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Disturbing The Silence On Child Abuse In New Zealand

The most recent child abuse case in New Zealand has affected many of us deeply. This particular child - just 4 years old - was bashed so badly that part of his brain has died. It happened on 29th January 2020. He received a continued beating over several days and will be severely brain damaged for life.

Nearly as hard to deal with is the silence from those who perpetrated this violence on a young child. Despite the fact that there were many people present while this child was battered, the family has closed shop.

Who, in the words of Simon and Garfunkel, is going to disturb the silence?

It is such a difficult topic to write on, and an even harder one to comprehend . We understand so little about child abuse, consign it to the box of “sick individuals”, and in doing so simplify a very complex issue.

Collectively, as a nation we grieve, and we feel anger at this senseless and violent act. Maybe anger is better than hopelessness. Our children need us to still hope for them.

Yet our sadness is amplified by the knowledge that this is going to happen again and again. New Zealand has one of the worst records of child abuse in the ‘developed world’, with one child killed every five weeks. There are 14,000 substantiated findings of child abuse every year in New Zealand. Police respond to a domestic call-out every seven minutes.

Not long after the child in Flaxmere was injured, a homicide was launched after the death of another young child in New Zealand. A five-year-old boy was killed on Saturday, 8Th February 2020.

Where do we go from here New Zealand? In1999 we said ‘never again’ after James Whakaruru was killed. He was beaten so badly that the only part of his body that was not bruised were the soles of his feet.

Yet sadly, James was not the last child to have been beaten to death. Another high profile child abuse case was that of Moko Rangitoheriri who was bashed to death on August 10, 2015.

After Moko’s death there was nation-wide outrage . Moko’s death sparked a domestic violence campaign and a tribute song called Another Little One by Tina Cross. The song’s lyrics likened the dead children to twinkling stars in heaven who could now shine.

I know the song was meant to unify us and strengthen our commitment as a nation to address our appalling child abuse statistics. But I just couldn’t get behind that sentiment, and I still can’t. Through the song I feel that the abused children’s lives were being re-constructed, re-sung, re-imagined.

They had become the tiny little ‘twinkling star’ heroes of their own deaths. It somehow didn’t feel quite right.

Yet again someone was speaking for them. They couldn’t speak for themselves anymore. But in fact they never could. They were likely as disempowered in life as they are in death. And that is what makes this whole scenario so tragic.

As an educationalist and early childhood teacher I know that children’s voice and active participation in society matters. And I know that this needs to be real and authentic, not tokenistic. As a society, and in policy contexts, we need a view of the child as not only worthy of protection, but also as a strong, competent and valuable member of society. We should also regard them holistically, as children who have cultures and are members of families and communities. Only then can we genuinely hear and see them.

In contrast to Early Childhood Education (ECE) policy, social policy in New Zealand takes a somewhat deficit view of the child. This is particularly true for those children in contact with child protection systems. Academic Emily Keddell argued in a research article in 2017 that recent reforms in child protection policy in New Zealand have operated to shape a worrying discourse about children in who are deemed ‘at risk’. The reforms include the Vulnerable Children’s Act 2014 and the children’s action plan and the child youth and family review.

These new policies have fragmented children into two groups: the normal and the vulnerable. This further positions ‘vulnerable children’ as damaged and a future social investment risk. It also stigmatizes parents, regarding them as solely responsible for abusing their children, turning them into monsters in the eyes of the public. This allows the state to step in and remove children from their parents and into a broken care system.

As Keddell remarks, children are seen as “passive victims” who need to be saved from their parent. The child’s own views and their need for contact with their family and culture are often subsumed. The recent scandals regarding the uplifts of Maori children and placement in care reflect this.

This kind of social policy approach also disregards wider structural issues such as poverty and unemployment. At the root of the problem of child abuse are the violent structures and regimes of capitalism, and the impacts of decolonization, the alienation, loss of identity, and the failures of education.

Don’t misunderstand my intent. I am not trying to shift the responsibility off parents and caregivers when it comes to child abuse. Child abuse is horrific and there is absolutely no excuse for beating a child. None. We need to hold individuals to account, and we need to ensure our children are safe.

However, with that being said, child abuse does not occur in a vacumn. It occurs in the context of society. And research demonstrates that this is often associated with conditions of social deprivation, inequality and poverty. These are also the conditions that many families in New Zealand are currently experiencing, increasingly so. Let’s look at addressing the issue at the root.

We need to disturb the silence of not only those who abused the little boy in Flaxmere, but also that of social inequality in New Zealand.

Dr Lynley Tulloch is an early childhood educator. She currently lectures in education at the University of South Pacific.

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