People knew Nia Glassie was in harm's way--someone almost always knows when a child is being abused. A new book tells what you can do to help

It seems hard to believe now, with the benefit of hindsight and the kleig lights of media attention directed on the case for the past three years, that we ever believed no responsible adult knew what was happening to Rotorua toddler Nia Glassie before her death.

The national shock after her 2007 murder was palpable. How could this happen? Here? With no-one noticing?

And of course it didn't. People knew. Adults in a position to help three-year-old Nia chose not to take action. Remove the vexed question as to whether CYF, which had previously intervened with Nia's family and removed a sibling, should have been monitoring Nia, there were still people who could have acted on her behalf.

As with nearly all abused children, there were signs that Nia was in danger, and yesterday at the coroner's inquest into her death we learned that a caregiver at her kohanga reo smelled urine and cannabis in her hair, substances that have no business being in a child's hair, but chose not to say anything. Also, that Nia failed to turn up at kohanga reo for two weeks, less than a month before her death (while her "caregivers" hung her on the clothesline and spun her in the dryer), and again, no one said anything.

We have an odd attitude towards domestic violence in New Zealand, especially when it comes to children. Somehow we think that someone else is going to take action, that perhaps we don't know enough to be of help, that it is ultimately none of our business, a private matter for the family concerned. Are we too polite to poke our noses in, afraid of causing offence, or of getting it wrong, or are we too scared? And if we are frightened, imagine how it is for the children.

It is almost never the case that a child is abused without some outward sign being evident to the adults who see him or her in the neighbourhood, at school, at the doctor's office.

As Merepeka Raukawa-Tait, former Women's Refuge CEO, says in today's Herald, there were people in the little girl's life who knew full well what was happening to her.

"Nia was not invisible. One person with courage could have been the circuit breaker for the abuse, a life saver. They thought only of themselves and not of the defenceless little girl."

Nia Glassie is now a face of childhood abuse in New Zealand. Like the Kahui twins Chris and Cru, she is shorthand for everything that is wrong with how we treat children in this country. There are countless others who are faceless, nameless statistics known only to their families. And then there are the abused kids who grow up, and live with their scarred histories for the rest of their lives.

A new book, Hidden in Front of Us, by Child Matters CEO Anthea Simcock and journalist (and friend of Pundit) Lee-Anne Duncan, tells the stories of 24 men and women who survived childhood trauma. It also tells us unequivocally that the responsibility for abused children lies with us all, and offers suggestions for what to do if you suspect a child is being ill-treated.

The most striking thing about the book is the descriptions of opportunities for adults to intervene on the children's behalf that were ignored. One girl asked her Brownies leader for help outright, and was told "I can't get involved." The same child cried every day when it was time to go home from school and asked her teacher if she could come live with him. She told the school nurse her father was responsible for the marks all over her back. Nothing happened.

Another girl who was sexually abused by a neighbour from the age of five was taken to the family doctor with an STI at the age of nine. He didn't feel he had the skills to deal with the abuse, but was always kind to the girl, which she appreciated.

A boy was underfed by his family, was always hungry and stealing food from rubbish bins and his own kitchen. When he went into foster care at the age of eight, he was the size of a six-year-old. Although he was clearly a smart child, he did not flourish at school.

In each of these cases, adults knew something wasn't right with the child but didn't intervene. Hidden in Front of Us explains how we can take action on behalf of these little ones.

Not all interventions require picking up the phone and calling social services, a move many people find confronting. One suggestion is that you simply listen to a child, and let them know that violence is not okay. You might offer to babysit for a stressed parent who needs time out, or talk through your concerns with a professional.

The Child Matters website outlines signs of abuse and also a list of actions you can take if you suspect a child you know is being harmed.

The most important thing, say the abuse survivors in the book, is to acknowledge what is happening, not to look away as people did in the case of Nia Glassie and so many others.

Comments (4)

by Bruce Thorpe on September 29, 2010
Bruce Thorpe

This column  has quite the tone of the "blame game" played out on so many talk back blamefests and self-righteous forums.

Firstly the notion that it is proper to intervene is much more promoted in this society now that it was even a few years ago. Workers in child abuse have told me on many occasions that they do not seek out further cases, for the simple reason they are not resourced for the ones  that beat down the door, and have no motivation to give others false hope.

In many cases the household where the abuse is occurring is often resistant to any semi-formal approach from neighbours, teachers, relatives even.

I have had the experience of walking into an neighbouring apartment in the middle of the night and confronting peacefully and effectively  a man attacking his wife. Both the man and his family had been good cordial neighbours, befriending several members of my family until that point , and nobody in that household ever spoke civilly to me ever again, but persistently made things difficult for my wife and children.

I was very sure of the propriety of my action on that occasion, and had full support of my wife, and the local police privately confided in me, that they believed my conduct was much more useful than anything that they could do in such circumstances.

Such responses have never prevented me from behaving similarly which such situations arise, but a lot of people do not have the sense of self-empowerment of the educated middle class, and until my society generally adopts a less aggressive culture, it cannot be simply blamed on those who happen to be physically adjacent to such events.

After all removing children from violent homes or urging parents and caregivers to refrain from such compulsive evil, does not change very much. Do you really believe the typical child in such circumstances has some better option available within the family or  agency resources?

by Tim Watkin on September 30, 2010
Tim Watkin

@ Bruce, of course an abuser is resistant to interference, and the abused are usually the same, out of fear, habit, self-loathing etc. That by no means justifies inaction. Nor does a lack of resources, so I'm not sure what you're advising or who you feel is being unfairly blamed.

I don't think any victim would say, 'oh don't bother about me, social services are over-worked' or 'don't bother yourself on my account, just leave me to my suffering'. We all should feel a little guilty when a child's suffering is ignored.

Blame is part of society learning to take responsibility; indeed it's a natural response. Those who had concerns about Glassie and didn't act have said publicly how they blame themselves and wish they had acted. How much better for them as well as her if they had.

Ultimately, however the issue is one of awareness and responsibility. We need to learn that all children in our society are our responsibility and responsible action is better than turning a blind eye.

The answer to your final question is 'it depends'. Those working in the sector – I know some too – have to make that agonising decision all the time. Sometimes they can be moved within the family, sometimes they need to be taken well away.

But you seem to be arguing that because it's difficult to know what to do next, it's best just to leave a child in a violent home. Please tell me I'm wrong.

You say removing a child from a violent home doesn't change much. But if you're that child, it changes everything. If you were Nia Glassie, it could have saved your life.

by Lindsay on September 30, 2010

I have some sympathy for what Bruce is saying. There are practical problems that those who have never worked in this area fail to appreciate. In some communities tolerance for abuse - especially the current very broadened definition - is much higher. For someone living in such a community there are very real risks involved in sticking their nose in. If they do and their testimony is critical to a conviction, as witnesses they are offered anonymous testimony such is the danger posed to them or their own children. Being a 'nark' has little prestige even when a child's safety is involved. For those outside of the community who have the opportunity to notice, there is also an awareness that when authorities get involved the situation for the child can become even more dangerous. And ultimately where are the places to put these children, who are often already disturbed and pose a danger themselves to other children and animals? (I applaud the new 'home for life' project CYF are developing). The sentiments expressed in the post are understandable ones but it lacks a recognition that some very fine lines are often trod between taking the right or the wrong action. This is reflected in the legal requirement to notify child abuse remaining non-compulsory.

by Bruce Thorpe on October 01, 2010
Bruce Thorpe

You say

"But you seem to be arguing that because it's difficult to know what to do next, it's best just to leave a child in a violent home. Please tell me I'm wrong."

I am saying you have to be much more specific in your solutions before you can make a blanket claim that members of the community have a course of action that would solve the problem..

There are countless examples in our beleaguered households of poor and hopeless, of totally unsatisfactory childcare situations, but it is simplistic to suggest a volunteer at the local child care centre or a neighbour has a course of action open to them, that with a little bit of gumption,will solve it all.

I know people whose stories of personal abuse and demoralisation feature foster homes and insititutions as much as they do the original dysfunctional families.

There are no simple answers.

If every child in a childcare centre was directed to social authorities if a worker sniffed a whiff of cannabis let alone urine, our social systems would not be able to deal with the paperwork alone.

I would  bet the abusers of Nia Glassie include functionally illiterate, economically hopeless individuals. I do not think these people are more evil than others.

This country's youngsters of the same age completing educational qualifications and beginning their careers, from homes of adequate  social and economic conditions are not by nature more virtuous. They are better resourced, better educated and under much less stress, and probably have grown up in much more positive circumstances.

If we want no more Nia Glassies, we need to come up with a hell  more than a single raised voice of concern out there in the poor streets of our depressed suburbs and provincial towns.


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