Aug. 9 (Bloomberg) -- The beating deaths of twin 3-month-old Maori boys in New Zealand is fueling demands by lawmakers, doctors and child-welfare lobbyists for a ban on spanking and stricter rules on corporal punishment of children.
New Zealand has the third-worst record for child deaths from maltreatment among the 27 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to a 2003 United Nations report. A disproportionate number of cases involve families of indigenous Maori people.
The deaths of Chris and Cru Kahui in June sparked vigils against domestic violence across the country, soul-searching by Maori leaders and state pledges of funds. The government in May earmarked NZ$53 million ($33 million) over four years to change attitudes toward violence, teach good parenting and fund community groups working with families.
"It is a fact that we are a race of people that are abusing and killing our children,'' said Tau Huirama, 56, joint chief executive officer of Jigsaw, a community group based in Wellington that tackles child abuse. "As a Maori man, my heart still cries when I hear that.''
Poverty, low education, unemployment, young parenthood, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, being a victim of family violence and having a criminal record all are linked to the mistreatment of children, according to a report published last month by the Department of Child, Youth and Family Services.
"There is a critical point where all of these things come together and violence occurs or neglect occurs,'' said Mike Doolan, 63, a former chief government welfare officer. The combination ``seems to be impacting on Maori to a far greater degree.''
Double the Risk
New Zealand had 1.2 deaths per 100,000 children under age 15 because of physical abuse and neglect, according to a 2003 report from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, which cited average annual deaths for 1994 to 1998.
Maori, who make up 14 percent of the 4.1 million population, are twice as likely to die from child abuse as other New Zealanders, according to the child-services agency's report. In the five years through 2003, Maori children died from maltreatment at an average annual rate of 1.5 per 100,000, compared with 0.7 among the rest of the population.
The Maori jobless rate is 8.7 percent, more than double the 3.9 percent national rate, according to government figures. About 49 percent of prisoners in New Zealand jails are Maori, while 38 percent are Caucasians.
The Kahui babies, born prematurely, had been home just five weeks. They died as a result of being bashed on the head or having their heads slammed against a solid object, a post-mortem examination showed. No charges have been filed in connection with the deaths of the infants, who lived in a household with a dozen adults, police said.
"The idea that two babies who were so completely defenseless could be harmed in this way has really given every New Zealander pause,'' said Cindy Kiro, the children's commissioner, a government advocate for children, based in Wellington. "It's galvanizing people.''
Kiro last month proposed a plan to track the health, education, safety and welfare of every child at four development milestones.
The issue is drawing corporate support. Body Shop International, a unit of Paris-based L'Oreal SA, this month began sponsoring a public education and fundraising campaign through its 26 New Zealand stores. Toyota Motor Corp., the world's second-largest carmaker, is paying for television advertisements of parenting advice for community organization Parents Inc.
Efforts to stem child abuse include proposals to ban spanking and to repeal a law allowing reasonable force to discipline children. The UN criticized New Zealand in a 2003 report for not outlawing corporal punishment in the home.
Family violence is endemic in New Zealand, according to the Paediatric Society. A repeal of the law is important to emphasize that violence toward children is harmful, Dr. Ross Wilson told a parliamentary select committee last month.
Seven OECD countries ban physical punishment of children, according to the UN. Sweden was first to introduce an explicit ban, in 1979. Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland and Norway followed.
Child abuse won't go away unless people are lifted out of poverty, according to the UN and government reports.
Seventeen percent of Maori were living in ``severe hardship'' in 2004, up from 7 percent in 2001, according to New Zealand Living Standards, a government report published last month. Just 4 percent of Caucasian New Zealanders fell into the same category.
Former welfare chief Doolan, now a researcher at New Zealand's University of Canterbury, said his research shows that child-abuse death rates declined in the five years through 2005.
"It's trending down,'' Doolan said. "Maybe some of the social programs are beginning to bite. Let's hope.''
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