Taken By The State

Child uplifts: Stop trying to plaster over the cracks

I, like many New Zealanders, have closely followed the extensive media coverage of the attempted uplift of a newborn baby in Hawkes Bay. But this is not a one-off isolated case.

Over the past two and a half years the Backbone Collective has heard hundreds of similar stories and been so shocked by the extent of the harm being done by the system itself that we have used the phrase ‘state sanctioned abuse’ and have reported our findings to the United Nations.

The Prime Minister talks about wanting to break the intergenerational cycle of abuse while at the same time she is heading a system that is sanctioning and directly contributing to the intergenerational cycle of abuse.

Every case of family violence is different, but from the many hundreds of cases Backbone has seen a continuum or pattern of how the state funded system responds.

At one end of this continuum are Māori or Pacific whanau and those who are lower socioeconomic and have experienced intergenerational abuse (from within the whānau and from the state). They are likely to be known to Police and Oranga Tamariki for multiple call outs for physical family violence.

In this group state agencies label both the child’s parents as ‘bad’ and ‘high risk’. The mother is not trusted, and not valued or supported as the natural protective parent for the child. Children of these parents are far more likely to be made wards of the state and uplifted under provisions of the Oranga Tamariki Act and placed in state care. Once the child has been taken it is almost impossible for the mother to ever get the child back into her care and there are hardly any independent advocates available for her or the whānau to try and achieve this.

Conversely at the other end of the continuum are many middle or upper socioeconomic Pakeha families who despite experiencing equal levels of family violence, are less likely to be known to Police and Oranga Tamariki – these are the 75%- 80% of family violence cases that are not reported to police. But if these victims separate from the abuser and reach out for help (as the Government's well resourced ‘It’s not OK’ campaign encourages them to do), they will invariably find themselves in the Family Court where they will be told the abuse never happened and then further abused by the very system that is supposed to help.

In these cases, the mother and her children are more likely to have been sexually, psychologically (e.g gaslighting, stalking, intimidation, harassment etc), or financially abused and any physical abuse is likely to have been kept well hidden by both the abuser and the mother.

Many of the abusers in these families are blue/white collar workers or professionals – of independent financial means and narcissistic. They present well in court, are charming, believable, master manipulators (and other well-known traits of narcissistic abusers) and are thus deemed to be ‘good fathers’, ‘believable’ and ‘low or no risk’ to their children.

These mothers are also not valued or supported as the protective parent. When they report the abuse, they are disbelieved and accused of making false allegations despite empirical evidence telling us false allegations by mothers are rare. The court professionals tell themselves ‘he seems to be a nice guy so he couldn’t possibly have been abusive’ and they reframe it as situational or mutual violence – in effect saying it never happened.

When these mothers try and keep their children safe the system says they are psychologically abusing them – they are labelled as obstructive and uncooperative or mentally unfit to care for their children. In short, the victim is framed as the abuser in the relationship.

The abuser will almost certainly be granted unsupervised access or care of his children. If at any stage the children refuse to visit their father, the Family Court will often order the immediate police uplift of the children and typically the father is then given full time care and the mother can only see her children under strict supervision arrangements.

The international evidence is clear – children at all parts of this continuum will have worse outcomes than if they had been kept safe in the care of their protective mother and whānau who support her.

When one ‘shocking’ story hits the media, the system ducks for cover, the PR gurus come out in force and there is endless head scratching and long and troubled looks from those in authority even though protective mothers have been highlighting the issues to no avail with authorities and politicians for decades.

In order to regain power and control and quieten the masses, those in authority agree to investigate one case in one agency – an approach akin to examining what caused the pimple on the backside of the raging elephant that is the state system.

The first uplift story in Newsroom’s ‘Taken by the State’ series was nearly two years ago. This recent story won’t be the last. Those in authority need to understand there are hundreds, if not thousands, of equally damning stories yet to be told – those affected are finding their voice – and their voices will now get louder and louder until something is done – not for one child, one mother, one whānau – but for them all.

Oranga Tamariki does not operate as an island. All decisions to take children into state care or place them into the care of an abusive father are ordered by the Family Court. To shine the spotlight on the culture and practice of Oranga Tamariki without also fully examining the culture and practice of the Family Court is at best naive and at worst a deliberate attempt to cover up the full extent of the problem and apportion responsibility where it rightfully lies.

The Hawkes Bay baby’s whānau has referred to the internal inquiry into the case as ‘Dracula in charge of the blood bank’. This term would equally fit the Children’s Commissioner and the Ombudsman – both of whom say they are now investigating.

As Children’s Commissioner, Judge Andrew Becroft’s role includes to ‘monitor the services provided under the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act’. The public should be asking – so why have you not been monitoring Oranga Tamariki’s practice of taking ex-parte orders to snatch newborn babies from their mothers?

And Newsroom’s story telling us that in his capacity as Chief Ombudsman, Judge Peter Boshier, is launching a wide-ranging investigation into Oranga Tamariki. His announcement can only be described as hypocritical in light of his former position. Before taking up his current role in 2015 Judge Boshier was Principal Family Court Judge for eight years. During that time, he was responsible for the very system that must have signed off hundreds of orders for the placing of children into the care of abusive fathers and thousands of orders placing children (the majority of them Māori children) into state care and many of these children would have been delivered into their new care arrangement via a forceable uplift involving CYFs social workers and police – with all the trauma that results from that process.

The Newsroom article reports Boshier as saying ‘it was not his role to “second-guess” the actions of the Family Court, given it was a separate arm of government. Furthermore, the Ombudsman’s own website says, ’The Ombudsman cannot investigate any decisions of the Family Court. This includes decisions by the Court to place a child into the care of Oranga Tamariki….’

This suggests Boshier intends shining the spotlight squarely on Oranga Tamariki’s practice and culture and equally firmly away from examining any culpability by the Family Court.

Both our government and the judiciary are obliged under international law to adhere to a standard of due diligence and act with the existing means at their disposal to address these issues. In a Westminster system like New Zealand's, a Royal Commission of Inquiry is ‘the only means at its disposal’ to thoroughly investigate the culture and practices of both the Family Court and Oranga Tamariki.

If the Government fails to do this, it is in effect complicit – turning a blind eye to the systemic abuse that is occurring.

It is time to stop ripping babies and children away from the care of their mother and the protective members of their whānau as international evidence shows their care provides the best long-term outcomes and the best way to prevent the intergenerational cycle of abuse.

It is time to stop the rhetoric and stop trying to plaster over the cracks of the broken system.

It is time to accept that the colonialist system of patriarchy has had its day – it is time to listen for the voices of those affected and take a completely new approach.

Ruth Herbert is a Co-Founder of the Backbone Collective (Backbone) which provides victim survivors of all forms of violence against women (primarily domestic, family and sexual violence) a safe way to have their voices heard.

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