The short, tragic lives of Nia and Moko
By Olivia Carville
Nia Glassie and Moko Rangitoheriri were both beaten to death at the age of 3. Nia died in August 2007; Moko in August last year. They are two of the worst cases of child abuse in New Zealand history and sent shockwaves around the nation.
When details of Moko’s death emerged, authorities and the public likely felt the horror of deep recognition.
Even though the toddlers died eight years apart, there are haunting similarities between the tragedies that stretch beyond their age, ethnicity and month of death.
Nia and Moko were both from single-parent Maori families and living in poverty. They both died at the hands of caregivers who were not biologically related to them, both were denied potentially life-saving medical treatment and in both cases their older sisters tried to save them.
In 2009, Coroner Wallace Bain investigated the death of Nia Glassie.
Back then, he wrote: “In my 19 years of conducting inquests as a judge of the Coroners Court, I have never had to endure such horrendous evidence. My earnest wish is that no one ever has to experience that again.”
Dr Bain is now tasked with investigating the death of Moko.
In his ruling on Nia’s death, Dr Bain wrote about how the deadly abuse of children, often Maori children, was “the biggest and most shameful problem facing our nation”.
“It is sickening that it takes a case like Nia Glassie … to act as a final wake-up call.
“The cases of horrific abuse against children in this country just keep coming,” he wrote, years ago.
Moko is the latest.
Dr Bain has decided to open an inquiry into the little boy’s death to answer “a number of questions that need to be addressed”, such as the suitability of those who cared for Moko, what checks were made on them and if anyone else was aware of the abuse he suffered – and if not, why not.
“Sadly, it seems that eight years later we are again considering such serious and tragic consequences as a result of caregivers mistreating a child,” Dr Bain said.
The Herald has looked at the similarities between the two cases based on court records and coronial findings.
Gravity of abuse
Nia and Moko suffered extremely violent physical abuse for weeks, possibly even months.
The 3-year-olds both had extensive physical and internal injuries when they arrived at hospital and were beyond medical treatment.
Coronial findings and court records for the two children contain long and detailed lists of horrific and ongoing abuse.
For example, Nia was shoved into a clothes dryer and spun at maximum heat while she screamed.
Moko was bitten so hard by his abusers that it caused his face to bleed.
Nia was hung from a clothesline and spun around until she was thrown off.
Moko was picked up and dropped face-first on the floor, sometimes repeatedly.
Nia was kicked in the head, jumped on, held over a burning fire, spat on, dragged through a sandpit half-naked and shoved into piles of rubbish.
Moko was starved, slapped with jandals, choked, punched, kicked, stomped on and had faeces rubbed into his face when he soiled himself.
Both Nia and Moko were unconscious, unresponsive and suffering from brain damage before they arrived at a hospital.
Died at hands of caregivers
Nia and Moko both died at the hands of caregivers who were not biologically related to them. In both cases, the caregivers admitted to police that they didn’t particularly “like” the 3-year-olds.
Lisa Kuka, Nia’s mother, left the toddler in the care of her 17-year-old partner, Wiremu Curtis, and his 20-year-old brother, Michael Curtis, while she worked six days a week.
The brothers didn’t like Nia, thought she was “ugly” and mistreated her for their amusement, including performing wrestling moves on her that they learnt in a PlayStation game, according to the coronial report into her death.
The Curtis brothers were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in 2008.
Nia’s mother was convicted of manslaughter for not protecting her child and for failing to get her medical treatment.
Moko’s mother left him in the care of her friends Tania Shailer and David Haerewa in Taupo while she was caring for her older son at Auckland’s Starship hospital for two months.
Haerewa told police he didn’t like Moko’s “ways” and said he was “angry at him for taking us for granted”, according to the summary of facts in the case.
“Haerewa admitted that he didn’t want Moko around him and that he didn’t like Moko in his presence,” the court documents read.
Shailer and Haerewa were charged with murder, but pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter. They will be sentenced next month.
Denied medical help
One of the most tragic elements of the two cases is that if Nia and Moko had been taken to hospital earlier, they both could be alive today.
Nia was unconscious for 33 hours before her mother sought medical help.
The 3-year-old uncharacteristically wet the bed and would not wake even when her mother bathed her, yet she was not taken to a hospital until the following morning.
The court trial highlighted how the reluctance to seek medical assistance for Nia was likely due to a “selfish desire” of her mother and the Curtis brothers, who wanted to celebrate Michael Curtis’ 21st birthday party that night.
Nia lay dying in a bedroom while the trio partied.
When she eventually arrived at the Starship, “she had such severe brain damage that she was unable to breathe for herself,” the coroner’s finding read.
She spent 13 days on life support.
“Had medical assistance been sought sooner it is likely her death could have been prevented,” the coroner said.
In a similar vein, Moko’s caregivers refused to take him to a doctor for days before his death, even when he could barely move or open his eyes and “kept dropping to the ground” when he was forced to his feet.
When ambulance staff finally came to Moko’s aid, the 3-year-old was found lying face down in the hallway.
“The visual injuries and condition of Moko was such that the paramedic staff simply scooped Moko up and rushed him straight to the emergency department at the Taupo Hospital,” court documents read.
The swelling to his face was so extreme that both of his eyes were swollen so badly the medical team could not open his eyelids to check his pupils.
The court heard that with prompt medical attention Moko’s injuries could have been either completely prevented or reversed and he “could still be alive today”.
Sisters tried to help
Moko and Nia both had older sisters who tried to protect them from the ongoing abuse. But when the sisters were at school during the day, the toddlers were left alone, at the mercy of their caregivers.
Moko’s 7-year-old sister tried to stay home from school to feed her starved little brother and pleaded with Shailer and Haerewa to stop abusing him, Moko’s mother, Nicola Dally-Paki, told TV3’s Story.
“She told me Moko had been locked in the bathroom for two weeks,” Ms Dally-Paki said.
Moko’s sister tried to wipe the blood out of his eyes with toilet paper and feed him water when his caregivers refused.
The 7-year-old told authorities she was forced to partake in the abuse and kick her little brother.
Nia’s sisters, who were aged 8 and 10 at the time of her death, were also left in the care of the Curtis brothers while their mother worked.
The coronial inquest heard how one of Nia’s sisters taught herself “to contain her crying because if she failed to do so she would be further punished”.
Nia’s sisters witnessed her beatings and testified in court via a television screen about what they’d seen.
“Sometimes Nia would bleed but they don’t care about it. They just keep on smashing her,” one of the sisters said.
The other explained how the Curtis brothers put Nia in the dryer “like a ball” and then turned the switch up as high as it could go.
When Nia kicked the door open, they pushed her legs back in, she said.
“The court found there is a real risk of serious and long-term psychological harm to her sisters and they also suffered physical abuse,” the coroner’s report said.
Hidden from agencies
Neither Nia nor Moko attended pre-school at the time of their death, and they were not known to Child, Youth and Family.
With their mothers and sisters out of sight, there was no one to protect them.
Child, Youth and Family was only notified of concerns about Moko’s wellbeing in the days before his death when Shailer said she was worried the little boy would not be safe with his mother, who was planning to collect him from her care.
It is unknown if any neighbours or friends of Shailer and Haerewa were aware of the violent abuse the pair were inflicting on Moko.
His older sisters were silenced by Shailer with abuse and threats.
Before Nia died, a neighbour reported intervening when the 3-year-old was screaming and crying as she was spun on the clothesline.
But the neighbour didn’t notify Nia’s mother, police or Child, Youth and Family.
Nia had also previously attended Te Kohanga Reo day care centre in Rotorua and staff were concerned when she arrived with a bruise on her leg and smelt like marijuana and urine.
Again, no one notified Nia’s mother, police or Child, Youth and Family.
“Nia was just three years of age, very vulnerable and defenceless and was effectively at the mercy of the occupants of the house,” the coroner’s report into her death read.
“This case clearly establishes the responsibility beyond the mother and the immediate caregivers for the wellbeing of a child.”
So what’s been done?
Dr Bain made a string of recommendations after his inquest into Nia’s death in the hopes of improving the system and preventing future deaths.
Since then, the Government has made sweeping changes to legislation to further protect vulnerable children, including bringing into force the Vulnerable Children Act 2014.
It also recently announced a major overhaul of care and protection, with one agency now responsible for the long-term welfare of at-risk children.
“There were a number of very clear and strong recommendations made in the Nia Glassie inquest with a view to ensuring tragic deaths such as hers, and now Moko’s, did not occur in the future,” Dr Bain said.
“The inquest into the death of Moko will specifically look at what steps, if any, have been taken by those identified as having some responsibility in keeping children safe and if those steps are adequate.”