Last week the Child poverty action group released, in two parts, a report into the links between poverty and child abuse (Part 1 pdf, Part 2 pdf). The media were (quite rightly) busy chasing the various spying scandals, so the reports didn’t get the attention that they deserved. So today let’s take a look at the first one: Child abuse: what role does poverty play? (by Donna Wynd).
The report covers the related topics of child maltreatment, neglect and abuse. It makes for depressing reading. The full list of chapter headings, and the most relevant subsection, are as follows:
2. What is meant by child abuse?
3. Impact of child maltreatment and neglect
4. Factors which are associated with child abuse
4.4.1 The role of poverty
5. Potentially protective factors for children
6. Child abuse statistics in New Zealand
7. Maori and Pacific peoples
8. New Zealand: 25 Years of research and reports
9. Current policy responses
The purpose of this post is to focus on the role of poverty, so I’ll quote some of the Summary, Section 4.4.1, and some of the Conclusion:
There is now a substantial body of research, including New Zealand research, showing the association between poverty and deprivation, and child maltreatment and neglect. Much of this work emphasises the complexity and multiplicity of risk factors in child abuse, and the equally complex mix of protective factors that can change outcomes for children. However current policy responses to the tragedy of New Zealand’s child abuse are focused not on dealing with the causes of abuse but on reporting and monitoring, and risk assessment.
A consistent theme in the formal research is the role of poverty in child maltreatment and neglect. The association between child abuse and poverty is reflected in New Zealand data. Rates of hospital admissions for assault, neglect and maltreatment were significantly higher for the most deprived two deciles of New Zealand’s population. Rates of poverty for Māori and Pacific people are consistently double that of European/Pakeha people, regardless of which measure is used (Perry, 2012, p. 118), and Māori and Pacific children were 3.24 and 2.26 times respectively more likely to be admitted to hospital for intentional injuries than European children between 2000-2011 (Craig & et al, 2012, pp. 56-60). A 2000 literature review published by the then Ministry of Social Policy on the physical abuse and neglect of children by family members noted the role of poverty and the role of individuals’ and families’ ability to cope with economic and other stress (Angus & Pilott, 2000).
Improving incomes is unlikely on its own to stop the maltreatment and neglect of children in New Zealand but the evidence strongly suggests it needs to be an integral part of any policy package aimed at reducing child abuse. …
However, much of this research has been ignored. The Green and White Paper, and other recent government-sponsored publications, offer scant economic or historic context for the current state of New Zealand’s vulnerable children. They say little about the impact of poverty, labour market changes, health inequalities or the colonial context of Māori. Instead of attempting to prevent child abuse by addressing the causes of abuse, the government has chosen to focus on responses to child abuse including identifying ‘vulnerable’ children through a ‘risk assessment’ algorithm. …
More importantly, monitoring, responding to and assessing the risk of child abuse fails to address the deep and persistent poverty of many New Zealand children and their families. The threadbare analysis provided by the Green Paper and the follow-up White paper combined with government policies to cut back social security and family assistance will not improve New Zealand’s statistics of child maltreatment and neglect. Punitive social assistance reforms are counter to all the research reviewed here which finds poverty and family and neighbourhood deprivation to be key risk factors in child maltreatment.
Reducing child maltreatment and neglect to a meaningful extent will require child-focused policies that directly address deprivation and other causal factors. One way forward would be to think about the care and protection of all children, with an emphasis on reducing inequalities and providing adequate resourcing for services to assist children and families with the greatest need and creating environments which are safe for all children. This would also be consistent with New Zealand’s obligations under UNCROC and the Treaty of Waitangi.
4.4.1 The role of poverty
Researchers have been aware of the link between poverty and child abuse for many years (Angus & Pilott, 2000; Besharov & Laumann, 1997; Gilbert et al., 2009; Halpern, 1990; National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, 2008), although the causal mechanisms remain uncertain. The link between poverty and neglect appears to be stronger than that between poverty and other forms of abuse (Angus & Pilott, 2000, p. 23; National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, 2008, p. 3; Nikulina, Spatz Widom, & Czaja, 2010; Paxson & Waldfogel, 1999). In developed countries, it is largely relative rather than absolute poverty that is the issue, although absolute poverty is increasing as developed economies flounder in the wake of the global financial crisis.
While the association between poverty and child maltreatment and neglect is well established, less clear is the strength of that relationship. Recorded higher rates of child maltreatment in low-income households may be partly accounted for by the fact that such households are more likely to already be under the purview of child welfare agencies, for instance for housing or social welfare assistance (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, 2008, pp. 4-5), and thus be more likely to be noticed and reported. In addition, there can be bias in the reporting of children’s injuries. This can take the form of sample bias (eg surveys among disadvantaged social groups), bias in the recording of data (under-recording or inaccuracy), changes in reporting and recording policies, or differing community attitudes to the treatment of children (Lievore & Mayhew, 2007).
Nevertheless, the fact remains that the common thread in the research literature is that higher than average rates of child maltreatment and neglect are associated with poverty (Angus & Pilott, 2000; Council of Australian Governments, 2009; Fergusson & Lynskey, 1997; Gilbert et al., 2009, p. 72; Lievore & Mayhew, 2007; Ministry of Social Development, 2006a, p. 3; Paxson & Waldfogel, 1999; Pelton, 1994; World Health Organization, 2006). Poverty impacts on families and neighbourhoods, and is the product not only of national economic and social policies, but how those policies are implemented and administered. Thus, while it can be argued individuals choose to maltreat or neglect their children, the environmental factors that contribute to family stress cannot be ignored. Focusing on individual behaviour will continue to put children at risk of abuse.
The clear and consistent link between poverty and child maltreatment and neglect needs to be acknowledged. New Zealand research suggests that low income, low educational attainment, and poor mental and physical health can easily set up a cycle of poverty, stress and child maltreatment (Fergusson et al., 2008; Fergusson et al., 2011; Lievore & Mayhew, 2007). Improving incomes is unlikely on its own to stop the maltreatment and neglect of children in New Zealand but the evidence strongly suggests it needs to be an integral part of any policy package aimed at reducing child abuse. Other factors that would improve outcomes for children and whānau are improved access to affordable, stable housing, and better access to primary healthcare and early childhood care and education. These all form part of the protective environment that could be established and maintained for children in New Zealand. …
The threadbare analysis provided by the Green Paper, the follow-up White paper and the Welfare Working Group, combined with government policies to cut back social security and family assistance will not improve New Zealand’s child maltreatment and neglect statistics. Reducing child maltreatment and neglect to a meaningful extent will require child-focused policies that directly address deprivation and other causal factors.
We have all the studies and evidence that we need. Time to stop wringing our hands over the national shame of our child abuse and poverty rates. Time to stop ignoring and marginalising the poor. Time to address the real problems. Can Labour lead the way?
Here’s the standard footnote. Poverty (and inequality) were falling (albeit too slowly) under the last Labour government. Now they are on the rise again, in fact a Waikato University professor says that poverty is our biggest growth industry.
Before the last election Labour called for a cross party working group on poverty. Key turned the offer down. Report after report after report has condemned the rate of poverty in this country, and called on the government to act. Meanwhile 40,000 kids are fed by charities and up to 80,000 are going to school hungry. National has responded with complete denial of the issues, saying that the government is already doing enough to help families feed their kids. Organisations working with the poor say that Key is in poverty ‘la la land’.
The Nats refuse to even measure the problem (though they certainly believe in measurement and goals when it suits them to bash beneficiaries). In a 2012 summary of the government’s targets and goals John Armstrong wrote: “Glaringly absent is a target for reducing child poverty”…
The costs of child poverty are in the range of $6-8 Billion per year, but the Nats refuse to spend the $2 Billion that would be needed to really make a difference. Even in purely economic terms National’s attitude makes no sense.