Newsroom Special Inquiry

Baby saved from uplift

“I felt like I was in jail and I just got released” a teenage mother who resisted the seizure of her newborn tells Melanie Reid.

A 19-year-old mother will stay with her newborn baby after her family, midwives and iwi had an emotion-charged meeting with police, the children's ministry and Hawkes Bay Hospital to stop a threatened 'uplift' of the child.

The case has highlighted the fact three Māori babies are being taken into state custody every week around the country.

And iwi leaders hope the reprieve will lead to an urgent review nationwide of the 'uplifts' of Māori babies - with greater consideration to Māori interventions if needed.

The woman, with her own mother and two midwives, refused to hand over the baby boy, leading to a standoff at the hospital as Oranga Tamariki officials and police tried day and night to enforce an order granted by the Family Court.

At the height of the standoff, two Māori midwives and the whānau had their access to the hospital blocked and a dozen police were on the scene until 2am Wednesday morning intent on executing the order before senior police intervened.

Officials allege concern over the child's father but the woman's family reject their allegations to the court and say she and the baby will be well cared for. The mother had another newborn baby taken by the state last year.

Newsroom investigated the latest attempted uplift and revealed the mother's ordeal on Wednesday afternoon, prompting high-level concern in Wellington. The hui agreed to let the mother and baby leave the hospital together and stay at a facility for young mothers until at least next month.

The 19-year-old mother told Newsroom: "I felt like I was in jail and I just got released.

"I felt good walking out of the hospital with baby. It felt weird, but I felt relieved that we are getting somewhere finally.

"It’s a shame that I couldn’t find this help when [Oranga Tamariki] took my last baby."

That result is what the woman's two midwives had proposed at the outset.

“Basically they agreed to the same plan Māori Midwives Aotearoa had proposed on March 20, that the mother and baby would go to a supported environment for young mothers with whānau supporting her 24/7.” said Jean Te Huia, the organisation's chief executive.

The mother and baby can stay at the home until a court hearing in June when substantive issues can be determined by the court.

Ripeka Ormsby, midwife to the mother and baby said she was over the moon with the outcome.

“Everyone is exhausted and emotionally tired and we are so relieved that everyone is getting some reprieve. The mother and her whānau have been on such tenterhooks for so long and the relief is enormous for all concerned."

While midwife Jean Te Huia is also relieved, she believes the whole ordeal has been unnecessary.

“To me this situation, was clearly the result of Oranga Tamariki, believing they are a law unto themselves, not willing to work with the whānau or professional midwives, and clearly and evidently not committed to working with parents and families and a range of professionals to fulfil their duty to keep children safe."

In the meantime, Māori Midwives Aotearoa had been contacted by more than 20 women in 12 hours asking for help because they are in the same or similar situations with Oranga Tamariki.

The Hawkes Bay DHB has since reinstated access for Te Huia and Ormsby into the hospital after their swipe cards were disabled on Tuesday night while Oranga Tamariki was undertaking its second uplift attempt. The pair sought legal advice from the NZ College of Midwives which contacted the DHB on their behalf.

While the mother and baby are now out of the hospital and at the women's facility, authorities are still focusing on the fact her predicament became public through Newsroom's reporting.

Oranga Tamariki is challenging claims made to Newsroom by the woman, her lawyer and supporters that contradict its version of events. A raft of complaints, including one to the Media Council have been threatened, amid complaints about privacy - and the DHB is trying to suggest Newsroom disturbed other patients and staff in documenting what was going on. That claim is completely rejected.

But yesterday at a hui at the office of regional iwi Ngāti Kahungunu involving iwi leaders and social service and health service managers to discuss events around the uplift, there was strong support for the exposure of what was going on.

Those attending agreed the “dreadful practice” of uplifting Māori babies needed to stop.

Iwi chair Ngahiwi Tomoana said it would organise an iwi leaders' forum to work together to ensure a “kaupapa Māori framework’ to address the taking of Māori children, and the continued disparities that are imposed on vulnerable Māori women and babies by the state.

Tomoana said the iwi supported the public revelations in Newsroom's story and if this reporter was targeted by authorities ‘there is no greater stage than a public court' for the truth to come out. "If these stories are not told, then nothing will ever change.”

Also under fire is the lawyer acting for the mother, Janet Mason, a senior counsel at Phoenix Law in Wellington, who is being legally targeted by Oranga Tamariki over the case.

The agency's lawyers filed allegations in a memorandum to the Family Court that Mason was in contempt of court by advising her client (the 19 year-old mother) that she was entitled to hold onto her baby. 

The mother's lawyer Janet Mason

Mason told Newsroom: “The unsubstantiated allegation is very serious and I have asked Oranga Tamariki lawyers to either retract the statement or pursue it so that I can clear my good name.

“I represent some very prominent and senior Māori clients and these kinds of unfounded allegations also affect the mana of those persons and the challenging work they do.

“I stand by the advice I gave my client and will gladly go through any process to defend my actions. “

Alison McDonald, OT's deputy chief executive, services for children and families, South, told Newsroom the reporting on the details of this incident "is a total misrepresentation of our work. Uplifting a child is always a last resort, and we only take this step when a court determines that a child is at risk of harm.

"Our duty is the safety of children and we are relentlessly focused on this.

"All of these situations are complex, and we are committed to working with parents and families and a range of professionals to fulfil our duty to keep children safe.”

But Te Huia, who was there, said the agency had acted in a dictatorial manner, rude and objectionable to the mother, whanau and midwives. "Clearly the stress they caused, the harm they have done, to the whānau - and the views now being articulated by the general public in support of your actions - clearly re-defines this appalling situation."

Read more: Don't take my baby 

The legislation behind uplifting children

Taken by the state

Courts don't get all the facts before uplifts 

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