WARNING: This story contains details of child abuse which readers may find distressing.
Children’s Minister Kelvin Davis says he will “get to the bottom” of what could have prevented the murder of five-year-old boy Malachi Subecz.
Malachi died in November 2021, following prolonged and horrific abuse at the hands of a woman appointed as his caregiver.
Michaela Barriball, 27, pleaded guilty to four charges related to his death at the High Court in Tauranga on Wednesday.
The summary of facts state she had interim custody of Malachi, from June 2021, after his biological mother was imprisoned.
Davis, who is the minister responsible for Oranga Tamariki, says he wants to know what involvement his ministry had in the boy’s life.
Davis says he has personally moved to get more information from Oranga Tamariki about what it did, or didn't do, to keep Subecz safe. He expects the agency to brief him this week.
Children’s Minister Kelvin Davis has addressed the murder of Malachi Subecz, a 5-year-old killed by his interim caregiver. Photo: ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff.
“There has been some involvement of Oranga Tamariki, I want to get the bottom of it and make sure we know what was done and what – if anything – could be done better,” he says.
“My heart goes out to the young fella. I want to get to the bottom of this.”
While tasked with his care, Barriball subjected the five-year-old boy to daily assaults which included throwing him into walls, holding his head underwater, and picking him up off the ground by his hair.
He died on November 12, at Starship Hospital, after being found injured in Tauranga on November 1.
Stuff has also asked Oranga Tamariki what involvement it had in Malachi’s life, and is awaiting a response.
Child Matter chief executive Jane Searle: “It sounds like there were plenty of opportunities for [the other adults in Malachi’s life] to step up and protect him. Why did they not do that?” Photo: Christel Yardley/Stuff.
Ministry of Education Operations and Integration/Te Pae Aronui leader Sean Teddy, says the ministry will not comment while the case was still before the courts.
“Where a school or early learning service suspects abuse or neglect they are legally required to report this to the relevant agency. For criminal matters this is police.
“When we are made aware of concerns about child’s safety or wellbeing, we act, including coordinating with other agencies where needed.”
Child Matters chief executive Jane Searle says the case is just another suddenly visible tip of an iceberg of abuse.
“Everyone talks about the case of Moko [Rangitoheriri] being the worst this country has ever had, but the reality is there are many cases that are just as tragic. There are hundreds of children in New Zealand who are suffering abuse like this every week, some with life-changing injuries.”
While she did not have enough detail on the specifics of Malachi’s case, Seale says it appeared symptomatic of a three-pronged failure on the part of Government agencies, staff at kindergartens and schools, and – perhaps most significantly – of the adults in the children’s lives.
“Those are the three main things that can protect children ... With the Government agencies, it could be that they were simply too slow. There was not enough prioritisation. But it seems there are so many factors in play, it is hard to know for sure.”
Assistant Maori Children's Commissioner Glenis Philip-Barbara: ”I really hope young people get a greater say in who they are placed with.” Photo: Monique Ford/Stuff.
A lack of mandatory training for staff at kindergartens and childcare centres on how to identify signs of abuse and how to respond to it appropriately is also needed, she says.
“At many countries overseas it is mandatory, yet here it is not. You have to wonder why that is.
“The main factor is the other adults who were living in the home where this boy was. It sounds like there were plenty of opportunities for them to step up and protect him. Why did they not do that?”
And it was not those people who had to ask themselves that question.
“The last few years, we have averaged the death of a child at the hands of his or her parent or caregiver every four of five weeks.
“Everyone needs to stop and think about that for a second.”
Glenis Philip-Barbara, the Assistant Māori Commissioner for Children, says while she can't talk about Malachi’s situation specifically, when it comes to the vetting of caregivers there is one important voice that is regularly not being heard: The children themselves.
”I really hope young people get a greater say in who they are placed with. Children have a great instinct and know who they are comfortable being around.
“Their feedback needs to have a greater bearing on the decisions being made. And so it should, because children have their rights guaranteed by the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child.”
While there was a “constellation of factors” such as drug abuse and social deprivation that led to situations of family violence and neglect of children, there were also plenty of agencies, particularly in smaller communities, dedicated to preventing such situations.
“One of the questions we need to ask families living with family violence is who do they trust most to support them assist them out of those situations.”