21 Nov 2023

Name suppression leaves dead toddler 'faceless and nameless' - whānau

6:36 am on 21 November 2023
18072016 Photo: Rebekah Parsons-King. Wellington High Court.

Social workers had told Corrections the boyfriend was a risk, but a few weeks later told a judge deciding on bail, he was not. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Whānau of a toddler killed in Southland say heavy court suppressions have left the boy "invisible".

"As a result of these suppression orders our nephew is invisible, and everyone involved is hidden - we'd say protected by name suppression - and our family do not agree with it," one aunt said.

Eight years of reviews and coronial hearings have shown state officials failed the boy, but neither they nor any of the family involved in the case can be identified in any way after a coroner's findings were finalised last week. The High Court ordered the suppressions and these have been made permanent.

The mother's boyfriend, who had a long history of violent offending, inflicted fatal injuries on the child a few days after he was bailed to live at the boy's home in 2015.

A second aunt on the father's side said there was more public scrutiny of child homicides when the youngster's face and name were known, as in the current case of Baby Ru in Lower Hutt.

"The family have the opportunity to speak about him and what's happened to him.

"With my nephew remaining faceless and nameless, that's given the agencies... a reduced sense of accountability for their actions because they can avoid public scrutiny."

Social workers had told Corrections the mother's boyfriend was a risk, but a few weeks later told a judge deciding on bail, he was not.

The coroner found the man who inflicted the fatal injuries was solely responsible for the toddler's death.

The man was found dead in custody. An inquest has yet to be held into his death.

The second aunt said the boy being nameless in public was hurtful to their Māori family. She could picture in her mind the photos of Baby Ru, toddler Moko Rangitoheriri and the Kahui twins.

"The other children that do have faces, do have names... my nephew will never have that. He will forever be known as another child who was killed... but no one will know his face, and no one will know his name."

The whānau had put a photo of the boy at the front of the court during the two coronial hearings, the first into who caused the boy's death and another into how state agencies dropped the ball.

"So it was a beautiful photo of him smiling. He was a very happy boy... loved making people smile and laugh.

"Immediately after the coronial, I went out to visit him. We've been out there with his siblings, and they love to take little trinkets, things that he liked, fire engines, lots of little cars and motorbikes. And, you know, it's nice being there with him. But it's also very sad."

The whānau were not consulted over the suppressions, and tried to challenge them but failed, she said.

The years-long process was "very unkind. It's extremely unkind", she added.

The coroner made no adverse comment about any individual from any agency, noting that the Oranga Tamariki office was under-resourced at the time.

Some submissions to the coroner asked for suppressions to protect other family members.

Both women said the boy's father, their brother, would never get over having raised the alarm with authorities but being ignored.

Officials have conceded they may have been biased against the father.

"Our family loved that little boy," said the first aunt. "Our brother tried to help his son, but he was unable to protect him, and he now suffers from PTSD as a result of this son's death.

Oranga Tamariki

Oranga Tamariki has said it has fundamentally changed its practices to keep children safe in the last few years. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"We feel like we don't matter, and name suppression has made this even worse for us," she said.

"We don't see any difference between our nephew's death, and that of any of the other children whose lives have been taken in very similar circumstances."

His grandmother pleaded at the inquest for society not to let it happen again.

Oranga Tamariki has said it has fundamentally changed its practices to keep children safe in the last few years.

The first aunt said the coroner's recommendation for the agency to improve its safety plans for children was good, but "although they have said that they've made these changes ... we're still having children in the same situation".

"So, if it's changed in practice, I don't think we're seeing a lot of that."

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