Family support key to stopping abuse

Child abuse and neglect is a worldwide phenomenon. Although systems and cultural contexts differ markedly, last week's International Congress on Child Abuse and Neglect, held in Brisbane, underlined the fact that in most countries, vulnerable children still come last in the list of priorities. It was humbling to hear delegates from developing countries talk of the plight of child soldiers, the innumerable children trafficked throughout the world to satisfy the sexual desires of men, and the millions of HIV-positive children in Africa. Unsung heroes from these countries are struggling to get these children's voices heard on the world stage. Yet perhaps we share more in common with these nations than we would like to believe.

Professor Fiona Stanley, Australian of the Year, asked why it was that despite knowing more than ever about what enhances family functioning and positive child development, our services and practices remain powerless, and child and youth problems continue to increase. She gave sophisticated data that clearly illustrates the relationships between child abuse and neglect, crime, poor mental and physical health, alongside increased disparities between the haves and the have-nots. Over the past 20 years in the industrialised world, a relative few people have created more wealth than ever before. At the same time, we have increased the risk factors for children. We seem to reward independence and the creation of wealth above the interdependence necessary to nurture children. If we look at the data, it is an inescapable fact that poverty matters. Australian research shows that child abuse increases the chances that adults will live in poverty later on, and child poverty increases the chances that children will be abused in the first place. Adults struggling to survive are less likely to be able to nurture children. Blaming our poorest adult citizens — solo parents and beneficiaries — is a dead end. As the Unicef report on child maltreatment deaths in rich nations puts it: “The challenge of ending child abuse is the challenge of breaking the link between adults' problems and children's pain.”

We heard about the common plight of children in the indigenous communities of New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States. Delegates from these countries clearly articulated the intergenerational trauma of their peoples, starkly illustrated through child health and mortality statistics. Children need to live in communities where adults are there for them when they succeed, and when they cry. But adults need support to be able to care for children day in, day out. Neglect and abuse of children is not only the domain of the poor. Too frequently our busy lives leave no room for children. As societies, we ignore our collective responsibility to children at our peril. Discussing with colleagues from Scandinavia the subject of corporal punishment was particularly fascinating. In Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark, most parents abandoned smacking many years ago. Of course, there are still cases of severe child abuse, but in Scandinavian nations use of physical punishment is seen as a sign that parents need help. Scandinavians find it incomprehensible that most adults in some countries hit their children as an attempted form of discipline. And that most New Zealanders want to retain the right to hit children. For them, this is as odd as saying that most men want to retain the right to hit women. What is stopping us following the Scandinavian example of designing a child-protection system where it is as easy to pick up the phone to ask for help as it is to report a neighbour for child abuse?

We are beginning to move in the right direction in this country. Children's voices are gradually being heard. There is greater recognition that the core of any effective child-protection system is the adequate provision of child and family support. There is renewed interest in the interconnection of family difficulties and the role of communities in nurturing and protecting children. This is reflected in the development of family and community services by the Ministry of Social Development. There is increasing understanding of the crucial role of non-government organisations. Shuffling government structures is important. But, in itself, it is not enough. Let's hope this shift of attitude will come to mean something real. Until the public insists, at the ballot box, that our politicians make a priority of children in the development of economic and social policy, children will remain second-class citizens. As one speaker at the congress said, our children will look back on the past 30 years in most industrialised nations as the generation of child neglect. Despite this, New Zealand has its own share of unacknowledged heroes working for our most vulnerable children. At the congress, Child, Youth and Family detailed the success of two New Zealand initiatives. One, called Everyday Communities, is designed to encourage New Zealanders to achieve safety and wellbeing for all children. Initially piloted in Whakatane a few years ago, it has been working quietly in small communities ever since.

Delegates also heard about the success of the Child Youth and Family programme to reduce youth suicide among abused and neglected children. New Zealanders also presented papers on cognitive behavioural therapy with abused children. We heard about the very high standards of forensic interviewing of children where there were allegations of abuse. These presenters were asked to help their counterparts in other parts of the world to strengthen their interviewing practice. It is one part of this field of which we can be justly proud. Nevertheless, our record on child maltreatment remains poor. We can reduce the incidence of child abuse and neglect if we have the will to do so. There is no one magic answer — it is a jigsaw of changes in attitude and of practical initiatives. Changing attitudes to children, poverty and violence are the most challenging. It should be possible to place children at the centre of our decision-making. Whether we are talking about decisions by government, court, community or families, children's needs should come first. We can turn around our negative statistics. The solutions are known. New Zealand could genuinely become a great place for many more children. It will take some hard conversations at the breakfast table, and pressure on politicians and other community leaders to answer how they are going to contribute to reduced child maltreatment.

If we, as voters, make it a priority, so will they.

Emma Davies specialises in children and family issues at the Auckland University of Technology's institute of public policy.

28 September 2004

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