Comment

A big fat boomerang

Aaron Smale looks into the key points of the report on Oranga Tamariki’s attempt to remove a newborn baby in Hawke’s Bay.

When you skim through the report on Oranga Tamariki’s attempted removal of a newborn baby in Hawkes Bay you could be forgiven for thinking it was a governmental introduction to Māori language and culture.There’s smatterings of Māori words and cultural terminology liberally sprinkled throughout. It looks like an attempt to hide behind a façade of Maori culture while completely missing the point of the cultural values it’s trying to co-opt.

Because then there’s the jarring phrases that admit they screwed it up.

It’s a long climb-down from their original stance - that the journalism was irresponsible, that it didn’t provide proper context, etc, etc. There were attempts to shut that journalism down in court and there has been a threatening letter from Crown Law. Media hacks lapped up the government PR because they were too lazy to actually talk to people who have no voice, opting instead for “exclusive” access to important people reciting talking points drawn up by spin doctors.

But now all those excuses and dancing around the point has been exposed for what they were – bullshit. It’s like a big fat boomerang has flown around in great looping arc and gone “THWACK” in the faces of those who hurled it at Melanie Reid.

The specifics are both well-known and opaque because of the necessary requirement of privacy. But the salient points are applicable in a larger sense because they reflect not just an isolated incident but a pattern of behaviour by a powerful government agency. That department’s predecessors are currently the subject of a Royal Commission of Inquiry because of the damage they have done to generations of children, predominantly Māori children.

But there is a direct lineage from that state abuse to the current situation described in this report, a situation that has now attracted the attention of the Waitangi Tribunal which will hold an urgent inquiry.

It’s worth unpacking three of the main points in the report.

There was an over-reliance on historical information and limited work to understand the current situation for the whānau.

This is admitting that there was no real attempt to assess whether the whānau had changed or whether the decision to remove the child was justified. They were simply being judged. The historical information that judgment was based on was both limited and dated. Limited by the department’s rush to find negative information and dismiss other more positive factors. There’s also a possibility that this is a symptom of automation, of using data points that are then collated by a computer algorithm that then spits out a course of action, absolving social workers and other staff of the need to exercise any human judgment or common sense. I’ve spoken to a gang member who was regarded as an escape risk by Corrections because that person ran away from a boys' home when he was a kid to get away from abuse. Garbage information leads to garbage decisions. And such decisions are going on every day.

The options of parental or whānau​​​​​​​, hapu or iwi care of the new baby should have been more fully explored.

This is a big one for the simple reason it has been part of the legislation since the late 1980s. Despite that, it has never been fully implemented. The solutions were right there in the room where the social workers were trying to take the child. The whānau's outraged reactions were taken as proof of their volatility, when in fact they were but symptoms of the stress of people who had tried to engage but were shut out. I’d actually be more worried about a whānau that didn’t put up a fight for their child – that would indicate they’ve been so beaten down they have given up all hope.

The usual argument goes that Oranga Tamariki are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. What if they leave the child in a risky environment and the child is harmed or, worse still, killed? That’s a crucial question but it assumes the only answer is the state’s intervention. And when the state has admitted that hundreds of children in its care have been harmed in less than a year, it can hardly take the high moral ground. I’m aware of a child committing suicide because of the harm caused by the state’s intervention. There was actually no need to remove the child in the first place.

The Adoption Act 1955 specifically excludes giving recognition to traditional Maori adoptions. Maori had been adopting children within whānau and hapu circles for generations over hundreds of years. Often it was the oldest child who was brought up by grandparents in order to pass on important whānau history. Parents who were overburdened, or too young, often had children brought up by other whanau members. I know this because it has happened in my own whānau.

The era of closed stranger adoptions was a social experiment that lasted little more than 20 years and was found to be a failure in many ways. Add in the systemic abuse that went on in welfare institutions and the state system doesn’t exactly have a track record of success.

The dysfunction in many whānau is not irreparable. However, until this dysfunction is looked at in its longer historical context and the socio-economic factors that led to it are addressed, this conversation will be futile. And repetitive. Although Oranga Tamariki has failed in this instance, welfare systems are trying to address failings of economic policy. That spans everything from land loss in the 19th century to the housing crisis of families living in cars in the 21st. It’s too much to expect Oranga Tamariki to carry the can for all of that.

The likely impact of prior trauma on the parents’ behaviour was not sufficiently well understood and compromised decision-making and engagement. Opportunities to avoid retraumatisation were missed.

The report doesn’t elaborate on what trauma is being talked about, but from my limited knowledge of the situation there is intergenerational trauma that has origins in the state’s previous interventions. The state is feared and loathed by many whānau because of the harm it has caused over several generations. This is causing many whānau to go “off-the-grid” because they have no trust in a system that continues to cause harm. This has the potential to cause these whānau to become more isolated and out of reach when they are the ones that most need help. But they know that help is not what government departments offer. All they know from the state is punishment.

I was privileged earlier this year to attend the Ochberg Fellowship at Columbia University in New York. The fellowship was part the university’s journalism school and was focused on reporting on trauma. Many of the other journalists had reported on the child separation at the Mexican border. A video shot by one of them showed a young child who had been separated from her family by border authorities later being reunited with her friends. She had a glazed, vacant look on her face and later collapsed with exhaustion, despite the welcome and adoration of her friends and family. The separation had caused significant harm. As someone who was separated shortly after birth I can say with some confidence that it doesn’t make it any easier.

The video was a brutal lesson in the trauma that is inflicted on a child from separation alone. There seems to be very little consideration or understanding within Oranga Tamariki at the harm it is causing by removing children, harm to both the child and the parents.

Crown Law bent itself into contortions arguing that the attempted child separation in Hawke’s Bay didn’t need an urgent inquiry by the Waitangi Tribunal. It pointed to the Royal Commission, to Oranga Tamariki’s own internal inquiry and other forums. The Tribunal was understandably reluctant to duplicate the work of these other investigations, but it still viewed the issue as serious enough to do its own inquiry. Expect this to be brutal as Maori unload the pain that this issue has caused, not just in this one incident but in a multitude of cases. If the 1970s were known for the Maori fight for land rights, this era could become known as the fight for the children. And not before time.

The report is also a welcome reminder of the power of a story well told (even if the report tried to blame the Melanie Reid’s presence for the whole lock-down, which wasn’t the case). While a number of media outlets moan about their lack of resources, Melanie showed you don’t need a massive organisation to call the powerful to account. You just need an insatiable curiosity and the moral conviction to tell the truth, however uncomfortable for those in powerful positions.

So the last word goes to Melanie Reid.

“We as Kiwis have to believe agencies like Oranga Tamariki are serving us well. For us to get up every morning and feel okay about the society we live in, we need to believe that our agencies are good.

“But what if they are taking babies when they shouldn’t be? Well they have been, and they are. That’s what happened in Hastings, and it was just straight out wrong.”

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