‘I want the truth’: Police investigate after baby ‘suffocated in collapsed portacot’

Police are investigating the death of a baby who suffered a non-accidental injury in the days before she apparently suffocated in a collapsed portacot while sick with pneumonia.

Kween Thompson, whose birth has not been officially registered, died at a property in Dargaville, Northland, on July 13.

According to her mother, the 10-month-old girl suffocated after her then 22-month-old sibling caused the portacot she was sleeping in to collapse.

An autopsy confirmed the baby had died from asphyxia. But it also revealed she’d suffered an unrelated non-accidental injury up to eight days prior, had unexplained bruises on her face and pneumonia.

Extended whānau were shocked when they learnt there had been a boozy gathering at the Parore St house while Kween’s body was lying there in an open casket.

During a meeting with a large group of family members the following month, an Oranga Tamariki staffer said the pathologist who conducted the autopsy had “indicated Kween would have been a very unwell child, and that those caring for her would have seen evidence of the non-accidental injury”.

“The type of non-accidental injury sustained is significantly concerning to Oranga Tamariki and we have been informed this has been the result of direct abuse to Kween,” the staffer said.

“Given that there is no evidence of medical intervention or help being sought for Kween, and that no-one in the whānau had informed Oranga Tamariki or police of the concerning injury, there is no way of knowing who the safe people have been in Kween’s life during the time frame.”

Members of Kween’s wider family recently contacted Stuff in the hope publicity about the case would ensure it was investigated vigorously by police.

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“I want some light shone on this,” a woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.

“I want someone to be held accountable, and I want the truth to come out.”

This week, Detective Senior Sergeant Kevan Verry, of Northland police’s child protection team, would not reveal the nature of Kween’s non-accidental injury, but said it did not appear to have caused her “unexplained” death.

Detective Senior Sergeant Kevan Verry is leading the investigation into baby Kween Thompson’s death.

Ross Giblin

Detective Senior Sergeant Kevan Verry is leading the investigation into baby Kween Thompson’s death.

“Police are engaging with medical experts to understand more about the injury, which may take some time and we are keeping an open mind as to what has occurred.”

Verry said detectives had spoken to various members of Kween’s whānau, with “varying degrees of cooperation”.

He appealed for information from anyone who may have had interactions with the baby girl in the fortnight prior to her “tragic death”.

Kween was born several weeks premature in September 2022 and “fought for her life” in Waikato Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit, a member of her wider whānau says.

Despite her rough start, the “absolutely beautiful girl”, who had short brown hair and the “biggest smile”, was beginning to flourish – sitting up by herself and almost crawling.

For much of her short life, Kween and her older sibling lived with their mother Kalani Taitumu, 20, and their father, Tyler Thompson, at a property in Kenheath Pl, Taumarunui.

But about the beginning of July, Taitumu and her two children travelled north to Dargaville, where Taitumu’s mother, Ebony Bennett, 40, lived in a weatherboard villa on Parore St. It’s unclear why. Taitumu and Bennett had largely been estranged from each other in the months prior.

Taitumu told family that about 5pm on July 13, as dinner was cooking, she checked on Kween and found her unresponsive in her portacot, which had been pulled down by the child’s older sibling. She claimed her daughter had suffocated.

Emergency services were called, but the child couldn’t be saved.

In the days following Kween’s death, whānau noticed bruises on her face.

Taitumu claimed they were caused through rough handling when the child’s body was taken to the morgue, and by people who’d kissed her while she lay in her casket at the Parore St property, a source close to the whānau said.

Members of the child’s wider family were surprised when Taitumu chose to have Kween cremated, rather than bringing her back to her central North Island marae to be buried.

Troubled by the circumstances of the child’s death, and some of the things Taitumu had said, they contacted police and Oranga Tamariki and raised concerns.

A whānau member told Stuff the initial police response to Kween’s death seemed lacklustre, but they were encouraged a senior detective was now leading the investigation.

“This beautiful baby deserves justice.”

It’s understood Taitumu and her children were on Oranga Tamariki’s radar before Kween died. It’s unclear why, and to what extent.

Oranga Tamariki deputy chief executive Rachel Leota acknowledged the “ongoing grief the child’s whānau will feel”, but said she was unable to comment on the case for privacy reasons and because of the ongoing police investigation.

On Tuesday, Russell Burnard of the Department of Internal Affairs confirmed Kween’s birth had not been registered, and a death certificate had not been issued.

While registering a birth in New Zealand was a legal requirement, and people were encouraged to do so within two months, Burnard said it was “not particularly unusual” for it to take longer.

“There can be numerous reasons why people do not register births within that time frame. Where we are aware of delays in birth registration we work with whānau to remove any barriers they may have to completing registration.”

A death could be registered without a birth being registered but “we hold the death registration out of courtesy, so parents have time to register the birth and have a certificate without the word deceased on it”.

Attempts to contact Taitumu and Bennett were unsuccessful.

Anyone with information about Kween’s death should contact police on 105 and quote the file number 230714/4866. Alternatively, they can call Crime Stoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.

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