Next week, marks 10 years since Nia Glassie was killed. A few weeks later, the inquest of Moko Rangitoheriri will begin. Their deaths triggered outrage about child abuse. So what's changed?

"Nia was supposed to be the last one, wasn't she?" was Mark Loper's response when asked for an interview.

The most senior detective in the Bay of Plenty wasn't being glib about the death of the Rotorua toddler; just speaking in the matter-of-fact manner of a police officer who's seen it all.

Nia Glassie was 3 when she died on August 3, 2007 after weeks of torture; including, unimaginably, being bundled in a clothes dryer and spun around on a washing line until she fell off.

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The abuse she suffered was "chilling", as Coroner Wallace Bain put it.

"I have never had to endure such horrendous evidence which led to the death of this little girl in horrific circumstances," he wrote in his findings.

"My earnest wish is that no one ever has to experience that again."

Nia wasn't the last one for Loper. Or so many others who try to fix the broken lives of thousands of children around New Zealand.

Or for that matter, for Bain.

In a few weeks' time, he will preside over a three-day inquest into the death of Moko Rangitoheriri - like Nia, 3 when he died.

There are many parallels between the tragic lives and the Coronial hearing will seek to piece together the circumstances leading to Moko's death.

But, perhaps, the biggest question that needs to be asked is: what are we doing about it?

'Good old days' of Plunket

In announcing the decision last year to hold an inquest into Moko's death, Coroner Bain drew specific similarities to Nia.

He said there were a number of clear recommendations in his Glassie inquest findings to ensure "tragic deaths such as hers, and now Moko's, did not occur in the future".

The announcement ended with a warning.

"The inquest into the death of Moko will also specifically look at what steps, if any, have been taken by those identified as having some responsibility in keeping children safe, and if those steps are adequate."

Though many changes have been made since Nia died, the Coroner is likely to hone in on "monitoring" at Moko's inquest, which is scheduled to start at the end of August.

Perhaps the most controversial recommendation he made was the compulsory monitoring of children, especially of solo parents, until the age of 5.

No red flags were ever raised about Nia.

Once at school, teachers and other staff can raise concerns about a child. But until then, Bain said, there was no guaranteed check on their welfare.

As part of the Well Child services provided by the Ministry of Health, Plunket nurses visit homes and have identified safety concerns in pre-school age children.

"The problem is that [Plunket] is voluntary and the obvious outcome is the risk that the very children in need will be the children of parents who choose not to [take part]," wrote Bain.

He made the "strongest recommendation" for compulsory monitoring through a Well Child provider until the age of 5.

"We must urgently return to the "good old days" where every child was seen regularly by the Plunket nurse."

Putting the puzzle together

The tragic lives of Nia Glassie and Moko Rangitoheriri share haunting similarities. Photo/Supplied.
The tragic lives of Nia Glassie and Moko Rangitoheriri share haunting similarities. Photo/Supplied.

In so many cases of child abuse, some agency or other has held a piece of the puzzle.

But because they weren't sharing what they knew, no one was able to put the whole picture together, and another child would suffer.

This fatal flaw has been highlighted repeatedly in different inquiries since the death of James Whakaruru in 1999.

"Effective information-sharing is one of the key areas where agencies can make a difference to our most vulnerable children," Bain wrote in his 2011 findings about Nia.

"The Privacy Act is causing serious problems . . . in my view the care and welfare of young children in New Zealand the prevention of child abuse overrides any privacy interests."

The stumbling block was the "serious and imminent threat" threshold that needed to be reached, before information could be shared.

"Imminent" was often misunderstood, or caused confusion, and used as grounds to withhold information from a partner agency.

So, in 2013, the Government removed the stumbling block - now only a "serious threat" is necessary.

And sharing information about children is now much wider than the most serious cases.

Thousands of children do not reach the threshold for statutory "care and protection", but could easily slip through the cracks without their families getting the help they need.

Four years ago, Children's Teams were set up in Rotorua and Whangarei and the approach was expanded to Hamilton, Gisborne, Whakatane, Horowhenua, Manurewa/Papakura, Whanganui, Marlborough and Christchurch.

Families identified as vulnerable are - with their consent - referred to the Children's Teams whose members include staff from government agencies such as the police, as well as professionals from iwi, health, education and social services.

The group discusses together what help is needed, draws up a single plan, and appoints a "lead professional" to work with the family and ensure the plan is delivered.

For example, the family could come to the attention of the Children's Team because of a referral from a doctor.

But the underlying cause of the illness is a damp, cold house so finding a safer place to live is identified as the solution.

The whole point is to "join up the dots", says Deanne McManus-Emery, the leader of the Hamilton team. "To stop the free flow of children going into state care".

Though it sounds simple in theory, McManus-Emery says the approach can still be difficult in practice.

"For years, we operated in our own little silos . . . so this is a huge shift to challenge thinking, behaviour and attitudes, to put the child, and their voice, at the centre of everything we do," she says.

"Part of my job is to drive accountability. We are in period of change over the next four years, but the willingness and commitment is certainly there."

Other findings from the Nia Glassie inquest are now a reality.

Family and family friends of Nia were aware, or should have been aware, of the abuse she and her sisters suffered, Bain said.

"There needs to be a criminal sanction here and compulsory criminal reporting is a must," Bain wrote in his findings.

The following year, the Crimes Act was changed to make it an offence for someone who lives with, or "closely connected" to, a child to fail to protect them from physical or sexual abuse.

Turning a blind eye, or closing ranks as a family, is now punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

However, just nine people have been prosecuted - with only seven convictions - since the law came into power five years ago, according to figures released under the Official Information Act.

Bain would not take credit for these particular changes.

But his high profile findings came at a time of public anger and discontent at New Zealand's shameful record and the Government reacted.

There was the Mel Smith ministerial inquiry, a Green Paper, a White Paper, thousands of public submissions leading to the Children's Action Plan and a new law - the Vulnerable Children's Act.

And the realisation that tinkering around the edges with Child Youth & Family was not enough.

A new way of thinking

Grainne Moss, chief executive of the Ministry for Vulnerable Children, Oranga Tamariki. Photo/Dean Purcell.
Grainne Moss, chief executive of the Ministry for Vulnerable Children, Oranga Tamariki. Photo/Dean Purcell.

There have been umpteen inquiries, reviews, restructures and reports into New Zealand's shameful record of child abuse.

And, according to the most recent led by Paula Rebstock, Child Youth & Family has been confused about its role since being formed in 1989.

Its leadership was uncertain where CYF fitted in with other agencies and about how to balance immediate goals, such as keeping children safe, with longer-term objectives of preventing harm and revictimisation.

"At the same time, there has also been a high level of understandable public and agency concern around some high-profile cases involving failure to identify and/or respond to serious abuse or neglect," said the first of the two Rebstock reports.

"CYF has responded to this situation by de-prioritising prevention and care, which are less visible to the public and do not attract the same degree of attention."

The result was that CYF was neither stopping abuse or breaking the cycle; six out of 10 children referred to the agency in 2014 were already known to social workers, three previous reports on average.

"The unavoidable conclusion is that the wider child protection system is not currently effective at preventing harm, and nor is is adequately addressing the factors that cause children to be revictimised," according to same report.

The damning indictment led to the abolition of CYF and the creation of the Ministry for Vulnerable Children, Oranga Tamariki in April.

"It will require the whole of New Zealand to think and act differently about how we care for and value all children," said the final Rebstock report.

"The magnitude of this transformation is substantial, as is the commitment and additional investment required."

The change needed will take "strong leadership, time, structural change and cultural transformation to deliver them".

Enter Grainne Moss.

With a track record as a successful agent of change in the corporate world, Moss is under no illusions about the magnitude of the task in front of her as the chief executive of the new agency.

"Children aren't getting the outcomes they need or deserve," she says. "No one is underestimating the size, but I'm heartened by the appetite for change."

This optimism comes from discussions with iwi, the wider community, and the other chief executives of government departments answerable to the Vulnerable Children's Board.

But most importantly, she says, conversations with children. For the first time, children are asked for their opinion on decisions that affect their lives, often dramatically.

And though critics are sceptical of yet another restructure, or a change in name only, Moss is determined the new way of thinking will filter down to where it matters - those working with children every day.

"The chaos, the complexity, the conflict in some of these cases we deal with is incredible.
"It requires an exceptional set of skills to be making the right decisions at the right time.

So we're looking for quality, as well as quantity," says Moss, referring to a recruitment drive to hire a further 80 frontline staff.

And there's an acknowledgement that Oranga Tamariki needs to rebuild trust with New Zealanders.

"Children don't live in Oranga Tamariki...they live in families, in whanau, in communities," says Moss.

"So many people I talk to want to help, but don't know how.

"People see the worst possible cases where things go wrong, but there's a spectrum of vulnerability.

"You don't need to sign up as full-time carers or adoption ... it could be as simple as taking a child to a swimming lesson, or helping someone write their CV to get a job.

"It's those kinds of conversations we need to be having."

The first 1000 days

"There's an elephant in the room," noted Dr Johan Morreau in a Ted Talk he gave in Tauranga last August.

Despite all the advances in care for children since his medical practice in the early 1980s - in surgery, cancer treatment, emergency care and immunisation - Dr Morreau said he and his colleagues were increasingly seeing the effects of poverty.

"Financial poverty, poverty of parenting, and poverty of spirit and hope. All with significant lifelong implications for the wellbeing of the child."

The long-serving Rotorua paediatrician gave expert evidence at the Glassie inquest, was described as an "impressive witness" by the Coroner, and has spent the past years of his career trying to influence issues that would, over time, reduce the frequency of such cases.

He doesn't use the term "vulnerable children", instead referring to children or families who "need to be valued" or are "not valued enough".

But sitting in his office at Rotorua Hospital, Morreau is encouraged by the change of philosophy of Oranga Tamariki.

"There's been a lot of good thinking in this space ... this is about working with families, rather than doing to them.

"We're never going to improve things with a culture of 'doing to' ... we need a culture of nurture, working with , and in time bringing aspiration to their lives. That's what's going to bring change.

"But the challenge is to make sure that's the culture of the way things operate."

Morreau says this requires significant training of Oranga Tamariki staff - and a lot more staff.

"So my anxiety is we've done a whole lot of good thinking, but we haven't yet shown that we're really prepared to resource it.

"If you've got a social worker with a workload of 30 families, how do they work with them? It's not physically possible."

Morreau also expands on how the "First 1000 Days" of a child's life, starting from conception, are a window of opportunity for the child - and New Zealand as a society.

He's an active member of the Children's Team in Rotorua, which he sees as a great improvement since the time of Nia's death.

"But most of the referrals are for distressed or struggling older children who have already been damaged and where it can be very difficult to change their life trajectory", says Morreau.

Under Oranga Tamariki, he believes there needs to be systematic approach to the earliest possible intervention - by supporting pregnancy and early childhood.

He assessed a child last week with fetal alcohol syndrome; "damaged because they were bathed in alcohol in pregnancy".

"The child is going to cost this country in order of a million dollars, I'm guessing, over the course of their lifetime. Totally unnecessary." says Morreau.

"So whether you look at it financially, or compassionately, the answer is the same. We have to support our 'needing to be valued' families," says Morreau.

"That's the thinking, we as a country, need to pick up on."

Whanau keeping whanau accountable

"It's up to us to fix it," Merepeka Raukawa-Tait told the Nia inquest.

The problem to be fixed was the disproportionate number of Maori children in the abuse statistics.

Nearly 60 per cent of children seen by CYF by the time they are 5 are Maori, according to the Rebstock Review, with Maori children disproportionately represented in families with high levels of need.

By "us", the former chief executive of Women's Refuge meant Maori and, in particular, Maori leadership.

"She said whanau have a collective responsibility to an individual," Bain said of Raukawa-Tait's evidence.

"That is the essence of being Maori. For Maori, she said strong outspoken and caring leadership will eventually turn the tide.

"Nia's whakapapa was her past, present and future . . . ultimately the whanau failed Nia."

The Rebstock Report pinpointed that CYF was unable to consistently work successfully with Maori, dating back to a Ministerial review in 1988.

Connecting children with their culture and communities, as well as giving power back to iwi, is one of the key strategies of Oranga Tamariki.

"It's about making whanau accountable for whanau," says Tayelva Petley of the ministry's agreement with Tuhoe Hauora, the tribal health service in the eastern Bay of Plenty.

The Mokopuna Tuatahi approach is not for children in need of urgent protection, but like the Children's Team, is an early intervention to try to stop a crisis escalating.

If concerns are raised about a vulnerable child with Oranga Tamariki, they in turn share that information with Tuhoe Hauora, which holds hui a whanau.

These family meetings are "absolutely honest", says Petley, the Bay of Plenty regional manager for Oranga Tamariki.

"Now everyone is told what they need to know...we know that feelings are going to be hurt, but it's about the safety of the child."

The idea of Mokopuna Tuatahi is whanau members can agree on a plan and get help - whether for drug and alcohol addiction, family violence, or similar issues - in order to make the home safe for children to return, rather than be taken into state care.

"Children, no matter how badly abused, tell us they still love their whanau," says Petley, "and they ask us to 'fix their mum' or 'fix their dad'.

"This is about starting generational change, by making whanau take responsibility. For the sake of our kids."

We can't do it ourselves

So often, it's the police picking up the pieces after the damage has been done.

The actual numbers of child homicides can vary, depending on source, as investigations into suspicious deaths can take months or even years to finalise.

But there have been 94 cases of child murder or manslaughter between Nia's death in 2007 and 2015, according to an official police document released in March.

That's slightly above the historical annual average of nine deaths.

In 2015 alone, there were 18 child victims (defined as being 14 or younger.)

As of this month, the police hold 4771 active files alleging child abuse.

So despite the horrified public outcry following Nia and Moko's tortured lives, nothing much has changed in terms of sheer numbers.

Following the trial of Nia's killers, Mark Loper, overall in charge of the police investigation, was asked if it was the worst case of abuse he'd ever seen.

"No," he told the Herald at the time.

Ten years after Nia's death, Loper is now the most senior detective in the Bay of Plenty and will be giving evidence at the upcoming Moko inquest.

What has changed since Nia died is how child abuse cases are handled.

A wide-ranging special inquiry by the Independent Police Conduct Authority in 2010 and 2011, launched after a detective in Masterton investigating 140 files by herself blew the whistle, found an "unacceptable" backlog of child abuse cases across the country.

The IPCA inquiry led to a massive overhaul of practice, policy and procedure, as well as more police staff to cope.

There are now 240 dedicated Child Protection Team staff across the country and more promised over the next four years under the $388 million funding promised by the Government.

There is specialist training for detectives, who are often working alongside Oranga Tamariki social workers, and closer scrutiny on every file.

Once a week, senior staff are grilled by district management on the numbers of files at each stage of investigation, from assessment all the way through to prosecution.

Individual files are read every month by a senior detective who must keep in contact with the complainant.

"There has been a huge cultural shift, with far greater accountability, and that comes from the top," says Loper.

"And we know that we can't do it ourselves. We're seeing the same issues with Nia coming up time and again. Moko's the same."

How will history judge us?

"There is a dark side to New Zealand," says Judge Andrew Becroft.

"And there's been a growing realisation over the past five to 10 years that our family violence rates, child abuse rates, youth suicide rates are all interconnected.

"And all roads lead back to genuine disadvantage."

The former Principal Youth Court judge has been in the role of Children's Commissioner for 12 months now and says, at times, he's been genuinely shocked by the poverty in the country.

"Child poverty has become an emotionally charged term, and I don't mean New Zealand is like the slums along the Ganges, but there is genuine disadvantage here which most people don't see.

"We have kids living in damp, mouldy homes, without raincoats, without food . . . the list goes on."

And though poverty does not cause abuse, Judge Becroft points to research which shows the two are "intricately linked".

Ultimately, Becroft says, the success or failure of Oranga Tamariki will hinge on whether it can achieve high quality, decision-making by frontline social workers.

"The architectural plans are on the drawing board. The plans are in place. But they need to be delivered," he says.

"This really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And what we do, as a country, in the next five to seven years will determine whether history judges us harshly, or not."

If you're in danger now:

• Phone the police on 111 or ask neighbours of friends to ring for you.
• Run outside and head for where there are other people.
• Scream for help so your neighbours can hear you.
• Take the children with you.
• Don't stop to get anything else.
• If you are being abused, remember it's not your fault. Violence is never okay

Where to go for help or more information:

• Women's Refuge: Free national crisis line operates 24/7 - 0800 refuge or 0800 733 843 www.womensrefuge.org.nz
• Shine, free national helpline 9am- 11pm every day - 0508 744 633 www.2shine.org.nz
• It's Not Ok: Information line 0800 456 450 www.areyouok.org.nz
• Shakti: Providing specialist cultural services for African, Asian and middle eastern women and their children. Crisis line 24/7 0800 742 584 • Ministry of Justice: www.justice.govt.nz/family-justice/domestic-violence
• National Network of Stopping Violence: www.nnsvs.org.nz
• White Ribbon: Aiming to eliminate men's violence towards women, focusing this year on sexual violence and the issue of consent. www.whiteribbon.org.nz

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