New Zealand Press Association  [Printer-friendly version]
March 7, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: As New Zealand's prisons bulge with new
inmates, a retired Family Court judge tells how potential future
criminals could be helped at birth by an 'at-risk' birth register.]

By Janne Hamilton

Auckland, New Zealand -- A child in his or her first three years of
life exposed to neglect and violence may be heading straight to a life
of crime, a former Human Rights Commissioner and recently retired
district and family court judge says.

Graeme MacCormick has released a paper calling for all newborns to
be placed on a national "at-risk" register so child services can
identify which children, and their caregivers, need assistance and
support -- before it's too late.

"It is from disadvantaged children, those not given a good start in
life, that most of our young and not so young criminal offenders
come," Mr MacCormick said.

"We cannot afford more police, more court staff, more judges, more
prisons, more accident and emergency and mental health workers, more
wasted lives, than we already have."

New research by New Zealand's Brainwave Trust shows a baby's brain
is only 15 percent formed at birth, with the remaining 85 percent
being formed in the first three years.

"Neglect, violence and abuse during these years can damage normal
brain development resulting in the profound and permanent disruption
to the brain's structure, leading to lifelong social, emotional and
learning difficulties," according to website of the trust made up
doctors, educationalists, academic and business professionals.

Babies deprived of stimulating experiences and love, for example, have
been found to have brains 20-30 percent smaller than others of their

According to the trust, for a baby's brain to develop, the brain cells
(neurones) need to be activated to connect up to each other -- these
connections allow basic survival functions.

The average three-year-old living in a stimulating, secure and loving
environment will have 1000 trillion of these connections.

"What the child sees, hears, touches, smells, and feels triggers
electrical activity causing neurones to mature and connections,
pathways and networks to form."

Mr MacCormick said risk factors likely to hinder a baby's brain
development includes alcohol or drug abuse by their parents or
caregivers, a history of family violence, poverty, solo-parenting and

He said it was often a combination of factors that leads to an infant
being deprived of a secure, stimulating and loving environment.

"When the child is actually on the way and for the first two or three
years after it when [parents] need maximum assistance."

Mr MacCormick said the needs/risk assessment could be done in most
cases by the health professional primarily responsible for the birth

He said if the assessment was objective and mandatory it could not be
deemed selective.

"Although there are personal information, privacy, choice and freedom
issues...the right of children to the best possible start in life and
societal benefits should and must outweigh the rights of parents and

Dr Simon Rowley, a neonatal paediatrician at National Women's Hospital
and Brainwave Trustee, said studies in Dunedin and Christchurch, as
well as overseas, had shown it was possible to predict who would have
a bad childhood from the time of birth onwards.

"You can look at the infants styles of interaction -- withdrawing
children who don't wish to communicate socially, constantly crying
miserable kids."

He said an at-risk national birth register was a good suggestion, but
its implementation would have to be sensitive.

"It might sound big-brotherish, but it's not saying "well we think you
are bad people", it's saying "look we know you guys are starting on
the back foot, let's push you forward"."

Dr Rowley said already established programmes -- Hippy, First Start,
-- which went into low socioeconomic pockets of society where it was
identified to be needed -- but they were only hitting a small
percentage of the population.

To reach the entire population, he said, it would need to be a
government-sponsored initiative -- and that signalled money.

Dr Rowley said similar case studies overseas have cost millions of

Mr MacCormick acknowledged there would be high costs and a lot of
manpower needed to establish and implement an at-risk national

"[But] the costs of doing nothing are huge."

In his paper Mr MacCormick presents estimated costs of child abuse and
prison services.

In the year to June 30, 2005, Child, Youth and Family Services
received more than 53,000 abuse and neglect notifications, of which
43,000 required some follow up -- the estimated cost of child abuse,
according to Brainwave Trust, has been estimated at $393,000,000.

Mr MacCormick said approximately $54,560 was spent on a prisoner per
annum in custodial services alone -- this was before adding the costs
of preceding criminal trials.

He said there was also the uncounted costs to families and the next
generation who have spent their formative years exposed to daily
family/whanau violence.

Progressive MP Matt Robson, the former Minister of Corrections
1999-2002 said a ministerial report showed the cost to intervene a
defiant, rule-breaking five-year-old was $5,000 a case, with a 70
percent success rate.

The same behaviour by a 25-year-old cost $20,000 a case, with a
success rate of 20 percent at most.

Mr Robson said prisons reflected a lot about the country's social

"Most of our prisoners, for example, come from the pool of 530,000
adult New Zealanders who are either totally or functionally

Mr MacCormick said it would be better to identify "at risk" children
at or before birth, instead of waiting for them to be picked up a few
years down the track at Child, Youth and Family Services or the Youth

He proposed for those at-risk children that slipped through the cracks
at birth the assessment would catch them at specific age intervals
(two, six, 10 and 14), and would in essence be emotional,
psychological and physical health and welfare checks.