Taken By The State

One for the PM’s reading list

A powerful new report on Oranga Tamariki's treatment of Māori mothers and babies lays down a challenge for the Crown, including a busy Prime Minister, writes Tim Murphy

Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft hopes "all New Zealanders" can read his latest report into the experiences of Māori mothers at the hands of Oranga Tamariki. 

"Their accounts are among the most heart wrenching I have heard in my time in this role," he writes in an introduction to Te Kuku O Te Manawa, a review of the children's ministry's interventions with Māori babies from birth to age three months.

But, despite his report being available under embargo since late last week, by late yesterday the Prime Minister and Minister for Child Poverty Reduction, Jacinda Ardern, had not taken up his invitation to read "the experiences of these mothers".

While the PM has had pressing Covid-19 matters on her mind, she has made the lives of children a priority for her Government. She told her weekly media conference she had received the report. "I've gone through some of the summary elements of the report, I haven't had the chance to go cover to cover. Obviously, the minister has, and I've spoken with her about the report as well."

Not that it is a big read. It extends to just 74 pages, shorn of bibliography and appendices. Even at a skim, the PM would have seen stark and troubling testimony given by women whose babies had been taken or targeted by OT, some at birth and one advised of the removal while she was in the middle of labour in a hospital room. 

The report includes quotes, which the Children's Commissioner's Office regarded as representative and in context, of racism, bullying, misleading and lying to manipulate women, and failures in communication before and after child uplifts.

The women are not identified. Becroft says their stories put a human face to statistics that show 69 percent of children in state custody at June 2019 were tamariki Māori and Māori babies were taken into custody at a rate five times that of non-Māori babies in 2019. While findings of abuse had been decreasing overall over the past six years, decisions to remove unborn Māori babies were twice or three times that of non-Māori babies. And the rate of Māori babies (0 to three months) being taken urgently into state care had doubled between 2010 to 2019 as the rate for non-Māori children stayed the same.

The judge says of the 11 mothers and two additional whānau of pēpi (babies) who came forward: "They are a silent testimony to the long-term inequities that Māori have suffered under Aotearoa New Zealand's care and protection system."

Children's Minister Tracey Martin, who with Ardern famously refused last year to watch the Newsroom video story on Oranga Tamariki's attempted uplift of a baby from a hospital ward, which prompted Becroft's report and four other inquiries, seems to have carried the Government's responsibility to read it.

If she did, the Government's hopes to argue that changes implemented since mid 2019 are remedying the situation ought to have been given pause. The PM pursued that path yesterday after her reading of "some of the summary elements" and hearing from Martin.

“What I would point to is that actually, since July 2019, we've finally been funding ways of doing things differently and there hasn't been a huge amount of time to allow that new way of working to be given a bit of a chance, and to allow that new focus of working really closely as well in partnership with iwi - we have a number of examples where that’s been happening - to give that the chance to work as well.

“So we all agree change is required and I'm seeing the signs of that, but equally, I still see the devastating stories as well.”

Oranga Tamariki acknowledged the report but noted it focused on mothers, not the babies it 'protected'. However, the report is infused throughout with the importance of pēpi and tamariki within Māori belief, for example, examining the origins of the term mokopuna - "a sacred vessel containing the wisdom of your ancestors".

Becroft's report, coordinated by his senior Māori staff and focusing on interviews with the 11 women and their whānau makes it clear time and again that the new Oranga Tamariki, from interviews conducted in the second half of 2019, is little improvement on the days of Child Youth and Family and the earlier days of OT.

"The experiences and concerns of those we interviewed appear to have remained the same regardless of the name of the organisation," he says. 

"They reveal a profound loss of faith and trust in the state care and protection system over many years. Paradoxically those who most needed assistance and support say they received it least.

"They feel alienated from the system designed to support them, their pēpi, and their whānau. We must not underestimate the message."

The commissioner also deflates one of the major arguments from backers of OT, including Martin, that a new provision in the Oranga Tamariki Act from July 1 last year is a breakthrough. "It imposes significant new duties on the chief executive to provide a practical commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi.

"This provision, which in one sense does no more than reflect existing, but until now, little fulfilled common law obligations, will require much to change."

His office's report does not make recommendations, but instead distills the experiences of the mothers to identify "six key areas for change". But the status quo, even Martin and Ardern's budget and Treaty-enhanced version, is unlikely to bear scrutiny in the final report.

Becroft says: "The report reinforces that the vision for the delivery of state care and protection services which Māori have identified for decades must be brought to fruition."

The national organisation of Whānau Ora providers and others have called for devolving funding and responsibility for care of Māori children to whanau and iwi. 

The Te Kuku O Te Manawa report says: "Oranga Tamariki has stated that, taken together the Puao-Te-Ata-Tu report and the 2015 Expert Panel report call for a commitment to deliver on the organisation's obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi.

"The stories of racism that whānau are still currently experiencing illustrate that this commitment is not yet being fulfilled. In light of this, the recommendations in Puao-Te-Ata-Tu about the impact of institutional racism remain acutely relevant."

Becroft's introduction says the Oranga Tamariki Act law change last year "allows for a true revolution through devolution. Such devolution can no longer be considered optional.

"Integral to this process will be equitable provision of resources by the state, including the offer of well-resourced capacity building."

Dr Kathie Irwin, the chief Māori advisor at the Office of the Children's Commissioner, set out an actual scene of Crown officials waiting in a birthing suite to take a baby from its mother. "How did we go from the early contact observations of Māori children as loved and relatively free from physical punishment to this scene, in a birthing unit, of officials of the state communicating to pēpi Māori in the birthing canal their fate of state removal?"

The report says of the mothers: "The mums and whānau of pēpi who spoke with us were courageous in sharing their stories.Their experiences were consistent and heart breaking.

"They talked about the brutality of the removals of their pēpi and how Child Youth and Family and Oranga Tamariki have used other agencies including police and health professionals to act under their instruction and carry out removals.

"Whānau continue to feel as though they are living under constant threat of Oranga Tamariki, even when it has been deemed either by CYFs or Oranga Tamariki that no further involvement is necessary."

The six key areas identified for action in the second report, due by the end of 2020, are:

* The system needs to recognise the role of mums as the whare tanga and treat them and their pēpi with humanity. One interviewee told the report: "Yeah, I think there's a lot of hardened hearts... and they forget they're dealing with a mum, they're dealing with children, they're dealing with whānau."

* Unprofessional statutory social work practice is harming mums, whānau and pēpi. An interviewee: "You know that's frightening what they're capable of and the amount of power they have. They shouldn't have that much power, you know, because the power that they have, they abuse, you know."

* Whānau need the right support from the right people. An interviewee: "I had to leave baby in hospital with support people and go and beg my arse off at Work and Income because that was my only option. I had no money."

* Pēpi Māori and their whānau are experiencing racism and discrimination. The report did not hold back here: "Experiences shared by whānau provide clear examples of racism and discrimination."

* The organisational culture of the statutory care and protection system needs to support parents and whānau to nurture and care for their pēpi. An interviewee: "Why is the first thing uplift? Why is that not our last resort anymore? And it's because CYFs is the adoption agency for New Zealand that needs to change immediately."

* The system needs to work in partnership with whānau, hapu and iwi, so they can exercise tino rangatiratanga. "That organisation is too dangerous when they come in and try to do things because they're just all about uplifting and taking and see yous later."

You can read the full Children's Commissioner's report, Te Kuku O Te Manawa, here.

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