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Preventing Child Abuse

Posted on 15 Jul 2006

Over the last few weeks I have been researching the subject of child abuse following the death of the Kahui twins.  Much of the research involves the analysis of statistics, which can be dull, but there is one set that stands out like a beacon.  It comes from the website of the Sensible Sentencing Trust and is a simple graph of the murder rate in New Zealand over time.  (

In the 1950s the number of homicides was usually in single figures, and the number didn't exceed twenty per year until 1975.  The rate then rose steeply, reaching 160 homicides by 1992.  The number per year has subsequently stabilized somewhat but remains high.

It has to be remembered that this change has occurred in the face of medical advances that make it much less likely that a severely battered person will die of their wounds. When I was a student in Dunedin a local surgeon successfully removed a knife from the heart of patient who had been stabbed - he saved the life of the patient but also saved the assailant from a murder charge.  Medical advances like this mean that the scale of the decline in moral standards implicit in the murder statistics has been seemingly reduced.  In other words, our behaviour as a society has declined by more than the statistics would suggest, and the number of people trying to kill each other has risen even more than the numbers would indicate.

If the sociologists are correct in saying that child abuse is affected by the amount of violence in society generally then we have a partial explanation for violence against children.

Last week I talked about creating dedicated child protection teams consisting of doctors, social workers and police, backed by government-created foster homes to deal with crimes against children.   I believe this is the correct approach for children where a problem has been identified.

However this approach only deals with the problems existing now. If child abuse is to be prevented, and this is obviously the ideal, we need to look at the underlying causes of domestic violence and abuse.  It has generally been popular in traditional left wing (social science) circles to blame poverty and the implied solution was to increase welfare payments. When government policy moved to implement the problem in this way it increased the numbers of people on benefits.  Until recently it was considered "right wing" to suggest that dependency on benefits caused a moral hazard for the beneficiary - that is to say that those on a benefit were more likely to offend or come to the attention of the police.  Only ACT was brave enough to make the case in parliament until the arrival of the Maori Party.

Strong evidence that welfare dependency causes problems beyond financial hardship has long been abundant but has been incomprehensible for those brought up on the 'class struggle'.

The Ministry of Social Development recently produced a 'Living Standards' Report and has found some useful - though not surprising - things.

It confirms that people on low incomes who earn their income from employment have a better living standard than people on low incomes who rely on benefits.  Many, when given the choice between an income involving work and the same income without work, would choose not to work.  However, all the evidence says that those who work do better on a variety of measures, and are much more likely to advance through life.

Interestingly this report shows that 27% of Pacific Islanders are considered to be in "severe hardship", compared to 17% of Maori.  Despite this, we think the incidence of child abuse in Pacific Island families is much lower.  I suspect that this is because there are a higher proportion of Pacific Island families living in traditional family arrangements.

The debate over the death of the Kahui twins has made it permissible to discuss the effect of benefit dependency on children, whereas previously it had been politically incorrect to do so.  People are now saying what they had been thinking for some time.  New Zealand needs welfare policies that send the right message and provide the right incentives - policies that place the safety of children high on the list of required outcomes.  The research all points to children doing best when they live in working homes, but for too long our welfare policies have provided perverse incentives, where families are better off not working.

The following is a true story from a day gone by (about 30 years ago).  A school leaver had been having difficulty finding employment so went along to sign up for the dole.  The case manager, unable to find the young man a job in his town offered him a forestry job in Nelson.  The young man protested that his sporting commitments meant he couldn't possibly move to another town so his application for the dole was declined.  The case manager, not having to worry about political correctness 30 years ago, said that if he wasn't prepared to move he wouldn't get a job or the dole.  The school-leaver replied that he wasn't moving and would find his own job - which he promptly did.  The dole applicant now realises that he was done a great favour by the case manager but didn't appreciate that at the time.

We know that people in employment experience higher standards of living, fewer health problems and greater self respect.  Making sure that people have the tools and encouragement they need to move from dependency back into the workforce isn't only the kindest thing that government can do for them, but for their children as well.