New Zealand Press Association, 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 age.

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 transitoriness.

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 itself.

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 caregivers."

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 dollars.

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

"[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 needs:

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

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 Court.

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.