The 20th anniversary of one of Hawke's Bay and New Zealand's most notorious cases of child abuse passed this week. So how far New Zealand has come in resolving issues driving domestic violence? Doug Laing reports.

Four-year-old James Whakaruru was just 10 weeks short of his first day at school when he died on April 4, 1999, in Hawke's Bay Hospital, then known as Hastings Memorial Hospital.

His mother's partner Benny Haerewa was later sentenced to 12 years' jail for manslaughter for what was just the latest in the stepfather's assaults on the child, whose predicament in a violent home had come to the notice of more than 40 people in the health profession, social service and relative government agencies in as little as a year before he died.

With concerns over responses to previous incidents involving abuse of the child, the Government called for an inquiry which was led by Commissioner for Children and former MP Roger McClay, the third Commissioner since the position was established under the Children, Young Person and their Families Act 1989.

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The inquiry found most significantly that government agency Child, Youth, Family failed its obligations under the act in several respects, and that "poor inter-agency communications characterised the professional work with James".

Statistics suggest little has changed, and even that it is getting worse, with deaths of children at the hands of those who should be loving them a recurring feature of the headlines, and apparent increases in the worst of the numbers.

And they're still doing reports, most prominent in recent years being that of the Expert Panel in 2015 (the "Rebstock" report), which led to the morphing of Ministry of Social Development agency Child, Youth, Family morphing in April 2017 into new-focus operation the Ministry of Vulnerable Children, a tag quickly wiped by Labour-led Government as it crept into office later in the year and which is now known as Oranga Tamariki.

Dr Russell Wills, Hawke's Bay pediatrician and former Commissioner for Children. PHOTO/FILE
Dr Russell Wills, Hawke's Bay pediatrician and former Commissioner for Children. PHOTO/FILE

With statistics showing that Hawke's Bay and Gisborne-based Tairawhiti region have the highest rates of child exposure to domestic violence, according to police and Oranga Tamariki figures, long-time Hawke's paediatrician and former Commissioner for children Russell Wills conceded it's still not known whether rates of domestic violence are increasing or whether it is that for a variety of reasons it is just the numbers of reports that are increasing.

While Wills is positive about progress, "gradual" over the years but more specific with the more-modern "children at the centre" approach, the timeline for evidence of change is hardly finite. Offered a "generation" has an option, he is hopeful.

Change can't come fast enough however for Maori Council executive director Matthew Tukaki, who has extensive experience in related issues across New Zealand and Australia, and who this week spoke-out on numbers of children being abused in the care of state agency Oranga Tamariki, and the proportion of Maori among them.

"What has changed?" The answer, he says: "Nothing."

Earlier in the week he was quoted as saying it's time to hold Government to account for how well it had been doing for Maori generally, and he had been requesting statistics to make a few points.

One example was that just over 70 per cent of the 220 children reported in one three-months period to have been abused in Oranga Tamariki care were Maori — a statistic that, like that for a similar proportion of those being taken into care, hadn't improved.

He says the agency responsible had developed a huge level of mistrust, with a culture needing change that wasn't achieve by simply changing the name.

Soon after speaking with Hawke's Bay Today, he tweeted in relation to the anniversary of the 1999 death in Hawke's Bay: "We seem to have forgotten how and why this little boy brutally died — over the days and weeks to come Maori Council will be retelling the stories of our forgotten children and the system that failed them."

Wills says those in the social work sector, including non-government agencies in Hawke's Bay, where there's a long and prominent history of activity in the sector, are his heroes, along with those taking on the roles with Oranga Tamariki, working in at-time confrontational situations at great personal risk.

But he says much of the work to be done is with the "drivers" of domestic violence, including poverty, homelessness, drugs and alcohol, and the violence of men.

It is in the response of the men that he sees particular hope, as men with violent pasts turn to condemn violence, and support others in breaking the cycle.

"Most of the men I meet who are violent come from being victims of violence themselves," he says, emphasising that resolution includes effort from the entire community. "But they do want better for their own children."