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Moko & The Systems That Let Him Down

Title: Moko and the systems that let him down

Dr Lynley Tulloch


Moko Rangitoheriri died on August 10, 2015. It’s two years on and his story is just as heart-breaking now as it was then. A recent inquest found that there were warning signs that were not heeded.

His abusers Tania Shailer and her partner David Haewera recently marked the anniversary of his death by appealing their sentence. They were sentenced to 17 years, with a minimum non-parole period of nine years. They felt that this sentence was too harsh.

That has many people shaking their heads. Reading about Moko’s final days, the state he was in when he arrived at hospital and the callousness of those who abused him is difficult. It is painful to think about those moments when he was left alone to suffer.

Recent accounts of his death in the media paint a picture of a little boy subject to increasing victimisation and horrific physical injuries. He was stomped on repeatedly, bitten, subject to solitary confinement, and left with untreated injuries. He suffered a ruptured bowel, lacerations, head injuries and septicaemia. He was refused the basic necessities of life including food and water.

Moko’s little body told a story.

Like many people I could quite happily take the key to Shailer’s and Haewera’s jail cell and send it on a one-way trip to the bottom of the ocean. It’s galling to think that they could ever expect anyone to show mercy on them. For many of us on the other side of the jail fence the sentence was, if anything, too light.

The judge felt the same way and told them they should consider themselves fortunate that they did not receive a life sentence.

Moko received a death sentence at their hands. There is quite simply no wall high enough, no time long enough and no sentence strong enough to bring justice to this situation. And there never will be. We can’t cure the abusers among us by punishing them harder, we can’t bring Moko back and we can’t help him anymore.

It’s a most bitter and jagged pill to swallow, but we simply must do better for our children. He was one of our tamariki, our precious taonga (treasure) and we let him down. As someone who works in the field of early childhood education I feel that our children are a collective responsibility. We need to work together as communities to protect, empower and nurture our children.

The most recent inquiry into child abuse in New Zealand also supports this sentiment. The report has been dubbed the Rebstock repot and was published in December 2015. It stated that: “Each year about 60,000 children are notified to CYF, and at any point in time about 4,900 New Zealand children are in statutory care”.

The guiding question it sought to address was: “How can we transform the lives of our vulnerable children once and for all”? How indeed.

The report set out to recommend a future operating model for Child, Youth and Family (CYF), after stating that CYF services were fragmented, inconsistent and lacking in clear focus. It stressed the importance of families, communities and agencies working together to address child abuse.

I agree with this sentiment. However, I am not convinced that the overtly stated ‘social investment’ approach underpinning this report really gets to the heart of the matter. The report is based on a cost and benefits analysis, stating that the benefits of investing in our vulnerable children are quantifiable and include “avoided lifetime costs in the social welfare, justice and health systems.” They also discuss benefits in terms of potential productivity of children as future workers.

This is market talk, and using an economic rationale to inform a very social concern is problematic.

Our children are not future economic units of production, and neither are they future potential burdens on our society. This impoverished view of the child may make sense in terms of justifying expenditure on social services and education of the young, but it is entirely inadequate as a guiding ideology for policy and practice.

In my view as an early childhood educator the child may be placed in vulnerable situations, but we should not let this reduce them to mere figures of expenditure on a spreadsheet. The child is not vulnerable and weak. The child is strong, capable, and competent and has a unique personality and wairua (spirit). We need to uphold the child’s mana and empower them and their families through building strong communities, providing a living wage to everyone, ensuring neighborhoods are safe and access to education and health is free and based on quality services.

Moko was is an extremely vulnerable situation and he was badly let down. A system that believed in his inherent worth, and premised this before all else may have had the guts and structure to prevent his death.

His spirit lives on even while he doesn’t. So does the spirit of all children. Let’s make their voices count.


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