Malachi Subecz and Mandatory Reporting
With all respects and empathy for the those close to Malachi, it’s important to consider this tragic case further.
The family, Dame Karen Poutasi who conducted a review, ‘independent victim advocate’ Ruth Money and others have called for mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse. Dame Poutasi made other recommendations too, including vetting those who look after children whose mothers are imprisoned and increasing cross-agency communication and cooperation. Some of these recommendations may well be helpful, but the most effective solutions were lacking due to faulty understanding of the causal factors in this case.
Mandatory reporting is a strange recommendation given that Malachi’s extended family members made notifications of concern to Oranga Tamariki, prison authorities (where Malachi’s mother Jasmine Cotter was imprisoned), Jasmine’s Family Court lawyer, the Family Court Lawyer for Child, and the police. Oranga Tamariki decided that the bruising shown on a photo the family provided was not bruising and the other personnel did nothing. Reporting happened but led to no sensible response, and whether that reporting was mandatory or not was irrelevant. Perhaps mandatory reporting would have resulted in Malachi’s childcare staff also making a notification, but would that have made any difference?
One of the main problems in this case appeared to be excessive faith in the goodness of women and disrespect for men. Malachi’s killer Michaela Barriball was easily able to deceive authorities who were reluctant to believe a woman could be violent and dangerous. If Malachi’s caregiver had been a man, the boy’s reported presentation would have led authorities to act quickly and decisively. Malachi would have been placed in the care of an aunt or other female. In reality, he could have been placed in the care of his loving stepfather who had raised him from the age of 3 months and who was one of the people notifying authorities, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Jasmine Cotter’s choice for Malachi to be cared for by her ‘friend’ Barriball was shown more respect than was the history and bonding the boy had with his stepfather.
Of course, Dame Poutasi wouldn’t allow herself to see the pro-female, anti-male sexism involved. She even portrayed Jasmine Cotter as an innocent victim in the events, even though Malachi’s death had resulted from Cotter’s choice to choose a drug associate to look after Malachi over the stepfather or other family members close to him, and from her disregard for the concerns family were expressing.
Mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse would almost certainly result in serious unintended consequences. Child protection services would be overloaded with poorly-based notifications such as those from teachers worried that they will be in trouble if they don’t report that sticking plaster the pupil attributed to a minor accident. Those services would become even more incompetent in assessing risk than they are now, e.g. in Malachi’s case. People will lose trust in schools, helping and health professionals and other organizations. Families experiencing problems with their children’s behaviour will avoid seeking help for fear of silly notifications.
One interesting possibility however is that we could make notifications about every child abused by Family Court, especially those children whose relationship with their father is damaged on the basis of mothers’ unevidenced allegations. The fact that the law requires the Family Court to abuse children in this way should make no difference if reporting is mandatory.