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What Turns A Human Being Into a Killer?

Weekly Column by Dr Muriel Newman MP

The news of two brutal murders within a week of each other has shocked New Zealanders. What sort of animal would shoot pizza store worker Marcus Doig and bank teller John Vaughan at point blank range when they were following the robber's orders?

The news that three men have been arrested and charged with their murders comes as some relief, but the important unanswered question is how human beings can become violent cold-blooded killers.

Although we don't know the individual backgrounds of the three accused, there are some characteristics of those who can commit unconscionable acts of violence and crime that we do know.

Invariably, as babies, they have failed to form strong bonds of love and attachment with their parents. As a result, they have difficulty relating to others in a meaningful way, trusting people, controlling their anger. They do not develop a conscience and cannot empathise with others.

According to Professor David Fergusson of the Christchurch School of Medicine, head of a 23-year-old longitudinal child development study, such troubled children growing up in chaotic families have a risk of disturbance that is 100 times greater than those who have uneventful childhoods. Their families will exhibit significant parental disorder. There will invariably be a mix of substance abuse, criminal offending, psychiatric disorders, severe marital conflict and stress. Almost certainly there will be no father in the home, but multiple partners and a procession of 'stepdads'. There will be impaired child rearing - a lack of affection, no pre-school education, possibly glue ear and other childhood ailments that impair learning. Very probably there will be child abuse and neglect.

All of this will almost certainly take place in an environment lacking in hygiene, with poor nutrition and no immunisation. These children will arrive at school exhibiting a multitude of behavioural problems: aggressive and abusive behaviours, and an inability to respond to basic instructions. They will be rejected by their peers, suffer serious learning problems, and as these children get older, they will seek out others who are similar. Often they will be drawn into a gang environment, and together are likely to engage in the sorts of delinquent behaviours - graffiti, under-age drinking, offensive behaviour, shoplifting - that are precursors to serious criminal offending.

It has been estimated that a well-nurtured child contributes $1 million of benefits in his lifetime while a badly nurtured child can costs the nation $2 million during his lifetime - $70,000 a year for a young person to be held in the Northern Residential Centre at Weymouth, $100,000 a year for an offender in Päremoremo, $200,000 a year for the Mason Forensic Unit - and that doesn't take into account the pain and suffering to victims and their families.

It was estimated that the public cost of hunting down the Auckland serial rapist Joseph Thompson was $3 million, and that, given his preventative detention sentence, the cost of his incarceration has been estimated at $2 million. These estimates ignore the human cost of all of the lives he ruined.

Professor Fergusson estimates that while these severely dysfunctional families constitute no more than five to 10 per cent of the population, they are responsible for 70 to 80 per cent of serious offending. In each police district there will be a relatively small number of hard-core offenders who are responsible for the majority of the crime. They will be well known by the police and many will have gang affiliations.

With so much known about these families the approach to break the cycle of criminality should be clear - and yet as a country we are still getting it wrong. If we are serious about solving the crime problem let's start in the home - building the family and increasing personal responsibility, providing high risk families with mentors to help guide them and better ways of raising the children and living their daily lives - encouraging fathers to actively engage with their children, ensuring children are loved well-nourished and cared for, attend pre-school do their homework and brush their teeth.

Recognising that children fail to do as well in a family where no one works for a living, we need our welfare system to lead people into work not long term dependency.

Our justice system must ensure that children who engage in petty crime feel the consequences and realise early that crime does not pay. We have an absolute obligation to listen to the 92 percent of New Zealanders who wanted a tougher approach to law and order, with a zero tolerance approach to crime and truth in sentencing - making sure that people who kill in cold blood are no longer released early to terrorise law abiding citizens.

Dr Muriel Newman, MP for ACT New Zealand, writes a weekly opinion piece on topical issues for a number of community newspapers. You are welcome to forward this column to anyone you think may be interested. View the archive of columns at http://www.act.org.nz/action/murielnewman.html Visit ACT New Zealand's web site: http://www.act.org.nz

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