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We seem to have forgotten how and why this little boy brutally died

There is nothing more tragic than the case of James Whakaruru. More than twenty yeas ago this three year old, innocent little boy was admitted to hospital with what we now know to be non-self inflicted injuries. At the time the Doctor believed his mother’s story that nothing other than a child’s misadventure had occurred. He was operated on and discharged. In the end the little boy, who’s story is lost in time, lay dead. His injuries, both internally and externally were horrific. The perpetrator was the boyfriend of his mother, Ben Haerewa.

This was not just a tragedy in the making within a small whanau unit this was something repeated on both sides of the family going back many decades. There had, over the decades, been numerous reports and notifications made. Reports had been written, social workers had intervened and yet everyone lost visibility of the little boy who’s life ended in tragedy. Today, as a Royal Commission into State Care between 1950 and 1999 gets underway and data is released by Oranga Tamariki showing the number of children abused while in care, it is timely to remind everyone about James. James’ case is important because it occurred in 1999 – the last year the Commission will look at.

James Whakaruru died on 4 April 1999 from one or more physical assaults perpetrated by his mother’s partner, who had been convicted of a previous assault on James in 1996. An investigation found that poor interagency communication characterised the professional work with James and his family. Agencies worked without reference to each other, and ended their involvement assuming that other parts of the system would protect James. Some workers seemed unaware of the indicators of a child at risk or did not appreciate the role they needed to play to ensure his safety and well being. There was little if any attempt to engage culturally-appropriate services, or to address the situation in the context of his wider whanau, hapu and iwi. James’ mother, Te Rangi Whakaruru, began a relationship with Ben Haerewa when James was approximately one year old. He was seen by two GPs for facial injuries when aged 15 months (twice) and at 18 months. On 18 July 1996, when he was just over two years old, James was admitted to hospital with serious injuries from a domestic assault. This began a period of multi-agency activity.

The hospital reported the assault on James to the Police on 18 July 1996, and Ben Haerewa was charged, convicted and eventually sentenced. Between hearings he was free on bail, with conditions that he not associate with Te Rangi Whakaruru nor have contact with James. The Police did not tell the Department of Child, Youth and Family Services that Ben was out on bail and that he breached bail conditions by associating with James and Te Rangi.

The Police made a formal care and protection notification to Child, Youth and Family on 19 July. Five days later a social worker visited James at his maternal grandparents where he was now staying. They advised the grandparents to seek legal custody themselves under the Guardianship Act 1968. There is no evidence that Child, Youth and Family complied with section 17 of the CYPF Act 1989. They did not:

  • gather information widely from family and other agencies, as the term “investigation” implies (s17(1))

  • consult the Care and Protection Resource Panel (a statutory board of suitably qualified members of the community) as required (s17(1))

  • refer James for a Family Group Conference (FGC) as required if a social worker believes that a child or young person is in need of care or protection (s17(2)).

The social worker used the relatively informal intervention of encouraging one family member to seek custody of James through civil processes. This cut across James’ right under the CYPF Act, as a child in need of care and protection, to have his natural father and all his whanau involved in decisions about his future.

Between May 1998 and his death in April 1999, James suffered two significant injuries. Neither was reported to Child, Youth and Family or the Police. On 9 May 1998, James came to hospital for a tear to his penis, which required emergency surgery. He attended in the care of his mother and Ben Haerewa. The hospital recorded two different explanations given by family and patient for this injury. Neither the conflicting explanations, nor the past medical history of non-accidental injury, seemed to alert any emergency or specialist staff to potential harm.

On 20 March 1999, James’ mother sought help from an emergency pharmacy for a deep laceration to James’ lip. She was taken to a GP who had had no previous family contact. She came to the GP again the next day, for no obvious reason, but did not return for the sutures to be removed. The GP passed information about this incident to the practice where he believed the family was known, but they said they had not seen James for “a very long time”.

James died shortly after arrival at the hospital emergency department on 4 April 1999. He had extensive internal injuries and tissue damage consistent with one - or more likely several - prolonged beatings, which caused his death.

The impacts:

James was seen forty times by health practitioners, four presentations at the hospital emergency department, two admissions and one outpatient clinic, three face-to-face Plunket contacts, and thirty visits to general practitioners at four practices. Collectively the health sector had available a telling picture of James’ circumstances. This picture was never put together because of poor communication between practitioners. Information was not passed on or was incomplete. Previous records within the same hospital or practice were not viewed, and where James was not known, the records suggest that social and medical histories were not sought or provided. Some individual practitioners appeared to be unaware of signs of possible risk.

Social workers in Child, Youth and Family are authorised under the CYPF Act to investigate, assess and intervene when a child is suspected of harm within a family. They are required to secure the child’s protection in ways which, as far as possible, support and sustain the child’s enduring connection with his family. Legal and policy requirements help find the appropriate balance in each case, but these were not followed for James. Information held by other agencies was not sought, the investigation was not planned and managed jointly with Police, the Care and Protection Resource Panel (CPRP) was not consulted, and there was no Family Group Conference. The chosen intervention (resolution of safety and care through family-initiated legal action) did not match the actual and potential degree of harm.

The department decided unilaterally to encourage one grandmother to seek custody, in direct contravention of CYPF Act principles. James was entitled to have all his family involved in decisions about his safety and wellbeing. Child, Youth and Family was also asked, in their role under the Guardianship Act, to report to the Family Court on the custody dispute between mother and grandmother. The two reports reached diametrically opposed conclusions about James’ safety with his mother, and were not based on any extensive enquiries or observation of the situation.

The Police made a formal child abuse notification on 19 July 1996, but then dealt independently with Ben Haerewa’s offending. They did not advise Child, Youth and Family when Ben Haerewa was found with James and his mother at her home, in breach of his bail conditions. Nor did they push the department to act. When Ben Haerewa was released from prison, Child, Youth and Family were not notified. There was no legal or procedural requirement for the prison service to do so.

Ben Haerewa was under supervision by the Department of Corrections Community Probation Service from 3 May to 2 September 1998. This supervision provided potential oversight of Ben Haerewa’s contact and involvement with James, but there were no home or employment visits and reporting was allowed to lapse. The supervision order was imposed for a serious assault on a child, but the service did not apparently communicate with Child, Youth and Family. The special conditions attached to the supervision order focused on behavioural change in areas, which would arguably have enhanced James’ safety. However, these were omitted from the information forwarded from the Department for Courts. The Family Court granted a Temporary Protection Order for James against Ben Haerewa shortly after his release from prison. The Department for Courts did not formally advise the Community Probation Service, who were responsible for supervising Ben Haerewa, although there is evidence to suggest that they knew informally.

Over the decades the New Zealand narrative around the care and protection of children has been peppered with stories of children like James and they come from diverse backgrounds and many colors. But it seems, that each time a case is bought to the public mind, recommendations are made but we don’t appear to have broken the circuit.

Has much changed? Have we learnt the lessons from cases such as James? The answer is no. We have been here before. We have had recommendations made. And yet time and time again we arrive back in the same place we did five years ago, ten years ago, twenty years ago – fifty years ago.

  • Read the full report:

  • Elements of this article have been inserted from the original report executive summary into the death of James.

Matthew Tukaki, Executive Director of the New Zealand Maori Council

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