Rachel Smalley: Child poverty is real

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Why are we denying the existence of child poverty? File photo /  Richard Robinson
Why are we denying the existence of child poverty? File photo / Richard Robinson

If you want to know what child poverty looks like in this country, then spend a bit of time sitting in an A and E department.

I did that on Sunday. If you're squeamish, block your ears now, but my husband somehow managed to detach or rupture a bicep while surfing on Sunday, so I spent a good chunk of Sunday sitting with him in an A and E department.

And over the course of a good few hours, I watched people file through the doors of that hospital with myriad complaints.

There were a few acute conditions, but most appeared to be chronic.

People with heart or respiratory issues, a lot of elderly suffering from skin or digestive issues - issues that had been left unchecked for too long, but they probably didn't want to make a fuss. I saw a lot of overweight people. Two were relegated to wheelchairs after suffering some sort of knee or hip collapse, and a lot of people who looked in really poor health. Really unwell. Yellowing skin. Dark eyes. Deep coughs. Shuffling as they walked.

It was a grim snapshot of the health and well-being of a small group of New Zealanders on a sunny summer's afternoon.

But there was one case that I can't erase from my mind, and that was a woman who arrived at the hospital with two children.

The eldest child was perhaps 12 or 13, and the other was a toddler. Maybe 2 years old.
And the mother stood at the reception desk at A and E and she was a mess. Her shoulder and arm were purple. She mumbled something about falling down the stairs, and she may have, but my gut instinct was that this was probably a case of domestic violence.

She was agitated. She couldn't focus. Her eyes were blank. Empty. She couldn't stand still.

She was fidgeting, constantly. She tried to lie on the floor to sleep. She asked for a bucket to vomit. She was up and down constantly and incredibly agitated. She was clearly coming down off something. P, perhaps. Maybe alcohol too.

Her eldest child was taking care of the toddler in the children's play area. I was watching them play when I noticed the blood on the toddler.

I don't know whether the child was a boy or girl. A boy, I think. He had long, matted hair. Hair that looked like it hadn't been washed for weeks, if at all. His nappy was almost down to his knees; who could say how long it had been on for. He was filthy, he was barefoot and he had a runny nose.

But it was the blood that caught my eye.

He had quite a bit of blood on one of his cheeks. And then I saw his arm. He had blood all along one of his forearms. It was from some sort of trauma, but I couldn't work out if it was from cuts or burns or perhaps sores. But it was only on one arm. And one of his feet was in the same condition.

And because his sister had taken him straight to the children's play area, none of the hospital staff had seen him.

So when my husband was taken through for an x-ray, I spoke to a nurse about what I'd seen and told her that I thought the toddler had injuries or at least warranted being checked over, and not least because the mother was on another planet. The nurse thanked me and said she would make sure someone looked at the toddler when the mother was being seen.

But about an hour later, back in the waiting area, the mother lost it and left. She was sick of waiting so she mumbled something and stumbled off outside - and the kids went with her.

And no-one saw the child and now I can't stop thinking about him, because is this another case of a child who's falling through the system? What will become of that bloodied little toddler?

And often people will say there's no such thing as child poverty - but what I saw on Sunday is just one example of what child poverty can look like. It's a multi-headed beast triggered by drug addiction, mental health issues, growing inequality, homelessness, and so it goes on.

The mother? Hooked on something, clearly incapable of caring for children - but it's not that child's fault. And that's the key issue here. What will become of him now, what
becomes of all of our vulnerable children if we don't intervene?

And why are we still stumbling along insisting it's not a problem in this country, when quite clearly it is?

- Newstalk ZB

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