'So what can we do to prevent child abuse in New Zealand—or at least minimize its incidence?' Thus Graeme McCormick, a retired Family Court judge, in a long thinkpiece in the December North & South. He goes on: 'I strongly advocate early identification of children at significant risk… Resources could then be targeted at the parents and caregivers… I envisage existing domestic violence coordinators would make a referral to the organization most able to assist in the particular circumstances…'
And so on. There is a great deal more in that vein. All incredibly worthy and well-intentioned, and if that sounds like sneering, it's not, because Graeme McCormick, like countless other unsung people, will have done much in his career to combat or ameliorate child abuse, and will know what he's talking about.
But I find this kind of contribution to the debate terribly saddening, because as I said yesterday, child abuse will never be truly prevented or minimized unless fundamental economic changes are made—changes of a kind neither major political party is willing to address. (Mike Williams put it simply on Nine to Noon this morning when he said we just need to help poor people get wealthier.) So anything short of that may make a little bit of a difference here, and a little bit of a difference there, but will not stem the horrific incidence of child torture, abuse and murder. It would be like trying to empty a river with a teaspoon, or hack back old man's beard with nail scissors.
Am I being naively idealistic in believing it's possible to completely put a stop to child abuse and murder? Before a chorus of 'Yes, you are, you mug' rises to a crescendo, I will just cite two examples of what a society can do if it really puts its collective mind to it: the extraordinary reduction in smoking in the course of just one generation, and the dramatic drop in the road toll by means of a sustained and determined campaign. The fact that we can't apply the same determination to tackling child abuse tells me that, at bottom, we have somehow resigned ourselves to it as a 'fact of life'—a belief made all the more palatable if we allow ourselves to see the abuse as a symptom of moral failure. Maybe it is in some cases; but the pattern of abuse coincides remarkably with the patterns of disadvantage, unemployment and low income. And when you see the problem in those terms, nail scissors just don't cut it.