I have been sickened by the stories of child abuse that have hit our newspapers in the last few days. At first, I could hardly bear to read them, and even after I did read them, the only way I could console myself was to hug our own little princesses, and reassure myself that they would never, ever, be treated in that fashion.
Yet they might be. Not now, while they are children, in their father’s and my care, but in the future, at the hands of their partners or the people they date.
That’s why I’m glad about the initiative to ask all women who present at hospital three questions:
* Has anybody hurt or threatened you?
* Have you ever felt controlled or always criticised?
* Have you been asked to do anything sexual that you didn’t want to do?
I don’t see this as an intolerable infringement of liberty, nor do I see it as overkill. Nor do I think, as some do, that the questions should be restricted only to women who present with injuries, rather than all women. I would like to see the questions put to even more women: they should also be asked of all women, and men, who bring children to hospital. And while we are at it, it might be worth extending some form of these questions to elderly people, who may be vulnerable to elder abuse.
These are screening questions. They are no more offensive to individual liberty than being stopped at random drink-driving checkpoints, ticking the boxes on airport arrival cards to see whether or not you have been in contact with animals while you are outside New Zealand, or being asked to declare possible conflicts of interest when interviewing for a job. In each case, the purpose is to detect possible problems, and if necessary, take further action. Let’s recall, in the case of the three abuse screening questions, the next step is not to call in the law, but to ask a further series of questions, to make sure that there are no false positives, and to try to work out what sort of help may be needed.
The whole purpose of the questions is to try to detect violence, and violent situations that people live in. And this is absolutely critical if we are to try to find ways of identifying cases of child abuse, and stopping them, before we end up with tragedies like James Whakaruru, Lillybing, the Kahui twins, and now little Nia Glassie, and the twelve-week old baby boy lying in Starship.
It’s going to take more than screening questions in hospitals, ‘though. I was appalled by the indifference of the neighbours who saw the abuse, but did not report it, and the staff of the kohanga Nia Glassie attended, who must surely have known that something was wrong. Keeping it all in the whanau is a wretched response to child abuse. Perhaps they felt that reporting it would bring shame on the family. Of course it would bring shame on the family, and so it bloody well should! And a huge portion of shame must attach to those who kept their mouths shut. Their cowardice is utterly shameful.
As is ours, the longer we continue to deny this problem. Sure, we all talk about it every few months, but then other concerns take over, like house prices, or the Rugby World cup, and we push it to the backs of our minds again.
I will know that we really want to do something about arresting child abuse on the day when the All Blacks donate the ‘player of the match’ award to Women’s Refuge or Jigsaw, or to a campaign to stop violence in our homes, and the nation applauds them.
That will be the day when we know the problem is really in the open, and not just discussed from time to time, when the latest abuse case hits the headlines.