Why is NZ’s child homicide rate double Australia’s?

Well, a smidge under double; New Zealanders fatally abuse and neglect their children at 1.3 per 100 000 (NZ) versus 0.7 per 100 000 (Australia)*.

Surprised? I wasn’t. But then I’ve long suspected a difference between the two countries.

Back in August an article about New Zealand’s poor track record on child abuse popped up in my Facebook feed. Its author, academic Dr Jarrod Gilbert, argued that attempts to address the country’s terrible record on child abuse are driven by feeble emotionality that wrongly focuses attention on political outrage and interventions rather than effective preventations. There is, according to Gilbert, too little action taken to address the root causes of family violence in New Zealand.

Soon after, thanks to Facebook profiling, I was ‘offered’ other similarly gory articles about child abuse. This time, though, they were based in Australia (Facebook conveniently tailors my newsfeed with only the most geographically appropriate gory news stories about fatal child abuse. I live in Sydney).

I read about a young woman in Adelaide, Australia, who was jailed for watching as her boyfriend forced her four year old to ride a motorbike around the back yard. The little girl died as a result. And in June, a mother from southern Sydney was charged (and convicted) for allowing her partner to beat her 7 year old son to death.

It got me thinking. Both these women were charged in connection with their children’s deaths even though they didn’t commit the murder themselves.

Shortly before I left New Zealand (over ten years ago), two half-sisters, Olympia and Soliel Aplin, were murdered by their stepfather, in Wellington. Their mother, Charlene, was aware of ongoing abuse against the girls but unlike the Australian cases in my Facebook feed, she was never charged in connection with their deaths.

At the time it struck me as bizarre that their mother, an adult who was both legally responsible for the lives of two children and complicit in their murder, could escape being charged with their deaths. If they’d drowned in her pool she’d probably be jailed. And yet when I voiced this opinion it was almost universally met with the same sentiment; she shouldn’t be charged, as she’d suffered  enough.

Charlene Aplin was portrayed as victim rather than perpetrator of violence and abuse. Ideas of motherhood and community differ between New Zealand and Australia. This is reflected in the treatment of mothers who contribute to the deaths of their children.

In short, I think that women who place their children at high risk of being murdered are treated more harshly, both socially and in the justice system, in Australia. And I think that violence against children is more normalised in New Zealand than Australia. There is also a higher degree of what I would call ‘mother sovereignty’ in New Zealand. In other words, I think mother’s rights over their children’s are held in a higher regard than in Australia.

Obviously these are broad, highly contentious assertions; they go to the heart of questions of community, social cohesion (the idea that you can tell someone what to do with their kids) and the legal status of children. I’m less interested in judging which country has it ‘right’ (i.e., Australia’s more punitive, culpable model versus NZ’s mother-as-victim model), than in what it tells us about how parental culpability is viewed in either country.

I’m not an expert. I don’t work in this area and my experience is limited to being a parent and educated bystander. I called it an opinion for a reason. These are unfounded suspicions, not conclusions. I do think, however, that it wouldn’t hurt to look into them. After all, Australia and New Zealand are commonly compared in terms of social policy. Isn’t it worth asking, what lies behind New Zealand’s higher rate of fatal child abuse?

So, where and how to begin?

Well firstly I’d ask, is the difference in homicide rates real? New Zealand is a small country. Around 13 children are killed each year. Statistically (which is to say, heartlessly) speaking, this is a small number. Although the numbers have remained more or less static over at last 15 years it is nonetheless important to calculate the statistical significance or ‘realness’ of the different death rates. Australia, with a population of around 22 million, provides are much more robust data set. I’d ask,

  • Is the risk the same in both countries and the difference in outcomes (higher death rate in NZ) down to more effective intervention in Australia? It seems callous to talk about hazard ratios etc., but there would need to be some kind of assessment of risk and intervention. This would form an important part of assessing the meaningfulness of any observed differences.
  • Are Australian mothers held to account for complicity in their child’s death more harshly and/or frequently than New Zealand mothers? An analysis of judgements and possibly case law regarding child homicide in both countries would be useful here.
  • Questions of ‘community’ — an assessment of the cultural factors regarding violence and its acceptability or otherwise. NB. ‘Cultural’ in this sense means social beliefs and shared values. Some of these may be influenced by or oriented around ethnicities but by no means reduced to them. Violence against children is shown to exist absolutely everywhere, although it is better ‘hidden’ in some communities than others.
  • Structural socio-economic questions. It’s well established that strain — economic, family, housing can produce dysfunction. To what extent is this a factor in the difference between Australia and New Zealand’s rates of child homicide?

Why bother with all this? Well, if, as Gilbert’s article suggests, New Zealand should focus more on the prevention of child abuse, then this might be a bloody good place to start.

 

*There are always difficulties in comparing data between countries, in this case they include;

– Some children are beaten to death, but many more die from sustained neglect and/or abuse that is compounded by neglect. This is harder to establish and therefore count.

– Many fatal ‘accidents’ are in fact caused by neglect. Australian data find accidental deaths are correlated with previous notifications to child welfare services.

– There is no universal register of child deaths in Australia, rather, they are determined and recorded state-by-state. The data are, however, fairly robust for all states and territories.

Yet, despite these research shortcomings, it does appear that New Zealand’s rate is significantly higher than Australia’s.

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