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Family Violence: New Zealand's dirty little secret

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Will the ‘Modernising Child, Youth and Family’ report calling for an urgent overhaul of the government department be enough to overturn this country’s plague of abuse? Or do we need to adopt and properly fund the more robust, evidence-based, Wraparound system developed in the US? asks Dr Ruth Gammon.

New Zealand presents itself to the world as pristine and beautiful - 100 per cent pure, images of snow-covered mountains, crystal clear rivers, dolphins playing joyfully in our oceans. But behind the billboards is another reality: our people suffer one of the highest rates of family violence in the world.

New Zealand has the fifth worst child abuse record out of 31 OECD countries. On average, one child is killed every five weeks. Most are under five, less than a year old and 90 per cent are killed by someone they know.

In the year ending June 2014, over 146,000 Reports of Concern were made to Child Youth and Family Services. Of these, almost 58,000 were reports by police responding to family violence call-outs. Studies have estimated one in four girls aged under 15 have been touched sexually or made to do something sexually they did not want to. At least one in eight boys have experienced sexual abuse (although the rates are likely to be much higher, as sexual abuse among boys is still under reported). Of concern is the rate for Māori girls - twice the rate of European or other ethnicities. Currently, over 5,000 children are in the care of the Chief Executive of the Ministry of Social Development, with over 4,000 children living in ‘out of home’ placements.

The statistics for intimate partner violence are grim too. New Zealand continues to rate among the worst countries for this, with one in three New Zealand women reporting having experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence. When psychological/emotional abuse is included, it jumps to over half. Stories regarding women being murdered by their partner or ex-partner continue to grab headlines too frequently. Approximately half of all homicides and more than half of all reported violent crime in New Zealand is the result of family violence.

Often, this is seen as a problem of lower socio-economic groups, or the result of poor education, but the statistics do not support this. A recent study found 26 per cent of women living in homes with a household income over $100,000 a year had experienced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner.

Despite the relentless pain, suffering and long-term trauma these statistics represent, family violence is treatable and preventable. But appropriate resources and funding must be a priority for the government.

A more comprehensive, coordinated approach is needed. Other countries have adopted a "System of Care" - a comprehensive spectrum of mental health and other necessary services which are organised into a coordinated network to meet the multiple and changing needs of children and their families.

A system of care could address the gaps in services in New Zealand precisely because it is based on core values, rather than a defined programme, and can therefore be tailored to a New Zealand context. The core values for a system of care are that services are child-centered and family focused; responsive to the needs of the child and family; community-based, and culturally sensitive.

Services must be comprehensive and integrated; equipped to address physical, emotional, social, and educational needs of the individual; involve families and surrogate families in all aspects of the planning and delivery; have effective case management; early identification and intervention; smooth transitions to the adult service system as they reach maturity; protection of the rights of children and families, and effective advocacy.

New programmes incorporating these values in New Zealand follow the US-based National Wraparound Initiative’s evidenced-based model. Contrary to local interpretations, Wraparound is NOT a package of services to be "wrapped around" families, nor is it a funding stream. Wraparound is a philosophical approach to care planning with specific guiding principles, a model of delivery and a theory of change - and it is the combination of these factors that makes Wraparound effective, not the services per se. Research at Massey University on Wraparound in New Zealand has included interviews with families who believe their families may not have survived without such services.

Cost is always a concern and such programmes are expensive. But consider the economic cost of family violence, estimated at $1.2 to $5.8 billion per year by economist Suzanne Snively in 1994. Adjusted for inflation, that is around $1.84 to $8.89 billion today. Such costs will continue to grow as the problem grows. And family violence will grow unless we address it. We can pay now or pay later.

Dr Ruth Gammon is the director of the Wellington Psychology Clinic at the School of Psychology, Massey University

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