27 Jul 2014

New Zealand's Most Vulnerable Kids

From Insight, 8:12 am on 27 July 2014

by Anusha Bradley

Identifying the most vulnerable children even before they're born could improve the lives of Maori and Pacific children.

Insight looks at the latest findings of Auckland University's long-term Growing Up in New Zealand study, as it releases a report on child vulnerability.

damp window
Photo RNZ/Anusha Bradley.

New information from the study which tracks the lives of nearly 7,000 children, could be used to narrow the inequality gap between Maori and Pacific children and their Paheka counterparts, according to researchers.cover vulnerability

There are 12 risks that can affect a child's health and wellbeing. These include factors such as whether a mother smokes or experiences depression, or whether her child lives in a cold, damp or overcrowded home.

Using information collected from the children - during their first one thousand days - from conception until their second birthdays - researchers found that one in three were exposed to three or more such risks, while 16 per cent were exposed to 11 or 12.

Children born to Maori and Pacific Island mothers were exposed to the greatest number of risks in that period of their lives, compared with Paheka or Asian children.

The study's lead researcher, Dr Susan Morton, says these findings could be used to identify and help the most vulnerable children, even before they are born.

She suggests one way of tackling the problem could be to use routine information that's already collected on pregnant women, which could be used to create a checklist to identify those most in need.

Susan and children
Lead 'Growing Up in NZ' researcher Dr Susan Morton. Photo supplied.

We definitely began to see our Maori and Pacific children, in particular, were likely to be exposed to higher rates of risk factors for vulnerability at any one point and over time.... and we're wondering at this point, how much that can explain the inequalities that we see in many of the outcomes for our Maori and Pacific children.


International research has suggested that a child's development can be negatively affected if their mother suffers from depression.

16 per cent of mothers in the study experienced depression during their pregnancy.

Depression is something Zach Enticott's mother, Donna, suffered when she was pregnant. She says while the assistance she received from Auckland District Health Board's Maternal Mental Health Service was good, she ended up using private services to get the help she needed.

The people that work in the system are fantastic but the system is crippled by a lack of resourcing.  I was low-end on their scale but I still needed support, but they're just overworked and underfunded.

Damp, Cold Homes

Two thirds of children in the study were found to be living in cold, damp homes which increased their chances of getting sick as babies and toddlers.

Emeliah Pritchard, the youngest of five children, is often sick in winter. Her mother Hilda says her daugher always has a runny nose or cough because she can't afford to heat their Papakura home.

In contrast, five-year old Rowan Phillips lives in the well-off Auckland suburb of Meadowbank. His parents insulated the family home when they bought the place and installed central heating.

His mother, Sarah Phillips, originally from Canada, says she's often amazed at how cold New Zealand homes are.

In 2008 the World Health Organisation found New Zealand homes were around six degrees cooler than recommended temperatures.

Dr Susan Morton says that's one of the leading causes behind high rates of ear, skin and respiratory infections amongst babies and toddlers.

In and Out of Vulnerability

Tamaki Innovation Campus Gate jpg credit AK Uni cropped

The Growing Up in NZ study plans to follow families for 21 years. Photo Auckland University.

Data collected from interviews and phone calls with the nearly 7,000 families in the Auckland University study, show  a child's exposure to vulnerability can change over time.

For example, children whose mothers were exposed to two or more risk factors in pregnancy were nearly 60 per cent more likely to have had an accident or injury needing medical attention by the time they were nine months old.

However by the time they turned two, these vulnerable babies were no more likely than others to have been injured.

Dr Morton says it's crucial to understand how and why these changes happen so they can find out what helps children and their families and what doesn't.

As the study tracks the lives of these children, Dr Morton says they are interested in those children who do well, despite being exposed to risks in their early years.

She says the information gathered so far about childrens' lives will be put on the policy tables of 16 government departments and agencies.

That data will be used to evaluate current policies as well as shape future strategies that will hopefully improve the lives of all children in New Zealand.

The 12 risk factors used in the study for defining vulnerability in mothers:

  • Teenage pregnancy (Young maternal age)
  • Mother with no formal secondary school qualifications (Maternal education)
  • Maternal depression
  • Poor maternal physical wellbeing in late pregnancy
  • Mother smoking regularly/daily during and after pregnancy
  • Mother with no current partner (Relationship status)
  • Reporting highly stressful money problems (Financial stress)
  • Living in a decile 9 or 10 NZDep 2006 area
  • Mother actively seeking work but not currently working (Unemployment)
  • Living in public rental accommodation
  • Having two or more persons on average per bedroom (Overcrowding)
  • Being in receipt of an income tested government benefit
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