Taken By The State

‘Tears of our tupuna’ as Māori meet for change

A hikoi on Parliament to demand the halting of state abuse of Māori tamariki and whānau brought people from all over the country together. Bonnie Sumner reports.

The rain came down but it was, as Māori Midwives Aotearoa chief executive Jean Te Huia, said, “the tears of our tupuna here with us today.”

The Hands Off Our Tamariki hikoi was called by a network of Māori organisations, iwi and collectives to meet at the seat of power and demand change. And on Tuesday they did.

Dozens are already gathering at the Wellington cenotaph by 11.30am. By midday, hundreds of whānau, parents, academics, activists, students and supporters from all over the North Island stand in the drizzle holding tino rangatiratanga and Māori Party flags, and placards that speak of the reasons they are there.

"Control or compassion. No more uplifts. Awhi te whānau." "Keep our kids connected 2 whānau." Some are wearing shirts they’d had printed that say: “F*** OT, give them back”.

The atmosphere is impassioned, angry. Several members of the public take to the steps to speak to the crowd through a loudhailer. Chants of "One two three four, you won’t take our kids no more" and "justice for our tamariki" strike up periodically.

A back and forth korero between Jean Te Huia and a member of the public who had her children uplifted by Oranga Tamariki ensues; words like ‘perjury‘ and ‘prefabricated evidence’ are traded for Te Huia’s fiery speech about overseas charities setting up in Aotearoa with the aim of fostering tamariki.

Te Huia arrived from Hawke’s Bay with Dr Karen Lawford, an Aboriginal midwife and assistant professor at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Lawford has come “to support all the people here today to bring attention to the hundreds, if not thousands, of children who are being stolen by the state."

"It’s genocide,” she adds. Lawford works in a similar space in Canada with indigenous families and says they have had cases of children being uplifted by the state and sent to other countries.

Jean Te Huia takes part in the Hands Off Our Tamariki rally at Parliament. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Many here at the hikoi have been impacted directly by the state, through interaction with the Family Court, the Police, DHBs and Oranga Tamariki. Many are here simply to awhi and tautoko those who have been affected, but few believe the Government will listen.

“I was at the foreshore march,” says one woman who works as a navigator for Whānau Ora. “There were a lot of people there and they still didn’t listen. There’s an arrogance by our government to belittle what our country say. People get into power and they change their whakaaro.”

This sentiment is echoed again and again to those who speak with me. A woman from Porirua is here because her area has the third highest rate of tamariki uplifts in the country.

“A lot of them are being uplifted purely because mums are struggling with housing. I don’t think that’s a good enough reason. I want to see the Government empower mums more before they fall off the cliff.

"They can see these problems coming but they tend to wait until the crap hits the fan and then they take the kids. Perhaps Labour is worried if they listen to Māori they might lose some votes from mainstream New Zealand, but they’ve just got the start the conversation with the country and educate them.”

"All New Zealand taxpayers should be saying what’s the issue here? Why aren’t we putting the resources into the homes, instead of resuscitating a government department that is there after the event?”

Merepeka Raukawa-Tait, chair of the Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency, arrives. She says the hikoi helps to raise more awareness with politicians about why their practices are not working.

“The reason for that is very clear: it’s because there’s been no Māori input. Firstly into the design of the services and secondly into the  delivering and the ongoing conversations that need to happen.

"All New Zealand taxpayers should be saying what’s the issue here? Why aren’t we putting the resources into the homes, instead of resuscitating a government department that is there after the event?”

Raukawa-Tait says the recent changes that came into effect on July 1 will not have an effect when the whole organisation is not trusted.

Ripeka Ormsby, one of the midwives involved in the attempted uplift in Hastings that helped spark this movement, says she wants Māori-led solutions but isn’t sure if Whānau Ora will provide the opportunity for voices to be heard.

“They still haven’t spoken to the midwives. Still.”

Midwife Ripeka Ormsby in the crowd at Parliament. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Broken promises

People have travelled from Kaikohe, from Mangakino, from Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay, from Waikato, from Porirua. Two busloads of Ngati Ruanui iwi left Taranaki at 6.45am so they could be here as a group, young and old, to support the movement.

They wear matching beanies and t-shirts. One of the women from this group says they are there because 92 of their tamariki are in care. While the kaupapa has been given back to the iwi to ask for solutions, it is still incredibly difficult.

'They’ve made promises that haven’t been kept, we’ve been told that children will be returned and only two out of three children are returned, so it’s a massive kaupapa for us."

She says they’ll be back in a couple of weeks for the appeal on the foreshore and seabed case. “It’s all connected for us.”

Paora Moyle, one of the organisers, says she is excited but also mamae for those gathered. “The energy is palpable. The years and years of historical trauma that’s built up in whānau, it’s palpable.”

She isn’t confident the Government will listen but says she will, “make sure we’ve got the strongest, most united front we can give them. We’re not going to stand down. The state has failed for a very long time to look after our children, to keep them safe. And much more than that, on the backs of our babies it’s a genocidal pipeline. I’m not going to muck around with softly spoken words.”

A child's shoe is attached to the barricade for the Hands Off Our Tamariki protest at Parliament. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

The rain gets heavier. People huddle under umbrellas and beneath ponchos. After an hour of protestors and parents sharing their stories with the crowd, everyone begins to march slowly up to the steps of Parliament, led by chants and waiata.

MPs stand at the top of the steps in front of the Beehive – the Green Party is in full effect, with Chloe Swarbrick, James Shaw, Golriz Ghahraman, Jan Logie and Marama Davidson all making an appearance, while National has also sent a number of MPs. Later on, Kelvin Davis arrives with several other Labour MPs.

Pairs of tiny children’s shoes have been placed along the fencing erected to contain the crowd. There are some children in the crowd, but not many. One of the mothers says she didn’t bring her kids because she’s afraid Oranga Tamariki would then target them.

Children's Minister Tracey Martin and Oranga Tamariki chief executive Grainne Moss are conspicuous by their absence. Someone from the crowd calls out, "Where’s Grainne, having coffee?" (Martin later explains her non-attendance, saying she wasn't invited by organisers unlike other MPs).

The list of speakers includes organiser Leonie Pihama, Dame Tariana Turia, and lawyer Annette Sykes, who says she is “sick and tired of the Crown saying you people need to do it".

"$1.2 billion went to Oranga Tamariki - give me that money, honey.”

Marama Davidson receives the Hands Off Our Tamariki petition. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

They all give speeches that call for drastic change. There are links drawn between the current Ihumātao protests, the foreshore and seabed protests, and the day's march as part of the same kaupapa.

A petition with 17,000 signatures outlining 16 demands, beginning with the crystal clear demand “that the state stop stealing Māori children” is presented to Davidson as the sun breaks through for the first time.

She heeds the call. “The abuse by the state, of our tamariki, must stop. We must reject the racist narrative that says Māori don’t love their children enough.” People shout “tika, tika” and cheer her on.

But when Davis takes the loudhailer he is met with boos and shouts of “why don’t you answer your emails Kelvin?” He keeps his speech short.

A very upset father shouts at him throughout the talk and continues to do so over the next speaker, until someone calms him down. He’s been trying to get his kids back for four years.

Te Huia bookends the protest by calling on Jacinda Ardern to "come and hear our voice”.

With more protests planned and the movement not showing any sign of slowing down, will the Government listen?

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