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The Kahui Twins

Posted on 02 Jul 2006

The tragic deaths of twin boys Chris and Cru Kahui has still been very much on the minds of the New Zealand public this week. Radio talkback is still running hot and everwhere I go people express their horror at what must have been a terrible end to their short lives.   No charges have been laid but it is widely thought that they died from injuries caused by physical violence. The refusal of the family to co-operate with police added to the dismay and comments by those close to the family such as that the silence is due to the family being in the "mystical realm of tangi" show that something has gone badly wrong in a society that is prepared to accept firstly such behaviour, and secondly such excuses.

The deaths of the twins was reminiscent of the death of Lillybing Matiaha at Masterton in 2000.   The similarity was underlined by news that Lillybing's mother, Terina Matiaha, has had twin sons this year and that one died, seemingly of cot death, at Masterton Hospital on 4 June, 2006.

The Political Reaction

There was no shortage of political comment and a cross party committee was convened last Wednesday at which I represented ACT.   There is nothing new about the Kahui case but for some reason it has caught the attention of all New Zealand and at last people are crying ‘enough'.  It is the latest in a long string of child abuse deaths, each of them equally distressing when details are revealed of what these infants and children suffered in their short lives. The cross party meeting was more of a government briefing. A taskforce report is due to be published in two weeks and the government has volunteered to share it with other parties as soon as it has been through cabinet.  My fear is that we will simply see more meetings, more reports and more recommendations, without any action.  After all, we have had a Families Commission for 2 years that has produced well-reasoned reports which go nowhere - our babies and children are still being abused.

My Views

When I gave my maiden speech in parliament in 2002 I said the following:- 

"...our current policies are failing dramatically in the social areas and failing dramatically in the area of the family.   As a society we are failing to protect our children from abuse.  Every day we seem to hear heart-rending stories of abused and murdered children.  Their life details are so violent that I cannot read their full stories because I find them too distressing.

To suggest change in social policy means that it is necessary to take a look at the nature of the state and its relationship to the family.  It was once adequate for the state simply to provide for the family's physical protection and the family was left to care for itself.   However the state has replaced the breadwinner in many homes producing fatherless families."

Attitudes in New Zealand

In the reporting of the Kahui twins tragedy there has been too much emphasis on race.  It is true that Maori have a higher rate of child abuse than the national average but the problems with the social fabric in New Zealand are not confined to Maori.  In fact, the problems are international as shown by this quote from a British book, "The Welfare State We're In" by James Bartholomew:

"In the crime epidemic, children have been particularly badly hit - often literally."

The author then reproduced a graph entitled  "Babies: the most commonly killed people in modern Britain".  Clearly, we in New Zealand, are not alone with our problems.  Some people have argued that murders constitute only a small proportion of total child deaths and that we need to try and keep things in perspective.  However we all know that for every child who dies, there are hundreds or thousands who endure severe beatings.

When a case comes to light, Child, Youth and Family (CYF) are asked to investigate.  They have to decide if the child is safe in their home.  There is no easy answer, as it takes the wisdom of Solomon to know when to remove a child from a family, and the whole area is fraught with uncertainty.  I knew one family who lived in a small rural town.  The parents were having difficulty controlling the behaviour of their adolescent son and were in despair.  One day the son burnt down their hay barn and the father administered a beating with the flex of an electric kettle.   The father was charged with assault and served three months in jail, to the great distress of his wife who had no hope of dealing with her delinquent son alone.  It is hard to see who benefited from the father's punishment.

In the storm of commentary about child abuse there has been a demand that "something be done".  One example I heard was Brian Edwards being interviewed on National Radio.  He was sure that CYF should take more action and that people should be "educated" on how to care for children.  He should have come clean and said that he had no idea what to do.  In reality CYF social workers are laden with responsibility but have little power.   People are quick to criticise them, and vacancies are hard to fill.  

An important statistic in the debate about child abuse is that the vast majority of children who are killed by their own family are not known to CYF.  No complaint has been laid with them.  Everyone is wise in hindsight but foresight is more difficult.  There are dysfunctional families by the thousand but only a few have disasters as bad as the Kahui twins.

Chris Trotter, in his weekly DominionPost newspaper column, abandoned his usually thoughtful approach to speculate who God would blame for the Kahui twins' death.  Culprits, he concluded,  include the colonial land grab, "thin-lipped" WINZ workers and Rogernomics.  He has simply written a list of things he doesn't like and said they are to blame for our social ills.  And he claims that God thinks the same way.

It is easy to lay blame and the authorities are an easy target.  Real blame, of course, lies with those who do the abusing and it is to be hoped that the Kahui twins tormentors are caught and held accountable.  The wider problem is that of our burgeoning welfare state.  Those who are able bodied should be working, drug and alcohol abuse must be tackled, and inter-generational welfare promoted as unacceptable.  Until the causes of welfarism are addressed more babies like the Kahui twins will continue to die.

The cross-party committee doesn't have to become just another talk-fest.  We (all parties) could take control and resolve to tackle some really hard problems - such as welfare reform - head on.  I'll be taking these proposals to the table: Plunket Nurses regularly visiting all homes of at-risk families, time limits on welfare payments, easy access to drug and alcohol programmes,  40 hour a week time contribution in exchange for the unemployment benefit and work testing for those on the DPB when children go to school.  The time for talk is over and the time for action is now.  Lets see if the Labour government and their supporters are really listening.