What could have helped Nia

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.