Lesley Max: Big questions beyond baby uplift video

Melanie Reid’s brilliant documentary has a visceral effect. The knot in my stomach didn’t unclench for several hours after I watched it. It is hard indeed to watch a young mother (face pixellated), lying in her hospital bed, holding her new baby on her chest, while agents of the state, our state, attempt to remove him from her, with whānau and midwives trying to make the case against the removal. It’s called ‘uplifting' the baby. Whatever euphemism is used, the removal of a new baby from its mother’s arms is an ugly sight.

But it’s critically important that we, as a nation, move beyond gut-level responses and engage our cognitive processes. Our record of non-accidental child death and injury is shameful. We are an outlier among OECD countries. I spent years investigating cases of baby and child death as a freelance writer for Metro magazine, and in researching for my book: “Children: Endangered Species?”.

In its year of publication, and as a consequence of that research, the foundation I co-founded was established to work for better outcomes for children. It’s now called Great Potentials Foundation and has changed tens of thousands of lives for the better, over three decades.

I took five weeks away from the office in 1992 to sit in court for the trial of the mother and stepfather of Delcelia Witika, whose short and tortured life and death alone, in agony, has influenced my subsequent work. We don’t hear much about most of the average of nine or 10 children a year who die at the hands of their parents and/or the partners of their parents. It’s really only when the case is contested that we hear about it. We certainly don’t hear about the significant number who live with disabilities, such as blindness, part-paralysis or cognitive impairment, as a result of child abuse.

It is also a fact these days that, for whatever reason, child deaths do not register highly as matters for media or public interest or indignation. Who has heard of the tragic suffering and death of Duwayne Pailegutu or Tahani Mahomed or so many other children? However, there is a determination within government (and has been, over years) that our rate of child death through maltreatment cannot be accepted. In the 30 years of my involvement, there have been campaigns (Never Shake a Baby; Not Okay). There have been White Papers and restructures. There have been innovations: Family Group Conferences; Strengthening Families; Family Start. There have been earnest efforts by dedicated individuals within government and the not-for-profit sector. Yet the rate of child death and maltreatment is intractable.

The agency responsible for keeping children safe is used to official scrutiny and public castigation, for example, in the case of high-profile deaths such as those of James Whakaruru, the Kahui twins and Moko Rangitoheriri.

Oranga Tamariki staff are caught in the trap of being damned if they act and being damned if they fail to act. I have no wish to cast them in the role of villain. It is inevitable that there will be cases where the imperative to protect by uplifting a child will have greater force than the imperative to preserve the family bond. The wisdom of Solomon is required and the capacity to foresee the future.

In the current case, Melanie Reid concedes that there are situations where uplifting a child is necessary. But she questions the process that was used in this Hawke's Bay situation. She questions the fact that the decision to uplift is made based on the judgment of just one social worker. She questions the embattled young mother being left alone, with her baby, her midwife having been barred from entering the hospital by the disabling of her access card, while staff from Oranga Tamariki attempt to uplift the baby in the middle of the night from the undefended young mother.

And it’s questions that I am left with, beyond the specifics of this case. How should we reconcile the imperative to protect children with the perhaps competing imperative to foster the bond between baby and mother, baby and father (or father figure)?

Are we doing all we could to provide long-lasting, reversible contraception to troubled girls and young women while they are gaining capability to take on the role of mother?

How is it that 31 years after Puao-te-Ata-tu, John Rangihau’s seminal report, and such goodwill from so many to address the ‘cultural imperialism, deprivation and alienation’ he identified, there still remains such disparity and such abiding tension over how best to meet the acute care needs of affected children?

How does so much need remain, given the deep wells of aroha and whanaungatanga that exist in te Ao Māori and given traditional nurturing practices around care of mother and baby that could, one hopes, be widely revived?

How do we help young people to heal sufficiently to be safe parents, when they have been profoundly damaged by growing up in a family wracked by family violence, and, too often, compounded by addictions? It’s extraordinarily difficult, expert and therefore costly work.

How do we reconcile individuals’ autonomy with the necessity to provide intensive guidance and monitoring, to assure their babies’ safety?

How many live-in facilities currently exist for the purpose of mentoring and monitoring such parents and their children? In how many can mother and father, or mother and partner, live with the children, under supervision? (Rhetorical question. Answer: hardly any.)

How many mothers who lack confidence or capability to care for their babies are discharged from maternity units in a few hours after their baby is born, when they are entitled to 48 hours of care, post-birth?

There are no magical answers, but likewise there is no room for complacency. We are the country that is built on a treaty between peoples; the country that pioneered female suffrage and free, compulsory education.

We can and must do better. We could adopt a vision for an Aotearoa New Zealand in which children and young people flourish, and work honestly and respectfully together to create a plan to make that vision real. The vision that has guided me for years: Every Child Wanted and Nurtured.

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