New Zealand’s Social Crisis

Childhood abuse can manifest into material poverty in adulthood.

February 18, 2011

A study of young people behind bars carried out for the Corrections Department by clinical psychologist Dr. Nick Wilson and Rehina Rolleston, found that seven out of ten young people in New Zealand prisons are predators who show no remorse for the victims they see as prey. Dr. Wilson said that they “do not have the ability to empathize, or do not know that their behavior is wrong.”

Why should we be so shocked by this when we live in a society that turns a blind eye to violence in the home?

By the time young criminals come before court, too many have already been hardened by a combination of domestic violence, abandonment, substance abusing caregivers, physical or emotional neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse and the dark secret shame of sexual abuse.

Felix Donnelly wrote in Big Boys Don’t Cry, “in 1967, the Auckland Probations Officers analysed for me their caseload of 372 youths under 21 years. The results showed that 63% of the probationers’ homes were rated by the officers as unsatisfactory through to harmful.”

Dr. Bruce Perry, Senior Fellow of the Child Trauma Academy in Texas, whose research explores the neural pathways from “terrorized infant to terrorizing adolescent” wrote: “In today’s world, millions of children are raised in unstable and violent settings. Literally, incubated in terror.” His writings centre on his continued findings that “neglect, chaos and trauma can create impulsive, aggressive, remorseless and anti-social individuals.”

Perry explains that it is within the first three years that the brain is hard-wired by experiences in a “use-dependent way” that establishes patterns of behaviour that can remain for the rest of our lives. In computer language, this is when the default settings are programmed.

It therefore doesn’t take much imagination to realize that it will take great persistence, perseverance, courage, and often a lifetime to undo negative early programming. But even after great changes have been made, the default programming can still be reactivated during moments of acute stress.

Numerous studies show that childhood victimization is the major cause of violence in our society and that the most violent criminals were physically or sexually abused as children. For instance, of 14 juveniles condemned to death for murder in the United States in 1987, 12 had been brutally physically abused and five had been sodomized by relatives as children.

Dr. Pita Sharples, co-leader of the Maori Party, said when speaking out about Nia Glassie’s terrifying abuse and death that problems of child abuse stemmed from a dysfunctional culture which happened among poverty-stricken and underachieving communities, a group in which Maori were too highly represented.

However, in a media release in September, 2003, UNICEF stated that although poverty and stress are factors closely associated with physical child abuse and neglect, the relationship is far from fixed. Further, it stated, “One of the most common and serious family problems causing child maltreatment is drug and alcohol abuse,” and that there is also “strong evidence linking the physical abuse of children with domestic violence between the adults they live with.”

In a paper entitled, Going Crazy—a reasonable response to domestic violence? Debbie Hager points out that up to a third of women will abuse drugs or alcohol as a way of coping with domestic violence. Many become depressed and mentally ill with trauma and anxiety disorders, including post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which is usually associated with war veterans.

In a National Study of Psychiatric Morbidity in New Zealand Prisons in 1999, the lifetime prevalence of PTSD for women inmates was 37 percent, which is more in keeping with findings for high risk populations such as victims of criminal offences and combat veterans.

The National Study also revealed that 90 percent of those with major mental disorders also had a substance abuse disorder (also known to contribute to re-offending).

It is now known that war veterans with PTSD can have profound and pervasive problems in family and other interpersonal relationships, problems with employment, and involvement with the criminal justice system. It is also known that those most likely to suffer combat-related PTSD, were abused as children.

The type of abuse that can have the most insidious and debilitating impact on a child is sexual abuse by a child’s parent or someone known to the family – like a grandparent or a trusted friend. Sexual abuse is particularly disturbing to a child because it is a shame-inducing and traumatising personal invasion as well as a betrayal of trust. When children are used as an object for an adult’s sexual pleasure, they are dehumanised. Sodomy is a relatively common form of sexual abuse with children—even as young as six months old. Of the few cases I came across as a counsellor, the perpetrators came from ‘respectable’ middle class homes.

The incidence of sexual abuse in New Zealand is much more widespread than might be imagined. A University of Auckland study showed that 23 per cent of women in urban areas and 28 per cent in rural areas suffered some form of sexual abuse when under 15 years-old.

In 2002, while completing her PhD on the cost of sexual abuse of children in New Zealand—which she estimated to be $2.4 billion a year when adding together the cost of lost earnings, extra health bills and the unmet potential of adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse—Dr. Shirley Julich found that 25 percent of girls and 9 percent of boys are sexually abused in New Zealand in some way by the time they reach 16, often resulting in low self-worth, alcohol and drug abuse and ongoing psychological problems. Her findings are backed up by overseas research. Even in Australia, government research in 1995 found that one in four young girls and one in ten young boys experience some form of unwanted sexual violence.

It is now known that sexual abuse and rape are high risk factors for the development of PTSD, along with severe physical assault. The symptoms children display include impulsivity, distractibility and attention problems (due to hypervigilance), emotional numbing, social avoidance, dissociation, sleep problems, aggressive play, school failure, and regressed or delayed development.

Studies have shown that Substance Use Disorder rates are higher among persons with PTSD. According to Dennis Charney, M.D. of the National Institute of Mental Health in the Unites States, this is because “some substances can affect the brain systems that have been made hyperactive. Some people are self-medicating. Most persons with PTSD who use drugs, take drugs that have a dampening effect, such as opiates, alcohol and sedative-hypnotics.”

In the Youth 2000 survey of 9570 students at 114 New Zealand high schools, conducted by Annabel Prescott, sexual abuse was the only key “risk factor” that showed up in a statistical analysis of all factors associated with heavy cannabis use. The analysis found that heavy cannabis users were also more likely to be violent, get involved in fights, ride in cars being driven dangerously, have unprotected sex, be clinically depressed and attempt suicide.

Psychiatrist Dr Estela Welldon (cited by Gay Search in The Last Taboo: Sexual Abuse of Children) found that where men have been involved in incestuous relationships, particularly with their mothers, it often comes to light in a very dramatic way—either in sadistic situations with other women, or in an explosion of violence.”

Dr. Vincent Felitti, head of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, curious about the high drop-out rate on an obesity program of patients who had been successfully losing weight, found that a high proportion of drop-outs had histories of childhood abuse or neglect.

He is quoted as saying, “We saw that things like intractable smoking, things like promiscuity, use of street drugs, heavy alcohol consumption, etc., these were fairly common in the backgrounds of many of the patients…These were merely techniques they were using, these were merely coping mechanisms that had gone into place.”

Childhood maltreatment is also a significant risk factor for teenage suicide, teenage pregnancies, depression, the development of personality disorders and mental illness, and for a host of physical health problems, including asthma.

According to the Ministry of Social Development’s 2005 Social Report, there are twenty confirmed cases of child abuse and/or neglect in New Zealand every day.

No political party in New Zealand has yet come up with a comprehensive plan to deal with the problem of child abuse. It is a political ‘hot potato’. Yet by ignoring the impact on society of violence and neglect in the home, it is costing billions in health care, social welfare, child protection services, incarceration and the judicial system, special needs in education, substance abuse rehabilitation and, lost productivity, potential, and skills in the workforce.

The 2008 Drug Harm Index shows that hardcore drugs such as P, cocaine and Ecstasy gave New Zealand a bill of about $546 million for social costs in one financial year – all a big part of the total $1.3 billion that drug use cost the country in 2005 and 2006.

How can our government ignore this problem any longer? The ‘land of the long white cloud’ is sunless under its statistics of child abuse, which are among the worst in OECD countries. Child abuse is a serious issue, with serious implications for years to come if we remain reluctant to expose the secrets of child abuse that cut across all socio-economic classes, and take affirmative and begin treating children with the respect they deserve as human beings.

Without this respect, how can children learn self-respect? Instead, many will enter adulthood with a huge debt in their bank account of life that most will struggle in vain to bring into credit balance. This is because years of prolonged abuse and trauma result in a poverty of positive experiences that will drag too many children into poverty on every level. This poverty includes low feelings of self-worth, low self-esteem and a lack of confidence and know how to improve their situation—often because of learned helplessness after being trapped for years within a situation they were powerless to change. These are the real drivers of material poverty.

Yesterday, Prime Minister John Key, showing his lack of understanding of the underlying causes of poverty and the Government policies that have further exacerbated it, criticized those living on benefits for making poor budgeting choices that forced them to resort to using food banks when they ran out of money. Conveniently forgotten is the Government’s cash deficit blow out of $1.9 billion more than expected, which, in Mr. Key’s own words is “the outer limit of what we would regard as acceptable”, and which places New Zealand at risk for a sovereign credit rating downgrade. And ‘forgotten’ is the bail out of several failed finance companies last year to the tune of $1.8 billion.

Also conveniently forgotten is that the recession has hit people hardest who are on low incomes. Soaring food prices pushed higher by the extra 2.5 percent GST increase the Government introduced last year, ever-increasing fuel prices, and energy bills are pushing people into untenable situations from which they may never find a way out—except perhaps to take flight to Australia.

Not only has New Zealand slipped into the world gutters of alcohol and drug abuse and child abuse, it is also slowly slipping into the gutter of poverty. Not caring for its children and maintaining a punishing attitude to people in genuine distress years later because of the abuse and trauma they suffered in childhood, New Zealand is in social crisis, yet is deaf and blind and cannot hear or see it. The Salvation Army’s fourth annual “state of the nation” report, published on February 11, criticises the Government for becoming too “fixated” on reducing debts while failing to tackle longstanding social problems.

Perhaps the place to begin to address these issues is for us all to change any poverty of attitude we might have by learning to see people and situations from different perspectives. North American Indians urged each other to “walk in another man’s moccasins for one moon” (28 days) to more fully understand them. By doing this, new understanding and compassion would enable us to make positive changes to impact the well-being of all. Individually we could also ask ourselves, “What one small change can I make today to change my life for the better, or the life of someone else?”

And keep on asking that question.


Further Reading

Half a Year of Hell in New Zealand

About PTSD

Hidden in Front of Us (2010) by Anthea Simcock with Lee-Anne Duncan.

“When I was twelve, I got pregnant to my father. My parents arranged for me to have an abortion. This was carried out on the kitchen table. I know my sister saw it.” Nancy

“I saw my neighbour, who I knew was on drugs, beating her six-year-old with a stick. I realize how hard it is to intervene and feel safe yourself. But I went up to her and gave her a cuddle, and then I cuddled the little boy. Then I went back home and called the police and got CYFS in. I knew it was the right thing for that child.” Jayne

“We’ve gotta get people talking about child abuse,” says Mareti Kume, who now spends her life teaching people alternatives to the violent behaviour she grew up with.

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