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Report indicates woeful response to child abuse

News release - OECD report indicative of woeful response to child abuse prevention, says social policy expert

A social work expert and chair of a charity dedicated to preventing child abuse says greater government investment in early intervention programmes is the most effective way to turn around damning figures about child health and safety in New Zealand.

A report on child wellbeing, released this week by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), said New Zealand children were among the most deprived in the developed world, with poor rates of safety, low family income and high incidence of child abuse.

Dr Annabel Taylor, senior lecturer in social policy and social work practice at the University of Canterbury and chair of the Family Help Trust, says countries that focus more on preventing abuse do better than New Zealand in the OECD report.

“Last month police started homicide inquiries in Kaitaia and Palmerston North after two young children died of non-accidental injuries. Two other children were taken to Starship Hospital critically ill in similar circumstances.

“Each year, an average of ten children are killed in New Zealand at the hands of a close family member. What the OECD report confirms is that those tragedies are the most obvious and most damning examples of the epidemic of maltreatment and abuse of New Zealand children. They are the most horrific symptoms of a much wider problem.

“However, it is a problem that can be addressed if the government takes a more focused approach and puts the interests of children first,” she said.

According to Dr Taylor, the government’s campaign to persuade parents not to shake their babies, also launched this week, is indicative of New Zealand’s poorly focused response to what she calls this country’s greatest shame.

“Of course, shaking a crying baby is totally wrong, and parents should be given practical strategies to deal more appropriately with their baby when he or she cries, but pamphlets and posters will not save infants in families at the highest risk of child abuse. Neither will social workers in hospitals, who will simply become inundated and overwhelmed by the number and severity of cases they are faced with.

“We know that the highest risk families are where maltreatment and abuse such as shaken baby syndrome is most likely to occur. High quality early intervention programmes have proven successful in working with these families to prevent abuse. If it wants New Zealand to climb off the bottom of the OECD child maltreatment ladder, the government needs to focus investment on these evidence-based programmes.

“Screening in hospitals is not enough. Hospitals currently screen a whole range of illnesses and then operate a form of triage to provide services to the most seriously at-risk patients. In a similar way, the government’s differential response child protection system needs strengthening so that specialist support services are available to the families that need help the most,” she said.

Dr Taylor says child abuse imposes a huge cost on the whole community.

“Within the first three years of life, children who live in homes where violence and maltreatment are commonplace are at particularly high risk of becoming traumatised to such an extent that their brain development is impaired. When this occurs it creates life-long difficulties for the individual and profound impact on society. Estimates relating to New Zealand suggest that child abuse and neglect generates a long-term cost that is equivalent to around $2 billion, or over one per cent of GDP, per annum.

“That is the cost of policing, imprisonment, mental health, healthcare, drug addiction and the other negative consequences and lost opportunities that eventuate from young people and adults who have spent the early years of their lives subject to violence, neglect, maltreatment and abuse, and lead blighted adult lives as a consequence.

“Re-deploying New Zealand’s social services budget to focus more directly on the two per cent of families at greatest risk would, in the long term, drastically reduce this drain on our society as well as improving our shameful rankings in international child health and safety indices, such as that published this week by the OECD,” she said.

The Family Help Trust works in the homes of Canterbury infants at the greatest risk of child abuse. It employs skilled social workers to address the causes of dysfunction in families beset by poverty, crime, fragile mental health, unemployment, lack of education, poor housing, drug abuse, and histories of violence and victimisation. All past research indicates these are the families where child abuse is most likely to occur.


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