The attempted uplift of a six-day-old baby boy from his 19-year-old mother at Hawke's Bay Hospital on May 6 has sparked a national outcry, with the practice disproportionately affecting Māori. Michael Neilson reports.
The number of Māori babies being removed from their mothers soon after birth has jumped by more than 50 per cent since 2016, while for non-Māori it has plateaued.
The numbers have fueled public outrage over Oranga Tamariki's controversial policy, ignited in recent weeks by the attempted uplift of a 6-day-old baby boy.
It also sparked references to Australia's "stolen generation"of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
Three separate inquiries are now underway by Oranga Tamariki, the Children's Commissioner and Ombudsman.
Oranga Tamariki said the baby's attempted removal from his 19-year-old mother at Hawke's Bay Hospital on May 6 was because the child's wider family had a background of domestic violence and drug use — a claim disputed by the whanau.
Supporters tried to stop the baby being taken, police were called to the hospital and the ministry backed off, but the case is still going through a Family Court process.
The attempted uplift, filmed by Newsroom as part of an investigation into the policy, sparked an outcry across the country and claims of institutional racism.
Ngati Kahungunu chairman Ngahiwi Tomoana vowed at the time to stop the ministry taking any more children from the iwi.
"Not one more child will be uplifted and iwi will intervene at all costs," he said.
An activist group called Hands Off Our Tamariki — established in 2016 around issues with Māori children in state care — has collected more than 15,000 signatures on a petition asking the Government to "stop stealing Māori children".
Oanga Tamariki Minister Tracey Martin has launched an inquiry into the case, alongside a "thematic"review by Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft and a wider investigation announced today by Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier.
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While politicians have said more needs to be done to reduce the number of Māori children entering state care, many have defended the uplift practice, stating the interests of the child were always at the centre of any such action.
Some of those working on the front lines have also likened the public furore against the uplifts as akin to that against the ministry following the horrific deaths of the Kahui twins, Nia Glassie, James Whakaruru, and that those working in child protection were "damned either way".
Academics say a subsequent "risk averse approach to child protection following those cases was partially behind an increase in babies being uplifted.
Oranga Tamariki figures show the number of Māori babies taken into state care within three months of birth increased from 129 in the year to June 2016 to 160 in each of the two years to last June. Babies of all other ethnicities taken into state care increased only slightly in the same period, from 118 to 121.
Happening 'for generations'
For Paora Moyle the May 6 case was all too familiar. She too was uplifted by the state from her mother as a child — like her brother and sister — and has spent 30 years of her life as a social worker in and around child protection services.
Moyle said the harm caused to babies started right from that initial separation.
"When you take a little baby from their mum it triggers their flight-or-fight response, that button is then always turned on, trauma starts from there." Moyle said the uplift practice disproportionately affected those who were in poverty, living under stress, and Māori.
"Ask a roomful of social workers who wants to be treated the way Māori are treated and not one will stand up. Institutional racism is prevalent all through our systems." Moyle said Oranga Tamariki needed to work more with whanau, hapu and iwi.
"The Government needs to listen to and take Māori seriously. Work with us. There is no right to take a baby away without working with whanau."
Moyle is part of the group Hands Off Our Tamariki, formed in 2016 surrounding the change of Child Youth and Family legislation, and has been working to raise awareness of the issue of the removal of tamariki by the state ever since.
The group's petition calls for not one child more to be removed by the state from their whakapapa context of whanau, hapu, iwi.
It also wants to see recommendations of the 1988 Māori review of social welfare Puao-Te-Ata-Tu revisited, independent investigations of Oranga Tamariki and kaupapa Māori, and more partnerships with and involvement of Māori groups in its practices and policy making.
The petition is also backed by Auckland University of Technology senior law lecturer Khylee Quince, who said those coming into state care from a young age — both Māori and non-Māori — had a much higher chance of entering the "pipeline"of offending.
More than 70 per cent of New Zealand's prison population had a care and protection background, and children in care were 107 times more likely to be imprisoned by age 20 than other children.
The Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act 1989 made provision for Māori children to be viewed and cared for in the context of their whanau, hapu and iwi, and provided a platform for the practical application of tikanga Māori in decision-making.
But while the number of Pakeha children in state care decreased since the Act, the opposite was true for Māori.
Despite the Act's potential, in a paper Care and Protection of Tamariki Māori in the Family Court System, co-authored by Quince, researchers argued the Act failed Māori children, with the system in practice at odds with Māori values and "lacking respect for whanau, hapu and iwi, and as culturally alienating, disempowering and judgmental".
In 2015 although Māori made up 30 per cent of the annual birth rate, 57 per cent of children within the-then CYF system by the age of 5 years were Māori, and six out of 10 children who remained in the system and ended up in state care were Māori.
These disparities continued into the youth justice system, where in 2015 although Māori made up 25 per cent of those aged 10 to 16 years in New Zealand, they comprised 60 per cent of those involved in the youth justice system.
This percentage increased further along the system, with Māori comprising seven out of every 10 young people placed in a secure youth justice residence by court order.
While uplifts could cause trauma for any children, there were added impacts for Māori, Quince said.
"We identify as people through other people, [that's] why I introduce myself as Ngapuhi. When you take a young Māori person out of that whakapapa environment, you are taking their identity, whether they go into a loving home or not."
Quince said within Ngapuhi about 600 young people were in care, but the majority were not with Ngapuhi families.
"There are over 120,000 of us, there must be homes for each of them among us." Minister for Children Tracey Martin, claimed references to the uplift and removal of Māori children from their whanau by Oranga Tamariki as New Zealand's "stolen generation"were "emotive"and "inappropriate".
Quince said she thought Martin "didn't know what she was talking about".
"If she knew how it was done [in Australia], the percentages of Aboriginal children uplifted, it maps really nicely with what has happened here. It was a colonial settler pattern, the way indigenous children were removed, in United States, Canada, Australia and here."
Quince said while the uplifts had been happening for generations the recent the media spotlight had revealed New Zealand's "dirty little secret".
"Joe public, middle-class Pakeha New Zealand probably knew kids were being removed in
some circumstances, but not exactly how it happened.
"Having police officers in the birthing room, taking a newborn baby from its mother, it is traumatic, for all involved." Quince accepted there were situations where uplifts were necessary.
"But we need to look at how it is done, how we respond afterwards, and treat everyone as human beings, because this is one of the worst situations a mother could go through."
There were already partnerships with several iwi, including Waikato-Tainui, and the recent Hastings case had fast-forwarded discussions with Hawke's Bay iwi Ngati Kahungungu.
Quince said those were positive steps.
"This is the first time the Treaty has been raised in child protection law. We want full partnership, and I think this legislation is a good step towards that." She suggested Oranga Tamariki also adopted a kaupapa Māori framework for measuring those outcomes for Māori children.
"That would see not just measuring quantitatively outcomes, such as fewer Māori in state care, but the quality. Looking at it within the Māori worldview, how the whanau was engaged, if the mana was enhanced in the interaction, for example."
A 'risk-averse' approach to child protection
Dr Ian Hyslop, a lecturer in counselling, human services and social work at the University of Auckland, said removal of children by the state was necessary in certain situations, but was happening "all too often".
"Sometimes kids are in really serious situations — broken bones, sex abuse, there are some pretty gruesome things happening, and an uplift needs to happen.
"But on the other hand most situations involve low-income parents, struggling with material needs, maybe a bit of family history, but most often young Māori women living in relative poverty needing help and support to make ends meet."
Hyslop, who had been a social worker for over 20 years before teaching the past 15, said instead of uplifting in those situations, the focus needed to be on forming relationships with the whanau and extended whanau, to "break the chain".
"Normally with some help and intervention the children can even be returned to their parents, or if not to the birth parents to extended family, which is particularly important for Māori children."
Hyslop said the balance had been tipped at Oranga Tamariki, and its predecessor CYFs, from whanau support — as the original 1989 Act intended — to focusing on the individual child.
Part of that shift was due to the Act coming at a time of neoliberal reform, with a lack of funding and resourcing for social workers on the front line, but also reaction to some horrific, high-profile deaths of young children.
Hyslop said a more "risk averse" approach ended up disproportionately affecting Māori, part of a wider picture of poverty and ongoing effects of colonisation.
A study he conducted alongside University of Otago's Dr Emily Keddell, Ethnic inequalities in child welfare: The role of practitioner risk perceptions , that interviewed 67 practitioners, found they were more likely to class Māori families as high risk than Pakeha, where the only differing factor was ethnicity.
Impacts on social workers
Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers chief executive Lucy Sandford-Reed agreed the system had become more risk averse, especially after high-profile cases of child abuse in recent years.
"The system is working in a hierarchical, government department, which policy-wise is risk averse and aims to seek permanency, and children uplifted earlier than later — and
social workers do not get to make those decisions.
"They have site manager, practice leaders, supervisors — there are a whole range of people involved in that decision-making.
"That leaves social workers in a dilemma if they are asked to carry out something they don't think is necessary or in breach of their ethics.
"If they don't follow through they can be placed under performance review and, at the extreme end, fired.
"And if they do carry out those instructions and it goes public, they get nailed by the public, while supervisors sit protected behind their desks."
Video coverage of the Hawke's Bay case had a "profound effect on those involved".
"The family has been through a lot, but these workers have had to close social media pages because of aggressive posts from people they don't know, feel they cannot go down the street to the shops because of verbal attacks, take stress leave and even have children being targeted."
Sandford-Reed said social workers were criticised for whichever actions they took.
"We have a dilemma. We don't like child abuse, yet we have one of the highest rates in the OECD.
"At the same time we have the highest number of kids in care but we don't like that either, nor when we intervene to protect children.
"But if a child is not uplifted and dies at the hands of social workers they get slammed, and if they do and they get abused in state care they are still damned."
Sandford-Reed said the priority needed to go back to keeping children at home with their whanau, but that would come at a cost.
Where to from here?
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday it was a "big job" to eliminate unconscious bias against Māori in New Zealand.
Budget 2019 invested $1.1b more money into early intervention, and Oranga Tamariki was working with iwi to prevent Māori children being taken into care.
She said the new legislation for Oranga Tamariki meant every effort should be made for uplifted children to be kept in the wider family.
Oranga Tamariki minister Tracey Martin announced an inquiry into its processes around the Hastings family's case.
She said that nobody wanted the ministry to uplift three babies a week. The interests of the child were always at the centre of any such action.
"The loss of trust inside Child Youth and Family and Oranga Tamariki didn't happen in the last two years, so my job is to rebuild a child protection service to make it trustworthy and I'm still in the process of doing that."
Martin said that review would be determined by the whanau at the centre of the attempted uplift, however it was reported on Wednesday that the whanau did not want to be involved and instead wanted a fully independent inquiry.
Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft has also launched a "thematic review", looking specifically at policies around Māori kids aged 0-3 months. And Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier is also conducting a wide-ranging investigation into Oranga Tamariki's handling of uplifting new-born babies from their families.
Boshier said while others were looking into the topic, he was answerable to the whole of Parliament and was the only one who was truly independent.
Oranga Tamariki senior general manager Nicolette Dickson said the increasing number of Māori babies being uplifted reflected wider issues in society.
"In state care 70 per cent are Māori, so they are always going to be more represented throughout the process. The reasons they are there are really complex social challenges, which sadly have more impact on whanau Māori."
The system generally was risk averse, she said, but there was an increasing focus on early intervention to support the family.
"We work on a continuum, whether in care or in early intervention, not just one part of the experience.
"It is about talking to the children, the whanau, so social workers can make carefully balanced decisions about safety, and strengths they can build on.
"It is critical to get the right level of support to the baby and mothers when risk is presented, build a network, wrapped around and tailored to that mother and baby."
Oranga Tamariki was also working on building those approaches with iwi and whanau.
Social workers were empowered to make decisions, but it was a "balancing act"around safety, she said.
"It is a balancing act, allowing them their individual professional judgement, but with support and guidance and in the best interest of the child. It is a really difficult situation, but I think we have the right settings."
Dickson said work had "already begun" regarding the legislation changes and obligations to improve outcomes for Māori.
"We have already started working with iwi, and each will be different. Some say they want to be involved right from the beginning when risk is first apparent, others when the child might need to come into care, others wanting to work on reconnecting.
"By having iwi take the lead whanau have been reporting they feel more comfortable engaging and talking about different things.
The strategic partnerships will be building on all of that."