Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Suffer the little children

[pic of lurid tabloid cover]I'm trying to put my thoughts in order about the murder of the Kahui twins. I've got all sorts of conflicting emotions running around in my head - anger, sorrow, frustration, sympathy. Anger was the strongest one this morning, for a number of reasons. And the media's not helping by printing stuff like this lurid tabloid cover...

I'm struggling to find the right words - because this case touches on so many tapu subjects in any society. Cruelty, racism, poverty, justice and injustice, finding a balance between blame and understanding, the role of the press in fuelling anger and misunderstandings between cultures trying to live together – it's all here.

Firstly let me position myself and my politicial/social beliefs in all of this - because I think they're an important part of how a person reacts to any situation.

I'm a lefty, a greenie, a "bleeding heart liberal". I'm Pakeha. I value our bicultural/multicultural community enormously, and I applaud New Zealanders' ongoing attempts to put right past injustices and to learn to live together in harmony and in an environment of mutual respect and understanding. I have friends from many different cultures, including Māori, and I feel honoured to have been allowed, as an immigrant from across the other side of the world, to live in New Zealand and make it my home.

I'm immensely proud of our little nation and what we have achieved, and so the events of the past few days have made me sick at heart, to see what some members of our society are capable of, and the damage caused by their actions to the Māori community as a whole.

Two little babies - "cared for" by their extended whanau - are dead. The family's response? Grab yourself a bunch of lawyers, hide behind tikanga and refuse to help police find out who's responsible.

I'm disgusted. This family knows what happened. They know who killed those children, and yet they appear to be protecting them.

This case seems to be, for the majority of New Zealanders, the straw that broke the camel's back. We have an appalling record of child abuse in this country - third worst among 27 developed countries for child deaths; a child killed every five weeks by caregivers.

Child Youth and Family Services dealt with 1010 cases of physical abuse involving Māori children for 2005, compared with 613 Pakeha cases and 451 Pacific Island cases. Māori babies under one year were most at risk. Out of 91 child killings in New Zealand, occurring between 1991 and 2000, Māori babies accounted for 52 per cent of cases. Pacific Island children made up four of the cases, Asians another four and the rest were Pakeha*. - Dominion Post

*Approximately 13% of New Zealanders are of Māori ethnicity, 5% are Pacific Islanders, and 2.5% are Asian.

As a new New Zealander I don't pretend to know everything about our nation's history, but I've done enough reading to realise that many appalling injustices took place in the years following the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. I know Māori land was stolen. I know many Māori were killed or unjustly imprisoned by Pakeha. I feel shame for what members of my culture did. I think it's only right and proper that we make reparation for those injustices, and I admire the work done by the Waitangi Tribunal in righting those wrongs.

But it makes me mad to hear Tariana Turia say "If you look back into our history, we didn't hit our children, so obviously there have been things that have happened where we have become culturally alienated and these situations arise."

Culturally alienated??? WTF??? I'm about as PC as you can get - and even I couldn't stomach this. I'm pleased that Tariana followed up by saying "there is no excuse for violence and there is no excuse for the death of children." - but still...

And yet... am I being an ignorant middle-class whitey here? What do I know about poverty and being caught in that endless spiral? How would I know what it's like to be part of a culture that has suffered discrimination for generations, and for whom the playing field is no longer level?

How do we tease out the threads of this tragedy, the factors that have combined to lead us here?

If we're saying, for example, that poverty can lead to stresses that may manifest themselves in child abuse (which I saw for myself as a teacher in an inner-city school in England) - and that Māori make up a disproportionate number of those living in relative poverty - why is it that Pacific Islanders (many of whom are also found within the lower socio-economic brackets) don't kill their kids in anything like the same numbers?

I know why this is so hard. It's because race and culture's all mixed up with child abuse. And the actions of the Kahui family has made it all too easy for anyone who harbours racist tendencies to come out and say "See? I told you so? Bloody Māori - they all live like Once Were Warriors! They can't be trusted!" And that makes me mad and sad and totally frustrated. Can't the Kahui family see what damage they are doing to the Māori culture as a whole? Don't they care that Māoridom as a whole is being blamed for this?

I don't often agree with John Tamihere, but I think he's spot on when he says:

"Chris and Cru were horribly failed - by their parents, whose job it was to protect them, and by their whanau, who were given the role of guardians but who have made a sick pact of secrecy to protect their killer or killers. This whanau's conspiracy of silence shows an absolute disregard for the murdered twins - and to Māoridom, which is bearing the brunt of community fury." Sunday News.

Maybe we need to try to separate the culture from the crime. This family is protecting a murderer (or murderers). Can we look at the crime, and forget for a moment that this is a Māori family? Problem is, the whanau themselves have brought race and culture into it. They're the ones who requested time-out for the tangi. They're the ones who are bringing up the fact that "in the olden days" Māori were charged with no legal representation - as a justification for them all getting lawyers and taking their time in speaking with the police.

I think many New Zealanders were initially tip-toeing around, afraid of causing cultural offence. The balance seems to have tipped in the last couple of days. Now we're all angry as well as shocked and horrified by the crime itself. We're feeling angry because we respected tikanga, and allowed the family to grieve in peace, and now they appear to have broken their side of the bargain. Kiwis don't like that. We're all about fair play.

I don't think their spokeswoman Ani Hawke did herself any favours on Susan Wood's show last night, either. Her entirely unsubtle attempts to avoid the hard questions put many people's backs up. At the same time, I've felt more than a little uncomfortable with Ms Wood's Doberman-like eagerness to skewer this family in the most public way possible. The media has jumped all over this story and stirred up the hornet's nest, while the police continue to tread carefully.

We live in a society that believes a person is innocent until proven guilty, and where everyone has the right to legal representation. We live in a multicultural/bicultural society where, for the most part, we get along. Within the Kahui extended family there is a murderer or murderers - but within the same family there must also be people shocked and grieving at this terrible tragedy.

I'm not sure how the police are going to sort out this mess, or whether they'll ever figure out the truth. It's human nature to start circling the wagons when you feel threatened, and the Kahui family is no different - but ultimately, the facts remain that two babies are dead, and those responsible may well be members of their own family.

I know there are a lot of non-New Zealanders who read my blog, so here's some background to this sad story:

Three-month-old twins Chris and Cru Kahui were taken by relatives to Middlemore Hospital on June 13, with multiple injuries including brain damage. One twin also had a broken thigh. They died 5 days later in Starship children's hospital and police began a double homicide inquiry.

Having spoken with a number of family members, none of whom were able to tell them how the twins had died, the police allowed the extended family to grieve in peace during the tangi - on the understanding that they would talk to police once the tangi was over. But instead of coming forward, it appears that the family decided to close ranks, and has refused to co-operate - either with police, elders within the Māori community, or politicians from the Māori Party. Instead they 'lawyered up' and, through a spokeswoman, indicated that they would talk to police "when the time is right".

Today police once again visited the family, and 3 members of the whanau left (apparently voluntarily) with police for questioning.

Search results from stuff.co.nz on "Kahui"

Glossary of Māori words:

  • Māori - the native people of Aotearoa/New Zealand
  • Pakeha - non-Māori New Zealander of Caucasian descent
  • tangi - Māori funeral service
  • tapu - holy or sacred - now also means taboo, forbidden
  • tikanga - Māori customs and traditions
  • Treaty of Waitangi - our founding document - an agreement signed in 1840 between the chiefs of the Māori tribes and representatives of Queen Victoria, and the basis on which the British Crown acquired New Zealand
  • Waitangi Tribunal - a permanent commission of inquiry charged with making recommendations on claims brought by Māori relating to actions or omissions of the Crown that breach the promises made in the Treaty of Waitangi
  • whanau - family
Other Kiwi blog posts on the subject
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Bomber said...

"Māori babies accounted for 52 per cent of cases" - Yes but the % of Maori as children and youth is closer to 30%+ actually a lot higher than 13% of the total pop. So it's not as chronic as it first might appear.

But do you think when you see a Pakeha family being dysfunctional that it is a Pakeha problem? Do you view such incidents as racial? Or is it only with Maori that it becomes recognisably ethnic? The media has white tinted glasses.

PS. Good one getting the macron. I didn't realise it was possible - usually it ends up as a different symbol when I've tried importing it.

Will add your blog to blogocracy when update next.

webweaver said...

Interesting comment about the stats in relation to % of Māori children in the Māori population. I hadn't realised that. Just goes to show you can make statistics say a whole lot of different things...

You're right of course about the media having white-tinted glasses.

I think it stems at least partly from the majority/minority thing. When a minority group (any minority - gay, differently abled, overweight, a race or culture which is not the majority - whatever) appears to demonstrate a particular characteristic disproportionate to its percentage in the general population, it's easy to pick up on that and link the two inextricably together (eg gays/AIDS, Māori/child abuse). I say "easy" to do. Doesn't mean it's right - but then when do most of the media make any effort to dig below the surface any more?

In contrast, if it's a characteristic where the numbers match the majority, we tend not to pick up on that association so much - because it's the majority, it's seen as the "norm". Again, not necessarily right - I'm just looking at it from a behavioural point of view.

Of course child abuse occurs right across society - across boundaries of race and ethnicity, and across social and economic classes. That's clear. It's why I was talking about trying to separate the culture from the crime in this case. I wasn't very successful though, because (as I said in my post) I felt as though (in this case) the family had brought culture and ethnicity back into it in a big way.

*sigh* I can see too many conflicting sides in all of this. I think that's why I'm finding it so tough to figure out where I stand.

Macrons - you can make them happen if you use the HTML code. & # 257; for ā for example. I've had to put spaces in between the characters to show it to you, otherwise Blogger automatically converts it. So it's & then # then 257; with no gaps! There's a full set here: Macron: Wikipedia.

Thanks heaps for adding my blog to blogocracy, BTW!

Anonymous said...

Hi ... this is a very interesting post, as was Martyn Bradbury's. I have been going through a similar process over this as you it seems ... except that I am not New Zealand born (but I still reckon I should be allowed an opinion).

Re interpretation of numbers ... I have added some comments regarding this on Martyn's post (where I got your link). You might be interested.

The actual numbers are quite low - but they sound bigger when given in percentages! However, we cannot argue the fact that the Maori rate of child death from deliberate injury is twice that of Pakeha.

But we could also [if we chose] re-phrase it to state that the rate of Pakeha children dying from intentional injury is only half that of Maori!

Either way, the total of such deaths for New Zealand as a whole (49 in 5 years) apparently does not compare particularly well with other 'civilised' countries.

I agree with you wholeheartedly that we need to separate culture from the crime, and look deeper and harder into why people become 'disconnected' from the norms and values of their social groups.

Unfortunately that sort of viewpoint does not sell newspapers or increase TV ratings!

I enjoyed reading your blog and will call again if I may!

webweaver said...

Thanks for your comments Lesly - and for the numbers you posted in Martyn's blog. You're right - the stats are much clearer once we view them as a percentage of each sub-group, rather than as a percentage of the total population. That's why I included the percentages of each sub-group in the population after my stats quote. I didn't join the dots completely though - I probably should have.

I think you absolutely hit the nail on the head with this though:

"...look deeper and harder into why people become 'disconnected' from the norms and values of their social groups."

Isn't this the way we should be looking at this issue? Not "why do twice as many Māori kill their kids than Pakeha?" but "Why do twice as many Māori become 'disconnected' from the norms and values of their social groups (to the extent that they end up killing their kids)?"

By framing the question in this manner we are able to separate the culture and the crime, and place another step in between. It also acknowledges the stats while also acknowledging that this behaviour is not considered by Māoridom to be "the norm".

By Jove! I think you're on to something!

Bomber said...

Thanks for the macron links. āmen to that!