For 20 years, a Kiwi mother of four fought authorities to prove she was not a bad mother, that she was not violent and that her children should not have been taken from her. Carolyne Meng-Yee reports on a tragic case of mistaken identity.
Oranga Tamariki never believed Anna* when she told them the children they accused her of hiding and abusing weren't hers. For years they refused to listen, the result of ongoing systematic failure and lack of accountability.
Now, two decades after her file was mistakenly merged with another woman of a similar name, Oranga Tamariki has finally acknowledged the shocking case of mistaken identity and breach of privacy, apologising for the "deep distress" caused over a long period of time.
Life since that mistake was made in 2002 has been a living hell for the North Island mother, causing multiple suicide attempts and leaving her children destabilised. Oranga Tamariki's chief executive, Chappie Te Kani, issued a statement last month apologising unreservedly for what he called a "privacy breach error".
"I have been made aware of the issue over the past week and since then I have spent time going through the background details and quickly came to the conclusion that this situation is clearly unacceptable, Te Kani said.
"I can confirm that the error has only recently been rectified. I wholeheartedly acknowledge that the organisation should have addressed this issue when it first came to its attention many years ago. We apologise for the initial error, for the delay in correcting it, and for the deep distress that it has caused [the woman]. We have also apologised to the other family involved."
A financial settlement is now being negotiated with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner.
The father of the other children involved in the identity mix-up says Oranga Tamariki should have helped the two families rather than destroying them. The much-maligned agency has refused to say how many other cases of mistaken identity have occurred in New Zealand.
The monumental error has cost Anna - now in her 40s - her dignity and mental health for most of her adult life, after she was erroneously accused of violence against her family, hiding children that weren't hers, benefit fraud, and neglect. The cost to her children was worse, leaving them traumatised after they were removed from Anna's care by Oranga Tamariki.
In her first interview, Anna says she wants Oranga Tamariki to be held accountable for destroying her family and her reputation.
Mistake led to a trail of destruction
"We were constantly derailed," she says. "Oranga Tamariki bullies people who don't have the capacity to challenge them and they get slaughtered. I have been judged by everyone as being a s**t mother. This was a case of mistaken identity which has led to a trail of destruction. We're taking on a government agency and we got bulldozed. The merging of the two families has caused confusion, damage, and disruption."
The Herald on Sunday has obtained documents that reveal years of inaccuracies and incompetence. The first error of mistaken identity began in 2002 when details of another family were entered into Anna's personal file. One notification wrongly said Anna had suicidal thoughts, post-natal depression and wanted to hurt her children. That was the mother of the other family.
A year later Anna was accused by social workers of abandoning and harming her baby but after an investigation, and some parenting courses, no further action was taken. She was also accused of hiding children but her files show that she was linked to the three other children from an Auckland family. After Anna requested information on her case, Oranga Tamariki told her in January last year that from 2007, when a report of concern was made, "both sets of children were included and named."
Social workers accepted all the children as family members without checking.
That same year, Anna's daughter was sexually abused by a relative. But, in another mix-up, the son of the other family was recorded as the perpetrator.
In 2013 Anna notified Oranga Tamariki when her children told her they had been sexually abused by a close relative. A year later the children were taken and placed with their paternal grandparents because she was accused of hiding children who didn't belong to her. During the next nine months, her 10-year-old daughter was punched in the face and her youngest son was hit so hard with a guitar that it left an imprint on his back.
"They took my kids based on lies. I begged them not to put my children in a violent home, but they refused to listen."
Anna was also accused of benefit fraud because the other women's three children had been counted as hers. And, her parents were mistakenly recorded as the other children's grandparents.
Desperate to clear her name, Anna repeatedly told Oranga Tamariki they had the wrong person but she was rebuffed. Inaccurate information has been quoted in affidavits as recently as 2020.
Anna says: "There are reports of the other mother having suicidal thoughts and wanting to hurt her children. They accused me of bashing the other woman's husband but I'd never met him. I am now living with this stigma I am violent and if anyone has had any experience with Oranga Tamariki you will know, that negative history stays with you and can be used against you.
"The thing that worries me most is if we have so much information about that family what do they have in their file about ours."
Last year, Oranga Tamariki confirmed in a letter to Anna they had submitted "erroneous affidavits" to court, which meant it may render some of its actions illegal. It conceded that the incorrect information had had a negative impact on the family. In 2016, Child, Youth, and Family (CYF) apologised to Anna three times.
"Clearly over the past eight years CYF staff have failed to independently assess information and have been satisfied with regurgitating incorrect facts as truth," the agency told Anna.
Although CYF apologised in 2016, personal information about the other woman and her family remained on Anna's file when the agency became Oranga Tamariki – Ministry for Children in 2017.
Although Anna's name has been cleared on paper she is still grappling with the repercussions. She has tried taking her life five times. Her eldest daughter has debilitating mental health issues and now suffers from selective mutism. Her youngest son tried taking his own life last year.
Anna hopes Oranga Tamariki will be held accountable for destroying her family and her reputation.
"How do you put a price on the scars that are so evident on the children? I have a mute child. Your job might be done but I am still struggling with the aftermath of utter incompetence. I have been treated worse than an animal. They've mistaken me for someone else, accused me of bashing my kid."
'No-one believed Anna'
Anna's first child was the result of a rape at age 16 and he was adopted by her mother. She went on to have four other children with two fathers. Her former partner, who is a close friend, has always backed Anna's drive for justice. They met in 2010 and he is now her full-time carer after she recently had a stroke.
"I've always been like this, " he says. "The worse the situation is, the more drive I have. No one believed [Anna]. I've read about 5000 pages of case notes, which nearly did me in mentally. [Anna] has been psychologically tortured by Oranga Tamariki. I've been to prison and this is far worse. This shameful case is a determined effort to discredit [Anna] integrity branding her an unfit mother."
He describes Anna as articulate, funny, and fiercely protective of her children.
After years of trying to prove she was not the "other woman," Anna had a breakthrough. She found Paul, the father of the other family via social media. He took nine months to respond but last year they met in person, a watershed moment for Anna.
Paul says the merging of files and information has caused him years of hurt and mistrust.
"I was contacted by a woman I'd never heard of before asking if I was the parent of my children," he says. "She explained her family was involved with CYF over the years and had been consistently accused of horrendous things which she maintained as untrue. She found that my children were the children she was accused of hiding, claiming benefits for and the violent actions are of mine and my partner. Oranga Tamariki should have helped both families instead of destroying them."
Paul recently received an apology letter from Oranga Tamariki, which he says is meaningless. He claims there are still errors in his file.
"I wanted to help [Anna], Oranga Tamariki had made a mistake and refused to do anything about it. When Anna showed me the extent of the errors it made me so angry. Not only do Oranga Tamariki know they've made a mistake, they refuse to act on it and fix it. They are hell-bent on ruining lives."
Paul says the couple came to the attention of CYF when his ex-wife was a young mother and suffered post-natal depression. She tried to harm herself and the children. In 2007 they were uplifted for 10 months.
"She [Paul's ex-wife] made a false complaint to the police about me beating her. The truth is she turned up at my house, hit me with a beer bottle, and stabbed me in the head. I punched her in the head six times to get her off me. I was arrested and had my children taken away from me," he says.
"There were days I wanted to kill myself, I was accused of being a bad and dangerous parent."
He says he is now considering taking legal action against Oranga Tamariki.
Paul's ex-wife confirms she had severe depression, which caused her to be violent and irrational towards Paul and their children. She is upset that the two families were merged and incorrect information about her children was being shared.
"My heart goes out to [Anna]," she says. "I am sorry for what they have put her through. I am extremely upset my children's private information has been shared, Oranga Tamariki should be held accountable for what they have done.
"The thing that worries me is how many hundreds of cases are out there that no one knows about. When I was told my son was wrongly accused of sexually abusing [Anna's] daughter that really pissed me off. Is that on my son's record? My poor son probably doesn't even know."
'I wanted them to see my tears'
Anna recently met with the Privacy Commissioner via a Zoom meeting and is now negotiating a financial settlement. "I wanted to go to Wellington to meet them, I wanted them to see my tears. I wanted them to feel the physical hurt we had gone through. There wasn't a dry eye when I told them about my son, who wouldn't be here today if I hadn't found him. When my son is upset, I feel anxious, I know what he is capable of. That never leaves me."
A spokesperson for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner says it does not comment on complaints about a particular agency but in general, under the Privacy Act, agencies that collect and hold personal information have a duty to protect it, and respect it to avoid causing harm to people.
"Our office will look into any concern raised by people who feel their privacy may have been breached to consider whether or not they meet the threshold for investigation.
The fallout from Anna's harrowing saga is unconscionable. After the fifth time attempt of trying to end her life, she woke up on life support in tears because she hadn't succeeded.
"I couldn't see a way out. I was sick and tired of my children looking at me like, 'Why can't you do anything right?' I went from being their protective mother to, 'You can't stop people walking over us, you are a nobody' because I couldn't stop my kids from being taken away from me. For a mother to go through that with her own children and have to spend year after year building that trust back is difficult."
Anna's children are now young adults who are deeply suspicious of authority.
"My son is so angry and confused. It's important for me to tell my story because the damage can't be fixed. No one wants to go into a room and find your child overdosed on pills."
Anna's youngest daughter tells the Herald on Sunday she still finds the trauma of being taken from her mother as a 9-year-old deeply hurtful.
"Mum is unwell because of what happened. We got beaten, they were very cruel to us and I have nothing to say to them. I was very angry when we were taken away from my mum. We used to sing with each other as a family, it was a loving family."
Although compensation is on the table, Anna says she won't accept anything unless it is on her terms and she isn't gagged from speaking publicly.
"Our voice represents a lot of others, their pain, and suffering. I am sick of trying to kill myself, I am sick of watching my kids go through crap. I want something to show for what we have been through and I want justice in the form of something for my kids. I have nothing left to fight for."
* The woman's real name has been withheld to protect her privacy