Taken By The State
Dealing with the Govt ‘agency from hell’
What it’s really like dealing with the government agency from hell? Oranga Tamariki is under fire for its uplift policy after Newsroom’s exposé of one Māori whānau’s traumatic experience. But as this account shows, the policy affects families from all backgrounds.
I am a private person. After gaining a degree in physics and maths I spent ten years working my way up to be the systems development manager in New Zealand’s largest government department. I then spent four years as IT manager of the biggest shipping company serving New Zealand, then established my own consulting business where over the next 30 years I worked with many of New Zealand’ largest businesses and government departments. My wife is a high achiever in her profession.
Recently retired. A loving wife. A debt-free four-bedroom bungalow in one of Auckland’s leafy suburbs. Sufficient liquid assets to see us out in comfort, plus a couple of family trusts and a family bach.
A relaxing retirement with no worries? Not quite. Some five years ago I had a phone call from Child Youth and Family – since rebadged as the Ministry for Vulnerable Children, then Oranga Tamariki (OT). In my experience, the government agency from hell.
In January this year Paula Attrill, OT’s General Manager Care Support, was interviewed on Radio New Zealand about children in care and adoptions. Her main points were:
OT always encourages openness in adoptions
This helps the child’s sense of identity, connection, belonging and clarity with all people in their life
The majority of adoptions are open
OT does not want the child to feel rejected by the natural family later in life
OT encourages openness from the start.
The reality we experienced bears no relation to those statements.
My daughter, who has a handicap, had a baby in July 2014. In May of that year OT assured me in front of seven witnesses that we would be given notice of any application for custody orders. Despite my efforts to work collaboratively with OT they gained ex parte court orders to take my granddaughter into their custody at birth. The OT social worker served the orders on my daughter in the birthing suite while labour was being induced.
By gaining ex parte orders OT had denied me the opportunity to put before the court my wish to parent our granddaughter.
OT’s justification for the ex parte orders was an expedient fabrication. Without consultation with us they decided there was a risk our daughter would not go to hospital when she went into labour. They decided her child should be delivered before full term. They claimed they had medical advice to support this, but it certainly wasn’t from either of Wellington Hospital’s most senior obstetricians who were managing the pregnancy.
Before OT uplifted our granddaughter from hospital I met with the OT social worker and requested that she be placed into the care of me and my wife. This request was blocked by OT who placed unacceptable and illegal conditions on the natural family – in particular the requirement that I “need to agree to put [our daughter] out in the street”.
Our granddaughter was placed in a “Home for Life” placement that OT described as an “open fostering” arrangement – caregivers are required to apply for parenting orders which give then gives them custody rather than OT.
Despite the “open” arrangement, OT will not disclose any details of the caregivers, including which town they live in. Nor will they let the two families communicate, apparently due to the Privacy Act. OT also said we couldn’t seek access until the caregivers applied for parenting orders – wrong in both law and policy.
I was stunned that OT chose to ignore my application to parent our grand daughter, instead preferring to place her into a home suffering from long term unemployment. The OT lawyer also advised that the caregivers “have a basic level of education”; the social worker advised me “they are not technically literate” and “I don’t know whether they can use e-mail”. Our home is zoned for several high decile and private schools. Obviously education is a low priority for OT.
When the caregivers offered ongoing access to the natural family we accepted. However, the social worker intervened repeatedly, stating, “Access can only be discussed in court.” OT’s actual policy on this was only obtained by an order of the court 30 months later:
“When a caregiver is selected for a particular child then they will meet with the birth family. The particulars of this child’s situation are considered and discussion with the two families then leads to an initial access plan.”
We have never seen an “initial access plan”, and OT has resolutely maintained they can’t discuss access outside court.
When we did get to court to discuss access the OT lawyer asked the judge that I be banned from attending. The judge refused this request. The Oranga Tamariki Act specifically provides for the caregivers to attend these hearings. The social worker advised me that he had directed the caregivers not to attend.
The judge could not have done a better job. She directed access two weeks out of three, requested that OT get an independent supervisor for access, and that the caregivers provide an e-mail update on the off weeks – yet the social worker advised there would be no e-mail updates as it was only a request from the judge, not a direction. He also refused to get independent supervision for the access meetings. An early access meeting was attended by my daughter’s mental health support worker who later told me, “I think they are setting her up for failure.”
When the gap between access meetings crept out to six weeks as against the one week directed by the court I challenged the social worker. He responded, “I have a verbal dispensation from the judge to vary the access meeting times,” My response of “bullshit” was appropriate.
Matters came to a head when the social worker asked our daughter to meet with him immediately before an access meeting. He advised her that access was being changed from two weeks in three to once a month, and then once every three months. Our daughter became distressed. The social worker then cancelled the access meeting and OT subsequently banned our daughter from seeing her own daughter for life.
In July 2015 I asked the social worker to arrange separate access for me as the child’s grandfather. “We are unable to arrange separate access for you,” he replied. This was a clear breach of the Oranga Tamarki Act, and the social worker was falsely stating that he lacked the authority to arrange access.
I have never been allowed an access meeting in my own right and I have not seen my granddaughter in nearly four years. OT, wrongly in my view, would not accept the agreement we had established with the caregivers and would not let us communicate with them. Because they would not discuss access outside of court and claimed to have no authority to arrange access meetings, we were forced to go to court to seek access six times a year.
Despite my trying to work collaboratively with OT, by placing the issues in the hands of lawyers in a litigious environment, the chances of building any relationship were destroyed. Estimates by two separate lawyers to represent me were north of $70,000. After 18 months of interlocutory exchanges before the hearing the environment became toxic.
The hearing involved five lawyers plus me arguing over whether the rights enshrined in the Oranga Tamariki Act should be extended to the natural family. It is no wonder the Family Court is overloaded when organisations such as OT are failing to do the job they are charged with and instead forcing matters into court.
In July 2016 the lawyer for the child asked for psychological reports for my daughter and me. The report writer was an eminent psychologist who claimed to have prepared over 150 reports for the court, who nonetheless advised me that she didn’t need to meet with me and refused my request for her to observe an access meeting between me and my granddaughter. Nor did she consult with anyone who has expert knowledge of my psychological wellbeing. I have letters from my doctor and a senior clinical psychologist I have known for forty years stating that I present no risk to my grand daughter.
Her report was ruthless; it concluded that it was not safe for me to have access. In court, the psychologist admitted she “didn’t understand the terms of reference”. Given this, I thought both she and OT would withdraw the report, but this didn’t happen. OT and the court still routinely refer to it as an authoritative report.
Under Family Court rules I was not allowed a copy of the report even although I was the subject of it. When I sought a second opinion from a senior clinical psychologist I received a stern letter from a judge threatening me with contempt of court.
In May 2016 I lodged a complaint through OT’s corporate complaints process. Within a week I was informed that head office had referred the complaint back to the same branch office the complaint was about. The branch office said OT could not investigate the complaint because there were matters before the court. But we had only gone to court because OT refused to discuss access outside of court and claimed it had no authority to arrange access!
In May 2018, having lost confidence in OT, I drafted a claim to the Disputes Tribunal hoping that external scrutiny may force OT to act better. A senior manager from OT asked that they be allowed to address the complaint. I agreed to a time-frame of three months but only received their report a year later, in May 2019. My complaint was not upheld.
Despite having advised OT that I was willing to swear under oath the facts of my complaint, the report claimed that because there was no independent evidence supporting those facts they didn’t need to be addressed. The clear implication was that I was being dishonest. The report even disavows that OT advised a “Home for Life” placement was ever planned. Yet there are many OT reports to the courts and OT requested orders of the courts that confirm this was the course of action OT had adopted.
I would have expected that as a matter of course the social worker would have kept case notes of important meetings, decisions and agreements. It was clear from the OT report that this was either not the case, or that the investigating officer had no access to such notes.
The report also claims that any statements about the caregivers come under the Privacy Act and therefore can’t be responded to. But by OT’s own documented statements we were dealing with an “open fostering arrangement”. How can an open arrangement also be subject to provisions preventing the sharing of basic information?
In July 2016 my lawyer applied for me to be attached as a party to the main court proceedings relating to the care of our granddaughter. The court granted this application. The court has also formally acknowledged and thanked me for my help.
Then in January 2018 OT filed papers with the court, but didn’t serve me with them as required. When I queried this the senior OT lawyer said OT had dismissed me as a party to the proceedings without consultation with the court. I wrote to the judge seeking clarification. He issued a direction that I was and continue to be a party to the proceedings. I sought an explanation from the OT lawyer. She said she was not prepared to communicate on the matter.
The entire behavior of OT defies understanding. They have repeatedly told us they “we have no responsibility to you. You are not our client.” When their lawyer said this to a judge the judge retorted, “Of course you have a responsibility. [The daughter] is [the granddaughter’s] mother.” That OT does not recognise us as a stakeholder is in conflict with the principles of the Act.
I have learnt that it is impossible to work with an organisation that won’t follow the law and its own policy. Their practice is to force and then escalate conflict into an overloaded court system. With almost unlimited resources, OT can punish the natural family in the expectation they will eventually give up and go away.
My conclusion is that OT’s practice is to remove the child from any contact with the natural family despite the supposed safeguards of the Oranga Tamariki Act. This is also in breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children to which New Zealand is a signatory:
Living with your family (Articles 9 and 10)Articles 9 and 10)
You have the right to live with, or stay in contact with your family/whānau unless this is harmful to you. If you are separated from your family, you also have the right to see them or be re-united with them.
In light of our experience, to say that Oranga Tamariki is disregarding this obligation is a great deal more than an understatement.
*The writer was happy to be named, but is prevented from doing so by law to protect the identity of his granddaughter.