Outside, it was dark. Inside, a small child dressed in white flannelette pyjamas clung to a brightly coloured toy as she hid behind a couch. On the other side stood three police officers, two blocking one escape route, and the other advancing towards her. The girl screamed, clearly terrified, as an officer lifted her from her temporary sanctuary. She was handed to another officer, kicking and crying, as her grandfather implored the officers not to hurt her. "I want Mum!" she wailed, as a police officer carried her out of the family's home and into the night.
When I watched the Newsroom video of this small child being "uplifted" from her grandparents' home, where she'd been staying with her mother, I cried. It was, as the voiceover said, "beyond barbaric". I can only imagine the terror she felt, at age 5, being taken away from her family by the police, put into a car, and driven off into the night.
Where did this horrifying event take place? Here in New Zealand. Not some authoritarian police state, but our own backyard. How did this happen? A Family Court Judge approved an order that allowed police to rip this child from a place where she felt safe, without warning, and if necessary, by means of "reasonable force".
When it comes to a 5-year-old in no immediate danger, kicking and flailing in her PJs and screaming for her mother - who had apparently at all times kept the authorities informed about her and her daughter's whereabouts and situation - you have to wonder what, if anything, about the situation was "reasonable".
I've written about the Family Court before, carefully so as to avoid "scandalising the Court" - a common law principle that, broadly speaking, can restrict what people can say about the Court. Until this week, however, I hadn't seen the horror that can result from Family Court decisions with my own eyes. Now, I can't get that little girl's screams out of my head. It is my honestly held opinion that something has to change. Drastically.
The child I saw in Newsroom's video was one of the Kiwi kids caught up in the approximately 11 warrants for "uplift" issued per week under the Care of Children Act, a number that has increased significantly over the last few years. The situation arises when a child is not handed over to a parent or caregiver at the agreed time. The aggrieved parent can then apply to the Family Court to have the child removed by police or social workers - the applicant indicates which they'd prefer by ticking a box - without any prior warning that such a removal is about to take place.
Such an extreme measure would of course be warranted if the child were in immediate danger. In the cases included in Newsroom's investigation, however, that doesn't seem to be the case. So why then are the police turning up to forcibly remove children?
It seems to me to be an enormous breach of the human rights of a child. I find it stunning that a judge can approve such a warrant remotely by an e-application system. Surely, if a child is to be taken against their will by police officers there should be some kind of investigation to establish the facts. What kind of evidence is the judge presented with to rationalise such use of force? When the state takes the risk of severely traumatising a child, surely it should be absolutely certain that checks and balances have been thoroughly applied to that decision. That doesn't appear to have happened in the case of the girl in the flannelette PJs.
Though of course we don't have all of the details of the case, I would challenge any decent person to justify what happened to the little girl in Newsroom's video. Children's Commissioner and former Principal Youth Court Judge Andrew Becroft described the footage as "distressing and disturbing", yet Judge Laurence Ryan, the Principal Judge of the Family Court, defended the Court's use of uplift warrants, saying that they are made in the best interests of children.
Despite the Family Court's reassurances, a number of questions remain in my mind in light of the cases that have hit the media this week. One included a 14-year-old boy who wrote a letter to the judge begging to be allowed to live with his father and sister. His pleas were not listened to. Another involved a 7-year-old girl hiding in a wardrobe as police broke in with a crowbar to remove her from her mother's care and transfer her to CYF's care for five days, after which she was returned to her mother.
Why, when a child or young person is quite clearly saying that they don't want to be with one particular parent, are they not being listened to? Why is it not mandatory for a social worker with the appropriate training and experience to be present when an uplift warrant is executed? Why are children being carted off at night time, when they're getting ready for bed? Why is it acceptable to break in, remove a child and place her in the state's care, only to return her to the parent she was taken from five days later? Why are police being used as pawns in messy custody fights? Why are aggrieved parents the ones to suggest whether or not the police should be involved? Why is a system that is meant to protect vulnerable children carrying them away kicking and screaming?
What, in short, is going on?
The Family Court has responded defensively in the past to criticism of its systems, with the Principal Judge previously saying that he wouldn't engage in "combative debate that pits the judiciary against those who rely on the Court's help".
The way I see it, the time for combative debate is long past. It's time for soul-searching and solutions.