive. No parents come with them.

"We might see five parents a day who walk their kids to school. Our kids walk to school and walk home by themselves," says principal Matt O'Dowda.

White-bearded caretaker Wayne Reading, who serves the breakfast every school day, usually feeds about 25 of the school's 130 pupils - or 70 on Fridays, when he serves a full cooked breakfast.

Advertisement

At lunchtimes almost all students cram into the dining room for $1 lunches prepared by a mum and her partner.

"When I started, lots wouldn't have lunch," O'Dowda says. "Achievement was terrible." The roll, 300 when Reading started in 1990, was down to 70.

O'Dowda pulled together all the food the school gets from the Government's Fruit in Schools scheme, Fonterra's Milk for Schools and its KickStart breakfast scheme with Sanitarium, and the KidsCan charity, and realised he needed only a small top-up from parents to offer healthy lunches.

He says it's hard to isolate the food from other changes he made to lift the children's expectations, but it's a crucial element in his mantra of "no excuses not to achieve".

"The food has made a big difference to our kids, they're a lot more settled in the afternoons," he says.

FLAXMERE: THE POOR SUBURB

Flaxmere is a poor suburb, and Kimi Ora is at the poorest end of Flaxmere where most houses are small two-bedroom units with overcrowding that matches anything in South Auckland.

"We have a family with 16 in a two-bedroom house," O'Dowda says. "That sort of thing creates tension. You have people in your face all the time."

Treasury data shows that 570 (39 per cent) of Flaxmere's 1473 preschoolers are "at risk" of poor outcomes later in life based on four risk indicators: mothers with no qualifications, parents on benefits, parents with criminal records, and official findings of abuse or neglect. The NZ average for preschoolers at risk is 15 per cent.

New Zealand children overall face higher risks of dying from assault before age 15 than children in any other OECD country except Estonia, the United States and Mexico. Latest World Health Organisation data shows eight Kiwi children killed by assault in 2011, a death rate seven times Australia's for every 100,000 children.

The five-year rolling average death rate in New Zealand rose from 0.7 deaths for every 100,000 children in the early 1980s to a peak of around 1.2 in the early 1990s, fell back below 1.0 by 2003, and has stalled at 0.8-0.9 since then.

The evidence from Flaxmere is that physical assault of the kind that risks death is only the tip of a much larger iceberg consisting mainly of parental neglect, rather than deliberate abuse.

At Flaxmere Primary, a much bigger school than Kimi Ora with 473 pupils, principal Robyn Isaacson sees cases of physical abuse "only once or twice a year", but sees "easily a child a week" with broader issues of concern.

Flaxmere Primary School principal Robyn Isaacson sees
Flaxmere Primary School principal Robyn Isaacson sees "easily a child a week" with issues of concern. Photo / Simon Collins

"It's not the black eyes, it's more children that have had a lack of sleep because there's been a party going on at home. Or not being picked up on time, or not being brought to school."

O'Dowda says the partying and overcrowding put children at risk.

"We have just done a pubertal change unit with the seniors [Years 6-8, aged about 10-12]," he says.

"For our girls, their major concern was how do you protect yourself from men, because they know there are parties and there's lots of people around. So we have now got a two-day self-defence programme coming in this term just for our Year 6-8 girls."

Dr Sandra Jessop, a general practitioner in Flaxmere since 1988, cries when she speaks of women who disclose childhood abuse when she asks gently about injuries she can see when she does cervical smears.

"Sometimes you get depression in the mums when their girls start to go through puberty, because of what happened to them," she says.

Partying has been going on for years, of course - at least since the 1950s and 60s when Rotorua-born Alan Duff witnessed the drunken life he later fictionalised in the family of "Jake the Muss" and his wife Beth in Once Were Warriors.

In Hawke's Bay, horticulturist Rex Graham, who chairs Flaxmere's U-Turn Charitable Trust, traces abuse to planning rules which banned new housing in rural areas including rural marae, forcing Māori families into new suburbs where they were isolated from their extended whanau and culture.

"Jake the Muss was the son of a slave, he had no land," says Graham. "In Māoridom, land and marae were linked. Beth's family was landed aristocracy. They looked down on him."

FROM JOBS TO UNEMPLOYMENT:

Henare O'Keefe, who moved to Flaxmere from Ruatoria with his parents in 1971 and worked for 23 years at the Tomoana meatworks, says people built a new kind of "family" around the freezing works.

Henare O'Keefe has helped to found Flaxmere's U-Turn Trust, Flaxmere Boxing Academy and other initiatives. Photo / Simon Collins
Henare O'Keefe has helped to found Flaxmere's U-Turn Trust, Flaxmere Boxing Academy and other initiatives. Photo / Simon Collins

"We started at 4am," he says. "Everyone was there at 3am, showering and shaving. We were there from 4am till 6.30 at night, plus four hours on Saturdays. It was all of our lives.

"And they had inter-works sports every year - rugby, league, golf, fishing, all of that. You work together, you socialise together, you were in that company 24/7."

All of that ended in 1994 when Tomoana closed, six years after the closure of another big meatworks at Whakatu. Suddenly men like O'Keefe, who had been on $25.50 an hour and paying off mortgages, were forced on to welfare.

Many left to work elsewhere in New Zealand and Australia.

Flaxmere, which had been planned to keep growing out past Kimi Ora when the school opened in 1988, began a long, slow decline which continued up to the 2013 census, when the population of 9372 was down 4.5 per cent from 2006.

Its post office closed last year when the pharmacy became a postal agency, and there are no other banks. Its large police station, adorned with artwork by local schools, is now closed most of the time, with an intercom on the door which rings in the main Hastings police base 6km away.

Flaxmere's unemployment rate in 2013 was 15 per cent, double the national average of 7 per cent.

Partly because of that, 53 per cent of Flaxmere families with children contained only one parent, compared with a national average of 30 per cent. Even if relationships survive the stress of joblessness, unemployed couples are better off apart so they can claim two benefits instead of one.

Hawke's Bay's economy has revived since 2013, thanks mainly to high fruit prices. New horticulture-related factories are sprouting and Rex Graham says the industry is in a "boom time". But much of its work is seasonal and it still pays much less than the meatworks paid 22 years ago.

"It probably can pay good wages," Graham says. "It will. But it takes time for these things to adjust, and we now have second-generation people unemployed."

Meanwhile rents and other living costs have risen. Monica Watson, a Māori warden since the 1970s, says families have disintegrated along with secure incomes.

Veteran Maori warden Monica Watson says life in Flaxmere has got harder since the 1970s. Photo / Simon Collins
Veteran Maori warden Monica Watson says life in Flaxmere has got harder since the 1970s. Photo / Simon Collins

"Sometimes a man feels he's useless," she says. "They get put off their work. They get angry and take it out on the wife."

"It's getting worse. There's a lot more drugs, every house just about, and a lot more violence, and alcohol. And the children cop it, they go without food, they get abused ... I've seen children walking out of the supermarket with no food, but beer."

THE IMPACT ON CHILDREN:

Another warden, Moana Lawton, has found 8- and 9-year-old children on the streets at midnight.

"Do your parents know?" she asked them. She was told: "Oh no, they don't care, they're probably pissed and stoned."

Moana Lawton says her adoptive mother hit her every day until she ran away at 14. Photo / Simon Collins
Moana Lawton says her adoptive mother hit her every day until she ran away at 14. Photo / Simon Collins

Lawton herself, 46, was adopted out because her parents were alcoholics. Lawton says her adoptive mother hit her every day until she ran away at 14.

"As an adult I asked her why she did it," she says. "The answer she gave me was because I was an everlasting reminder of my biological mother. They hated her, I guess because my mum is a free spirit."

"She used to say, 'I f***** hate you, you're f***** ugly, I wish you were dead, you're worthless.'"

Ricardo Maaka is 14. He still lives with his mum Jolene Morrell after his parents split after having 10 children together, but he has not been in school for 18 months since Flaxmere College gave him an unofficial "Kiwi expulsion" because of fighting.

Ricardo Maaka, 14 (right), with his mother Jolene Morrell. Photo / Simon Collins
Ricardo Maaka, 14 (right), with his mother Jolene Morrell. Photo / Simon Collins

"I want to get back into school and to trial next year for the Hawke's Bay Basketball Academy," he says. The academy is run by local basketball legends Paul Henare and Pāora Winitana.

Ricardo Maaka and other young Flaxmere basketballers dream of joining the Hawke's Bay Basketball Academy. Photo / Simon Collins
Ricardo Maaka and other young Flaxmere basketballers dream of joining the Hawke's Bay Basketball Academy. Photo / Simon Collins

But for now he is sergeant-at-arms of street gang Ruthless Flaxmere Bloods (RFBs).

"There's more than 40 people in Flaxmere that's in it," he says. "We set up games of touch, have a barbecue, and we do drinking and stuff afterwards. But the police do get word about me because I've been doing some real crime."

Sandra Jessop has seen serious gangs grow "stronger, more visible and more active" in her 28 years in the suburb.

"You see little toddlers and babies with their little red scarves on being pushed around in prams," she says.

"There are good things about the gangs. They have that sense of family and community for a lot of people who don't have that from their families."

TURNING THINGS AROUND:

There are other things in Flaxmere that are purely good. O'Keefe, Graham and their U-Turn Trust have started numerous inspiring initiatives including a boxing academy, an alcohol-free sports club, a mobile barbecue, a community garden, free boxed garden bins for homes and schools, a "Jarmy Army" scheme that provides free pyjamas for Flaxmere children and an annual "Flaxmere Heroes" calendar delivered free to every home.

Another former freezing worker Zack Makoare was moved by his son's suicide in 2007 to start Te Taitimu Trust, which provides mentors for youngsters aged 6 to 16 and runs camps, fishing expeditions and trips to Otago University.

Zack Makoare founded Te Taitimu Trust to help Flaxmere's young people after his own son committed suicide. Photo / Simon Collins
Zack Makoare founded Te Taitimu Trust to help Flaxmere's young people after his own son committed suicide. Photo / Simon Collins

Hastings-based iwi Ngati Kahungunu has partnered with local horticulturists in a "Project Hua" to hire local whānau to fill 540 permanent jobs in horticulture over the next three years.

Another trust which started out as a training agency, Te Taiwhenua o Heretaunga, is leading a scheme funding 250 young people, about half of them from Flaxmere, to get their driver's licences and to get into further training or jobs.

Te Taiwhenua is also running a Whānau Ora-style trial using a team of social workers and nurses to work with 315 Flaxmere families to work on "whatever the family wants to deal with".

"The biggest issue we are dealing with is domestic violence," says project manager Lewis Ratapu.

"Before, our Well Child nurse would go into the house and might see a situation and they had to refer [to other agencies]. So this team just goes and works with the family."

Meanwhile at Kimi Ora School the children are not just learning to use a knife and fork, often for the first time. Their expectations for life are being lifted.

"The culture of the school has changed," says O'Dowda. "The culture is you will be a nice person. That is one of our main goals, to make sure our children are really nice people. Part of that is table manners."

Tomorrow: Kaikohe.