Misguided child protection policies increase abuse risk

Impoverished levels of supervised access for at-risk mothers and their babies, means the rupturing of attachment and an increased likelihood of abuse

By Elizabeth Willmott-Harrop

18 October 2010

Numerous studies have implicated lack of mother infant attachment in child homicide and abuse, highlighting the mother baby bond as a key protective factor for a child.

Yet in an effort to protect at-risk babies from their mothers, New Zealand’s child protection agency CYF, deliberately ruptures the bond between mother and child, by allowing only a few hours of supervised contact per week.

With 48% of child abuse in New Zealand perpetrated by women, government policy is unwittingly but systematically stripping away the first line of defense against abuse.

Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy says of the mother infant relationship: “Human infants are so vulnerable and dependent for so long a time, that the level of commitment to them by the close relative on the spot at birth, primed to care, and lactating, is the single most important component of infant wellbeing”.

The 2007 report Lives Cut Short which analysed 91 New Zealand child homicides from 1991 to 2000 comments “Perhaps most compelling in our small qualitative study was the number of times bonding and attachment issues featured … It is important that professionals understand the strength of the caregiver–child bond, which inevitably makes the parent more or less of a protector for the child.”

A case in point is Anita aged 30 of Christchurch, New Zealand. Her son Deathaniel was removed from her care at nine days old, amidst allegations of methadone dependency. From that time, Anita and Deathaniel’s father, Richie, were only allowed to see the baby for seven hours per week spread over four days. Sometimes visits are canceled at the last minute due to lack of staffing.

Meanwhile CYF were unable to accommodate Anita seeing Deathaniel for two whole weeks after the 4th September earthquake in Christchurch, exacerbating the pressures of separation for both mother and baby.

On the remaining 3 days of the week, and in the 161 hours every week when Anita is without her baby son, Anita expresses breastmilk in a devoted ritual for her absent baby, now aged 3 months. The couple drive miles every other day to deliver it into the hands of a trusted adult who would pass it on to Deathaniel.

Anita and Richie are committed to breastfeeding their son, and Anita endures hours of laborious expressing of milk, which is always accompanied by the agony of not being able to see her baby.

Anita explains: “It is absolutely terrible I also worried that I would get postpartum depression again, as I did with my second child. I just feel full of worry and anxiety not knowing how my baby is doing. The ache never goes away.”

Anita’s point about postpartum depression is significant, because it is implicated in lack of attachment making her even more vulnerable.

Anita is on a waiting list for a place in a mother baby home where clients have 24 hour supervision. However places are extremely limited due to lack of funding.

The point is not whether Anita and Richie should be allowed unlimited unsupervised access to their child, as most parents take for granted. The point is that if child protection agencies exist to prevent child abuse, and if their objective is to reunite children with their birth parents wherever possible, then a policy of enforced unbonding is shortsighted and counterproductive.

It is an issue which urgently needs to be addressed. Both at the level of funding, so that more places are available in mother baby homes, and at the level of policy to give recognition to the fact that the current system breaches the rights of infants to the measures of protection they deserve.

Liberty & Humanity

Related article:

She-wolves in sheeps’ clothing

In New Zealand, 48% of child abusers are women. These are ordinary women not evil aberrations. Women for whom factors such as their own history as a victim of abuse, poverty and social isolation, have collided to create a parent unable to live up to the ideal of the all-nurturing, self sacrificing mother. Society has to take responsibility for creating both the idealistic image and the conditions under which women are unable to nurture their children. Meanwhile the female perpetrator is unacknowledged by society, giving her and her child victims no way out.