I was deeply disturbed when I heard that another child had been abused and was in a serious condition in Starship hospital. I can’t bear to think of that poor defenceless little girl and the torture she endured; equally I struggle to understand how human beings can actually do this to anyone, let alone their own flesh and blood.

Child abuse has reached crisis point in this country, and it is difficult as individuals to know what to do when it appears that central government has taken no leadership on this issue aside from the “Anti Smacking Bill” .

After the “Kahui twins” there were cross-party talks and discussions around collaboration between social agencies. As often occurs, it was a case of “more Hui” and “less dui”. The government is prepared to invest $67 million dollars over three years to address obesity and yet the community groups who are dealing with child abuse issues at the coalface struggle to attract funding.

Yes, there are very many reasons why abuse occurs – the prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse, the breakdown of the family unit, welfare dependency and the complete lack of any moral fibre in our society.

What has this country become when schools have to contract in organisations to deliver value based programmes?

At home, good parents/caregivers teach their children the basic values of honesty, respect and kindness, but each day these children face angry young men and women who have no self control and no self esteem (dare I use that word) and, as a result, resort to bullying of the most violent nature. I could choose to believe that it isn’t happening in my backyard, but both the schools my eldest children attend have regular incidents of fighting, and generally unacceptable behaviour.

We teach our children to stay clear of these children in order to protect themselves, but as a society we should be standing up to these thugs who are simply mirroring the behaviour shown to them at home. The frustrating thing is that good kids don’t go looking for trouble – more often than not, these children are just simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and then bear the brunt of this nastiness from their peers.

I remember as a young girl walking home from school in Rotorua; a boy about 15 would stop me most days at the end of a shortcut and tease me mercilessly and then urinate in front of me.

Obviously I told my mother, who was outraged and took the matter into her own hands. She waited one day and gave him such a hiding with her umbrella that it scared the living daylights out of him and consequently he was never seen nor heard again! These days my five-foot-nothing mother might have been arrested; she would have probably had to attend a family conference and, worse still, the boy would have been portrayed as the victim.

Much to my sons’ horror I will always stop and confront a child if I see them vandalising property, or if they are picking on other children,or indulging in any other unacceptable behaviour. My sons have taken to hiding under the seat of the car when this happens! Sure there have been occasions when I have been scared stiff of getting the bash. The profanities that come out of young people’s mouths these days are absolutely disgusting and I have taken an earful and been threatened on more than one occasion.

But the more that people take a stand against such behaviour, the more it will not be accepted. Most of these seemingly tough guys are amazed when they are challenged and are suddenly not so brave, particularly when they do not have the support of others.

It will take at least a generation to change these behaviours; it’s not the children’s fault – they are merely a product of their upbringing. We can all make a difference by accepting that we have all have a role to play – by opening our eyes and ears; by helping just one child who is at risk; and most importantly, by educating our own children about the importance of manners, respect and being accountable for their actions.

We also need to be aware that the temptations of drugs and alcohol are, and will be, placed in front of our teenagers even if we believe they aren’t.

We need to give our children the strategies to deal with these situations.  I no longer accuse my boys of telling tales; they need to feel confident that they can inform adults of what is happening without fear of repercussions.

They also need to be able to stand up for themselves. Obviously this is easier said than done especially if your safety is at risk, but at least I know my boys can outrun most kids and mum will be home armed and ready with the umbrella!

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Dame Susan Devoy is New Zealand's Race Relations Commissioner, and a World Open champion squash player. She's the former CEO of Sport Bay of Plenty and super-mum to four boys.

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