A judge has strongly criticised Oranga Tamariki for planning to send the child of a drug-trafficking mother back to the country of his birth, despite evidence criminal gangs might sell him to cover his parent's debts.

The Family Court has stepped in to halt Oranga Tamariki's plan to send Chu Xing, now 5, to a country where he didn't speak its languages, where he was ignorant of its customs and where his grandmother had labelled him "Huài zhŏng" - the "bad luck" or "bad seed" child.

In doing so, the court exposed a string of extraordinary failures at our child protection agency which began shortly after he was brought to New Zealand at 10 weeks of age.

The failures are such that it now seems likely Chu, now aged 5, will be permanently separated from his birth family in the South East Asian country where he was born.

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The Herald has sought for 12 months to bring the story of Chu Xing - as he has been dubbed by the Family Court - to the public after discovering details of the case.

In a judgment provided by the Family Court, Judge Antony Mahon said Oranga Tamariki had failed the interests of Chu repeatedly since it first became involved in 2014. It was a failure which reached senior levels of the ministry.

"I cannot imagine the concerns for [Chu] in this case would have been ignored or minimised – as they have been for [Chu] – if all parties lived in New Zealand," he said.

The judgment said Oranga Tamariki had failed to provide the court with evidence to back its plan of returning the child to the country of his birth and also failed to meet its own legal standards.

Chu arrived in New Zealand as a baby with his mother and father, who were arrested for smuggling methamphetamine and then imprisoned for seven years.

The Family Court overturned Oranga Tamariki's plan to send the child back to the country of his birth. Photo / File
The Family Court overturned Oranga Tamariki's plan to send the child back to the country of his birth. Photo / File

Oranga Tamariki originally intended to return Baby Chu to his home country where he had siblings and extended family, but found no one willing to take him. The only other identified option was returning Chu to his home country to live in an orphanage, but efforts to contact diplomatic representatives failed.

Chances of an early return to Chu's birth country dwindled after contact with his grandmother revealed she called him "Huài zhŏng", which was "a superstition that a child is cursed and brings bad luck to a family".

At that point, Oranga Tamariki settled in to wait for the release of his parents, which eventually happened in 2017.

Meanwhile, Baby Chu became Toddler Chu and then Child Chu.

Years went by with only sporadic visits to his mother in prison. The court heard he had only two hour-long visits with his mother in the first six months, and just one visit with his father.

From that point, the visits increased in frequency but remained only an hour or two each month with his mother over the next two years.

Oranga Tamariki claimed to have looked at building that bond by having the child live with his mother in prison.

It appears to have bungled its understanding of the rules, claiming in evidence Chu's lack of citizenship meant "the ministry would have been required to meet the costs which they declined to do".

Corrections told the Herald a lack of New Zealand citizenship was no barrier to a child under 2 being able to live with his or her mother in prison.

When the court asked for evidence of its efforts, Oranga Tamariki failed to provide the information sought.

Instead, Chu was placed with a foster family and started going to daycare alongside Kiwi children.

The situation alarmed Chu's court-appointed lawyer Kit Goldsbury, who repeatedly wrote to Oranga Tamariki's national office in Wellington and government ministers raising concerns about the way the child's life was being handled.

Goldsbury said his letters warned definite action to build a foundation for Chu's return to his birth country was necessary if it was ever going to happen.

In concerns endorsed by the Family Court, Goldsbury said efforts needed to be made to connect Chu with his parents, among other steps, or he would face removal from New Zealand having "grown up in a New Zealand family setting".

Chu's birth parents were deported in early 2017, without their son, but not before his mother could tell the court how she wanted to take her son home with her.

Baby Chu's parents brought him with them, when he was just 10 weeks, on a drug smuggling run to New Zealand. Photo / Mike Scott
Baby Chu's parents brought him with them, when he was just 10 weeks, on a drug smuggling run to New Zealand. Photo / Mike Scott

Her plea failed to find ground, with the court told she had no job and was worried those who had provided her drugs to smuggle would be seeking retribution over their seizure.

Court documents show Oranga Tamariki forged through the year with a plan to return Chu to his birth country.

The decision was made despite doubts over how welcome the "bad seed" would be with his family.

Court papers show there appeared no way Oranga Tamariki could seek assurance from child services in Chu's birth country. The agency there had been suspended from the international child services network.

At the August 2017 hearing, Judge Mahon said evidence supporting Oranga Tamariki's plan was "woefully inadequate". and its handling of Chu's case "met neither best practice standards of social work nor the Ministry's obligations under the Act".

Judge Mahon sought further information - which led to Oranga Tamariki sending two staff to the South East Asian country for 11 days to check Chu's proposed home environment.

It resulted in a new report from Oranga Tamariki which stated the agency would lose any control over Chu if he was sent to his birth country. It also stated he had no knowledge of that country's "customs, language, food and climate".

And yet, an Oranga Tamariki psychologist gave evidence there were no "problematic concerns" returning Chu.

By then, the court had also heard evidence from foster parents that Chu's birth parents "owed money to 'loan sharks' and had engaged in drug trafficking to repay the debt".

The court was told "loan sharks often seek out wider family members to recover debts".

The evidence included the claim: "If [Chu]'s parents were pursued for debts which they could not repay, there was a risk the loan sharks would engage in what is described as a 'red packet' where families adopt out a child for money, or traffic the child to [a neighbouring country]."

Judge Mahon said Oranga Tamariki had consistently failed on a range of counts since it became involved with Chu, including failing to properly consider the risk he faced should he return to the country of his birth.

Failures included not arranging quality contact for Chu with his parents, and not realising a bond would form with his foster parents when it was clear in 2014 that "no family member was prepared to care" for the child.

Mahon said there was no adequate explanation for why Chu had not been placed with his mother in the care unit available in prison.

It had also failed by persisting on the assumption Chu would return to his birth country even though it was clear the plan needed a full review.

He said Chu's social worker at the time had "minimised and ignored significant risks".

Mahon rejected Oranga Tamariki's plan to have Chu removed from New Zealand and ordered he not be removed from his foster parents' care.

Lawyer for the child, Kit Goldsbury, said baby Chu had grown up as a typical New Zealand child. Photo / File
Lawyer for the child, Kit Goldsbury, said baby Chu had grown up as a typical New Zealand child. Photo / File

Oranga Tamariki's Auckland regional manager Anna Palmer said the agency had formed the view it was best for Chu to return to his birth country.

"We have acknowledged some of the earlier work done by CYF was not robust. It is the role of the Family Court to make the final decision about the care of the child but at every step we believed we were acting in the best interests of the boy.

"This was not a typical case for our staff – it had a range of complexities involving a child with foreign nationality."

Palmer said the agency had made a risk assessment with the South East Asian country's social services agency of the risk from the criminal gang and was confident Chu would be safe.

The statement is contrary to the Judge's assertion Oranga Tamariki had failed to contact the other country's social service's agency to make such an assessment.

Goldsbury said there had been years of trying to get action on behalf of Chu and the consequence of Oranga Tamariki's inaction was separation of mother and child.

He was also dismayed at the lack of engagement by the boy's birth country.

"It's been a complete shambles from beginning to end. It's a gigantic failure of leadership."

He said Chu now had New Zealand residency, so was legally in the country rather than the technical overstayer he had been for years.

Goldsbury said Chu was happy and settled with his foster family, which had been arranged through Oranga Tamariki.

"There were some things Oranga Tamariki did very well here and that was one of them. Where things were not done well was very much when hard decisions needed to be confronted and made."

Goldsbury said the boy was well and growing as any other New Zealand child.

"He is an average, happy, energetic, rambunctious - and a tad rascally - young man. He will be going, like any other child of that age, to the local school down the road from where he lives."

Lawyer Dr Allan Cooke, who acted for the foster parents, said they were not seeking to block the removal of Chu but to ensure the court had all relevant evidence before making a decision.

He said the case need never have happened if Oranga Tamariki had worked harder to move Chu into a special parenting care centre when his mother was first imprisoned.

Doing so would have "maintained and sustained" the mother's relationship with her son and made it more likely he would be returned with her when she went.