The lack of support for new mothers and role models for boys appear to be significant factors influencing New Zealand’s high levels of violence towards children.
Last month the Children’s Commissioner, John Angus, released a review of literature about serious injury from assault of children under five.
The review has found that ‘young children who experience serious injury or death come from a small group within the population whose families experience multiple risk factors with complex relationships between them’.
The children’s mothers were often unsupported and received little or no antenatal care, and were living in a home where there was ongoing family violence and lack of basic necessities.
The children were ‘likely to have previously received attention from health services for injury and children living with disabilities were at greater risk.
‘The perpetrator was more likely to be a non-biological parent (compared with biological parent) and to misuse alcohol and/or other drugs.’
The director of Catholic Social Services, Barbara Gilray, says today’s mothers are encouraged to leave the maternity home a matter of hours after the birth with little opportunity to ensure that they have a clear knowledge of what having a baby entails.
There can be other children at home also making demands on the mother, Ms Gilray says, and often the grandparents are working so they are not available as backup as was common in the past.
Many families these days are blended—the parents have children with another partner and come together after the first relationship has broken down. This puts a huge strain on families—children find themselves living with strangers.
The review finds that ‘a child was more likely to experience abuse and neglect at the hands of a non-biological than a biological parent’ and more than twice as likely to die at the hands of a nonbiological mother.
The study found that lower socio-economic status was a major risk factor although risk factors identified ‘seldom occur in isolation. In Sweden it is estimated that children who experience serious injury or death within their families come from no more than eight percent of the population at the extreme end of the socio-economic scale, who overall face “high excess risks of manifold problems”.’
Barbara Gilray says there are a number of factors which in themselves do not lead to abuse but they do aggravate stress levels. These can range from the pressure on families to acquire material possessions, to difficulties adjusting to a new country and culture. The need for some families to look after the migrant or refugee children of family members who have been injured or killed in war zones is placing additional stress on a number of new residents.
Catholic Social Services counsels a number of families for whom English is not their first language. Being able to talk to someone in their own language is important for families in learning how to understand what constitutes violence, the trigger factors associated with violence and alternatives to reactive violence. But there are many issues for refugee and migrant families and help in their native language ensures that things do not get ‘lost in translation’.
In the course of their work in schools and in the community in the wider Wellington area, Catholic Social Services social workers pick up varying levels of physical, psychological and emotional abuse perpetrated upon children.
In instances where the agency believes the issues are severe, the case is referred on to Child Youth and Family for further investigation.
Barbara Gilray says that children are powerless to stop violence in their homes, only adults can do that. She believes that parents and adult caregivers need to take greater responsibility to ensure that all children have warm and consistent care.
The review called for a greater communication between professionals from the different sectors.
There is more on this issue on page 7. See also page 2 on the referendum on section 59 of the Crimes Act.