Often when I’m doing research I dance a silly jig when I gleefully unearth a gem of information hitherto unknown or long forgotten. In studying the violent deaths of kids that doesn’t happen.
There was no dance of joy when I discovered New Zealanders are more likely to be homicide victims in their first tender years than at any other time in their lives. But nothing numbs you like the photographs of dead children.
Little bodies lying there limp with little hands and little fingers, covered in scratches and an array of bruises some dark black and some fading, looking as vulnerable dead as they were when they were alive.
James Whakaruru’s misery ended when he was killed in 1999. He had endured four years of life and that was all he could take. He was hit with a small hammer, a jug cord and a vacuum cleaner hose. During one beating his mind was so confused he stared blankly ahead. His tormentor responded by poking him in the eyes. It was a stomping that eventually switched out his little light. It was a case that even the Mongrel Mob condemned, calling the cruelty “amongst the lowest of any act”.
An inquiry by the Commissioner for Children found a number of failings by state agencies, which were all too aware of the boy’s troubled existence. The Commissioner said James became a hero because changes made to Government agencies would save lives in the future. Yet such horrors have continued. My colleague Greg Newbold has found that on average nine children (under 15) have been killed as a result of maltreatment since 1992 and the rate has not abated in recent years. In 2015, there were 14 such deaths, one of which was three-year-old Moko Rangitoheriri, or baby Moko as we knew him when he gained posthumous celebrity.
Moko’s life was the same as James’s, and he too died in agony; he endured weeks of being beaten, kicked, and smeared with faeces. That was the short life he knew. Most of us will struggle to comprehend these acts but we are desperate to stop them. Desperate to ensure state agencies are capable of intervening to protect those who can not protect themselves and, through no fault of their own, are subjected to cruelty by those who are meant to protect them.
The reasons for intervening don’t stop with the imperative to save young lives. For every child killed there are dozens who live wretched existences and from this cohort of unfortunates will come the next generation of abusers. Solving the problems of today, then, is not just a moral imperative but is also about producing a positive ripple effect.
And this is why, In the cases of James Whakaruru and baby Moko the best and most efficient time for intervention was not in the period leading up to their abuse, but rather many years before they were born. The men involved in each of those killing came from the same family. And it seems their lives were transient and tragic: one spent time in the now infamous Epuni Boys home, which is ground zero for calls for an inquiry into state care abuse (and incidentally the birth place of the Mongrel Mob).
Once young victims themselves, those boys crawled into adulthood and became violent men capable of imparting cruelty onto kids in their care.
This cycle of abuse is well known, yet state spending on the problem is poorly aligned to it, and our targeting of the problem is reactionary and punitive rather than proactive and preventative.
Of the $1.4 billion we spend on family and sexual violence annually, less than 10 per cent is spent on interventions, of which just 1.5 per cent is spent on primary prevention. The morality of that is questionable, the economics even more so.
Not only must things be approached differently but there needs to be greater urgency in our thinking. It’s perhaps trite to say, but if nine New Zealanders were killed every year in acts of terrorism politicians would never stop talking about it and it would be priority number one.
In an election year, that’s exactly where this issue should be. If the kids in violent homes had a voice, that’s what they’d be saying.
But if the details of such deaths don’t move our political leaders to urgent action, I rather fear nothing will. Maybe they should be made to look at the photographs.
• Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist at the University of Canterbury and the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions.