Nia Glassie’s story – An account of New Zealand’s horrific child abuse national scandal

Nia Glassie

Nia Marie Glassie was a child of only 3 years old when she died from her injuries. She had been a victim of a series of shockingly terrifying abuse inflicted on her by her caregivers. The case gained notoriety for the involvement of a mother in the assault and neglect of her own daughter.

The level of child abuse levied on Nia sparked outrage in New Zealand and she unwittingly became the face of the campaign against child cruelty and violence. It was a national scandal, one on which Prime Minster Helen Clark commented:

“I cannot believe that a child subjected to that level of horror, sadism, torture — that nobody knew… People have got to start turning in those who frankly are maiming and killing our children.”

Nia Glassie was “hung on a clothesline and spun in a clothes dryer” before she died

Nia Glassie
Nia Glassie | Photo by Family Handout

Nia Glassie, along with her three elder siblings, lived with their mother Lisa Michelle Kuka in Rotorua, a city in the North Island region of New Zealand. Kuka, 34 years old at the time, was a single parent in a romantic relationship with the then 17-year-old Wiremu Whanau Curtis.

The abuse case came to light on July 22, 2007, when Nia was admitted to a local hospital by her mother with serious abdominal injuries and a brain hemorrhage. At first, Kuka claimed that her daughter had sustained the injuries after accidentally falling off Curtis’ shoulders.

However, the medical team attending to Nia ascertained that the injuries were not a result of a single instance. She was transferred to Starship Children’s Hospital in Auckland after her condition failed to improve. It later emerged that the toddler had been subjected to long-term abuse, from the beginning of March to the end of July 2007, at the hands of her extended stepfamily.

The New Zealand Herald reported that shortly before she was taken to the hospital, Nia was “hung on a clothesline and spun in a clothes dryer” for more than 30 minutes and then submerged in an ice-cold bath. She also had burn marks on her head and feet that were a result of being held over a fireplace as the investigators eventually learned.

For the following days, Nia was kept in a drug-induced coma but remained in a critical condition. She died from her injuries on August 3, 2007, just two weeks after being admitted.

An unconscious Nia was neglected for 36 hours before being taken to the hospital

On July 24, 2007, police investigations revealed the horrific details of the abuse inflicted by the North Island family members on Nia.

She was beaten, slapped, kicked, and jumped on as one of the abusers practiced wrestling moves from a computer game on her. She was shoved into the garbage, folded into a sofa and sat on, thrown against a wall, and dropped from a height onto the floor.

The list goes on from being neglected on the roof of the house, spun on a clothesline until she fell, hauled half-naked through a sandpit, chased naked around the house to being left outdoors for hours in cold temperatures. The abuse intensified during her last few days.

To make matters worse, Nia remained unconscious for 36 hours, untended to and abandoned, since her caregivers did not seek immediate medical attention that could have possibly saved her life. At the time, her father, Glassie Glassie Junior, was living in Sydney in New South Wales, Australia.

Nia’s paternal grandfather, Glassie Glassie Senior, told The New Zealand Herald that she did not deserve to be treated the way she was. He said:

“In my heart right now, I just want my grandchild to pull through, she is a young child. Baby is cute, I look at her and think what a little nice granddaughter I have. She has a big smile. I told my son about what happened and he was angry. I have been watching this on the news and reading it in the paper. I don’t know why [this has happened].”

Six people, including Nia’s mother and members of the extended stepfamily, were charged with abusing her

Nia Glassie Family member
Michael Pearson , Michael Curtis, Oriwa Kemp and William Curtis in Rotorua District Court | Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images

Almost immediately after Nia’s hospitalization, Wiremu Curtis, his 21-year-old older brother Michael David Curtis, the brother’s 17-year-old partner Oriwa Kemp and Kuka’s 19-year-old nephew were all charged with assault.

The father of the Curtis brothers, 47-year-old William Curtis, was also charged with assault and injuring with intent to cause grievous bodily harm for the abuse of Nia in a separate incident. With Kuka being charged on July 30, a total of six people comprising of four adults and two minors were charged with the assault of a child.

The four-week trial that concluded on November 17, 2008, convicted Wiremu Curtis and his brother Michael Curtis of Nia Glassie’s murder and were sentenced to life imprisonment. The guilty verdict was passed unanimously by a jury of seven men and four women after eleven hours of deliberation.

Nia’s mother Lisa Kuka was found guilty of two counts of manslaughter, one for purposefully not seeking immediate medical attention for the injuries of her daughter and another for her failure to protect her. She was sentenced to nine years of imprisonment with a chance of parole.

As for Kuka’s nephew Michael Pearson and Michael Curtis’ partner Oriwa Kemp, they were not convicted of manslaughter but were instead found guilty of the child abuse and cruelty charges levied against them.

It emerged that Pearson was the one who practiced wrestling moves on Nia while Kemp had aided the Curtis brothers in spinning the child on a clothesline.

While the motive for Nia’s abuse is still unclear, her abusers apparently disliked her for being “ugly”

The trial also found that most of the family members and neighbors were aware of the neglect and abuse inflicted on Nia but decided against informing the authorities out of the stigma of ‘narcing’. On the other hand, some of the witnesses and neighbors even deemed the violence to be typical.

Witness Rawhiti Simiona, a neighbor who saw Nia being swung on the clothesline, expressed regret for not reporting the instance, saying:

“I feel partially responsible in some sense, that maybe she would still be alive if I had have rung the police that day because not too long after that she passed away.”

But despite all the testimonies, the motive of abuse remained unclear. Prosecutor Fletcher Pilditch said that he could not discern the obvious reasoning behind the actions of the perpetrators even after presiding over the case’s evidence for a month. He told BBC News:

“She was bullied in the worst kind of way. She was singled out, for what reason we do not know.”

Oriwa Kemp, after serving her one-year prison sentence, later revealed in a 2018 interview with The New Zealand Herald that the Curtis brothers took an instant dislike to Nia on the grounds of her being “ugly”.

She went on to say that she was “not a monster” for her involvement in Nia’s murder as it happened during a turbulent time of her teenage life.

“I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, no way. I’m just not that person anymore,” Kemp said.

Nia’s father did not attend the trial and had “no feelings” about the verdict

Nia Glassie parents
Glassie Glassie Jnr and Lisa Kuka, the mother and father of Nia Glassie | Phil Walter/Getty Images

While the case had gained national popularity and a huge number of people joined the courtroom, Nia’s father, Glassie Junior, chose not to attend the trial. He found it difficult and confusing to reconcile with the fact that his ex-partner had caused their child’s death, explaining:

“I really don’t want to be there. It’s hard because she was my partner before. I’ve been in a relationship with her and she’s the mother of my kids. I feel sorry for her. It’s just mixed feelings toward her. It shouldn’t have happened that way… I’ve got no feelings [about the verdict). At the end of the day, my baby’s gone and nothing will bring her back,” he said.

Glassie was also laden with the responsibility of looking after his other three children – between the ages of 9 and 13 – with Kuka. At the time, they were living with him in the nearby town of Tokoroa.

“The kids are going to do normal things – go to school and come home. I’ve just got to be with them. I’ve still got to talk to them about what’s happening, quietly,” he said.

Lisa Kuka, Nia’s mother, was released from jail in 2017 after serving her nine-year sentence

Lisa Kuka, mother
Nia Glassie’s Mother, Lisa Kuka | Stephen Parker/Nzherald

Lisa Kuka was released on parole on September 22, 2014, in the midst of serving her nine-year sentence in prison. After two years, she was recalled to prison on August 22, 2016, to complete the remainder of her sentence.

At the prison grounds, Kuka worked as a wing cleaner. She also displayed a deteriorating attitude, behavior, and stubbornness to conform to authorities.

Following the expiration of her sentence on October 16, 2017, Kuka was released from prison and is currently on parole. The Parole Board classified her as a medium-risk offender

For her life outside prison, she is strictly prohibited from consuming any alcohol, drugs, and non-prescribed medication as well as communicating via media outlets be it through radio, television, or social media.

Apart from being discouraged to form intimate relationships and contacting friends and family, she is also not allowed to have contact with children below 16 years of age without the permission of her probation officer.