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Family Violence Taskforce Conference

Issue date: 
Monday, 5 July 1999
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

E nga mana, e nga reo, rau rangatira ma, tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

Mr Chairman, Your Honours, keynote speakers, workshop leaders, ladies and gentlemen. First, I want to thank the organisers of this Conference for inviting me to share this opening with you. I open conferences fairly regularly, and none of them are about trivial subjects. Even so, their significance to the life of the nation can vary. Yet there can be no subject more important than those that you are here to address: how to intervene more effectively in violent families; how to protect the vulnerable; how to heal the wounded; in short, how better to make a difference in the lives of those whom you serve and who, I know, can so desperately need your assistance.

My experience with abused and neglected children and other survivors of family violence is different, I am sure, from that of most of you, and much more remote. Different too and more remote from that of Patrick Mahony, who, as Chief Judge of the Family Court, is to be the first speaker of the Conference proper, in just a few minutes. To be sure, my experience was in Court, but putting aside my years on the Court of Appeal, where the experience was much more remote still, mine was in the High Court, not the Family Court. Even so, I encountered many battered and abused children. But this was always several years after the violence in their families had been inflicted, and after they had grown up to be violent young men. There were some tough young women too, of course, although not nearly so many. They were not so often inclined to direct their long bottled-up anger outwards. They'd more often turn it in on themselves, instead.

Of course, there were and are a thousand-or-more times as many children, grievously wounded by their experience of family violence of one kind or another, who do not appear in the criminal Court. Yet some, we all know, are like the crocodile that hunted Captain Hook so eagerly. You cannot help but hear them ticking. We can only hope that the alarm never goes off. But we can never be sure.

The rule these young people are often obeying without knowing it is an ancient one, an almost instinctual one, certainly incredibly powerful. It is that children grow to be adults who tend to do unto their children as they were done by themselves. If children are raised in love and receive due acknowledgement of their qualities and achievements, they are likely to raise their own children in the same manner. But if children are oft-punished, their own children tend also to be beaten down: the survivors of domestic violence, whether the violence is experienced directly or 'only' witnessed, are forever afterwards pre-disposed to hand on the treatment they once received, or that happened in their sight or in their hearing. This truly vicious circle is one that must be broken.

At the 1997 Family Violence Symposium in Palmerston North, the late Laurie O'Reilly said that during three decades of family law practice, he had consistently been perplexed by the factors that gave rise to violent behaviour; that he had had to grapple with the various theories about the causes of violence, and that more research was needed to identify the conditions that precipitated or compounded domestic violence. But, he also said: "I am increasingly [persuaded that] our society manifests a culture of violence", adding that at the same time, he was "increasingly concerned that professionals and support groups focus too narrowly on specific acts or events and equate successful intervention with achieving protection orders. Have we really addressed the causes and dynamics of violent behaviour?"

Jane and James Ritchie, the University of Waikato child and family psychologists, agree with Laurie O'Reilly about violence in New Zealand, the beginning of their concern being "parental punitiveness". They emphasise too, "that early childhood patterns are highly influential on later character ", so that when they came to consider the "one aspect of child rearing most desperately in need of change [in New Zealand]," their answer was "the elimination of violence from the lives of all our children." " severe abusive behaviour towards children" they said "is the thick end of the wedge that starts, thinly, trivially, with toleration of smacking, shouting, name-calling, mild verbal abuse and similar punishments."

It's only human to become habituated to events or behaviour — even when they are senseless or brutal. Familiarity may not lead to contempt exactly, but it can reduce our sensitivity, dull our senses of empathy and sympathy. Family violence, and child abuse and neglect, are not exempt from this general rule.

You will know the anecdote about the two frogs, one of which was dropped on a griddle, but which jumped off immediately, escaping with a searing, but nonetheless escaping. The other frog was placed in a pan full of water at a temperature which was initially comfortable. Slowly, the water becomes hotter, but so slowly that the second frog never really registers its increasing danger. So the second frog stays put, and eventually boils.

Those would seem to be the scenarios facing New Zealand, when it comes to domestic violence. We can galvanise ourselves, and, in spite of the damage done, we can take steps to prevent further injury: we can respond, and effectively. Or, alternatively, we can acknowledge, intellectually, that our environment is slowly becoming less and less benign, but make no effective response, in the end poaching where we sit.

The statistics are frightening enough, although statistics can too easily conceal the reality of the lives, the thousands of young lives, that are reflected in their totals. In 1996/97, there were 3,091 offences against children reported to the police. In a telephone poll conducted five years ago, 22 percent of parents thought it acceptable, in certain circumstances, to hit their children. Four percent of the young people questioned about severe, harsh or abusive treatment for the Christchurch Health and Development Study, reported one or both parents treating them so — they had been punched, kicked, or hit with canes, straps and the like; deliberately physically injured. Four years ago in the lower North Island, one in ten of the 11 to 13 year-olds surveyed had been punched, kicked or beaten by an adult at least once in the previous nine months.

But this is only part of the picture. To complete it we have to take account of the violence inflicted in a child's sight or hearing on someone else, usually their mother or a sibling, usually by a husband, father or partner. Sometimes even by an older brother. There are no statistics here, apart from those recording the huge numbers of women who with their children are taken in by one of the Women's Refuges. And we have to include the sexual abuse of children, another equally, perhaps more, damaging form of violence. The Christchurch study I have mentioned showed that 17.3% of girls and 6% of boys had experienced some form of sexual abuse before the age of 16; 5.6% and 1.4% respectively reporting attempted or completed intercourse. And in assessing the totality of the violence perpetrated upon our children must we not also take account of pure neglect, however caused: the sort of thing described in a circular I received on Friday from the City Mission that described four children huddled in a single bed in the middle of winter, with no sheets and only a couple of blankets, no heater, no carpet, no curtains, no furniture to sit on.

And the result of this sort of thing, according to the Ministry of Health, is that: "Physically abused or maltreated children are up to three times more likely than non-abused children [later] to engage in violent behaviour and criminal offending, attempt suicide and experience anxiety disorders "

Old or young, we seem to be comparatively violent people. Take bullying — New Zealand schools, like New Zealand families, also appear to be places where a fair amount of physical and emotional pain is inflicted — the same lower North Island study to which I've already referred found that half the 11 to 13 year-olds interviewed had been punched, kicked or beaten at least once by other children in the previous nine months. Two thirds had been threatened, frightened or insulted by other children. And about a quarter of them "rated these experiences as one of the three worst things that had ever happened to them". We can only imagine how much more confusion and grief and frustration and anger must be generated when the abuse comes from someone who is supposed to be a care-giver. We must also try to imagine how much bullying is triggered by a perceived need to transmit, to pass on, the anger and humiliation inflicted in some of our homes. I might add, too, the cultural impact of the massive diet of violence that is fed on the cinema and the television screen.

So our violence problems are widespread, and, surely, our collective response to them has to be both short- and long-term. The short-term response is to make the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff a well-equipped one, staffed by people like you — people who are committed to the care of those who have experienced family violence, and who attend conferences like this one, to learn from others how you might be more effective. The needs of those you serve must continue to come first.

But there is also a great need for a New Zealand-wide effort to ensure that community workers, counsellors, court staff, psychologists — all members of the caring professions that presently minister in that bottom-of-the-cliff ambulance — to ensure that all of you have less to do. To make it so, violence, in whatever form it takes, must be banished from the way a too-high percentage of us still behave. For that reason, it is heartening to be able to watch the current television advertisement that appeals for children to be brought up positively, not negatively, and to be reminded that children can read anger long before they can read words. It is a relevant message, because so many of us still believe that some corporal punishment is acceptable. That is really the number of us, of course, who have yet to examine consciously the attitudes to corporal punishment that so many of us inherited. Some might claim that "it never did us any harm". But I think it mostly did, and does, and there's much sound research that bears this out.

Let me acknowledge the danger of over-simplifying this problem. Learning is not the only cause of violence. Often it can be a reaction to circumstances, a symptom of stress or frustration. Life is not easy for many people: solo parents, parents unemployed, two parents working long hours, money and constant worries. But that is really no excuse for taking it out on the children. We are, all of us, responsible for our own behaviour. Only we can control ourselves, although sometimes we need some help to do it.

So in the end, we must surely line ourselves up with Jane and James Ritchie. Our national goal, not the goal only of those who support the survivors of family violence, should be the elimination of violence from the lives of all our children. Interestingly, the Ritchies added this: "This may not be the most important thing of all; that has to be that children shall be loved. But love is given in all but a very few families. Even in families where there is regular and violent abuse there may also be love. [So] the problem is not just how to increase the love but how to get rid of the violence."

Violence, whether aimed at or witnessed by children; children's abuse; their neglect; these are the beginnings that blight the lives of very great numbers of New Zealand children. What piles tragedy upon heartbreak is that the violent behaviour that children see, that they are exposed to when most impressionable, feeds into a generational cycle, a cycle that spirals downwards, rather than upwards. Or as the old saying has it — as the twig is bent, so grows the tree.

Ladies and gentlemen, as I said at the outset, there are no subjects more important than the ones that you are here to address. Indeed, for all too many children, women and even a few men, that there might be more and more-effective responses to family violence is the most important subject of all. Nothing else will have anything like the same short-term and long-term impact in their lives; nothing else could come close to providing the same enormous benefits. So may this Conference be, before anything else, a productive one, one that results in restored hope for those with whom you deal; one that will make a human difference throughout the country. Confident that it will be so, I now declare this, the Domestic Violence Taskforce Conference, officially open.

Kia ora koutou katoa.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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