Taken By The State
A sense of injustice too large to fathom
There was an overwhelming feeling of history being made at the national hui yesterday which brought some of the biggest names in Maoridom together with whānau affected by Oranga Tamariki. Bonnie Sumner reports.
From 8am people are streaming through the doors at the Holiday Inn near Auckland Airport, each given one of four different coloured wristbands for the wānanga they will attend in the afternoon.
The atmosphere is buoyant and hopeful – there are big boards placed around the lobby inviting attendees to write their suggestions and solutions. Already some have posted their ideas, both in English and te reo: ‘OT to relinquish power to Whānau Ora’, ‘Set our own government independently’, and the simple message: ‘Puao-te-ata-tu’ – a reference to the groundbreaking 1988 report that exposed the racism inherent in government departments and recommended multiple reforms to what was then Child, Youth and Family, none of which lasted more than a decade if they were implemented at all.
There might be a buzz of excitement as attendees greet one another and grab a cup of tea or coffee from the lobby cafe, but no one here is under any illusion at the seriousness of the task in front of them.
Marama Davidson, co-leader of the Green Party tells me she is here to listen and get a clear understanding on how they achieve some solutions. John Tamihere says he believes Māori have become “normalised to the abnormal” and numbed by the treatment of the state. He wants the hui to achieve a terms of reference “to Māori, by Māori, for Māori”, and to explore whether Crown agencies are the right agencies to bring solutions to Māori communities. “This is the first time Māori have ever come together across all leadership groups and for good reason – our babies are of great value to us.”
Politicians, academics, health and social service workers, students, researchers, lawyers, activists, cultural and creative leaders, media and whānau who have been affected by the practices of the state all begin to file into the conference room and take a seat, where the powhiri is led by chairman of the Manurewa marae, Rangi McLean.
There is a mood of purpose and solemnity, but there’s also no shortage of laughter. Labour MP Willie Jackson takes the stage and gives a rousing speech paying respect to an occasion that can bring all Māori together, “where we have a coming together, a kotahitanga – Māori party, Labour party - even the blinking National party,” he jokes. He says he hopes the plan everyone will come up with can “encapsulate what Māori have been doing at the coalface. The time of forgetting about us has to be over,” and asks people to think about “what kind of strategy do we want? How do we incorporate our processes?”
It’s well received, as is the next speech by chair of Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency Merepeka Raukawa-Tait, who tells of how the hui came about after the Hastings attempted baby uplift, saying it was a catalyst that spurred people to get in touch with her to express their alarm and ask what she was going to do about it: “you were in fact quite demanding about it. What we were hearing alarmed us even more. It was obvious that nothing less than an inquiry by Māori, with Māori, for Māori would be acceptable to you” which is met with clapping and calls of agreement. She wants today to result in a clear scope of inquiry and who the people who will be able to help with the mahi going into the future.
But it’s the Māori Midwives Aotearoa CEO Jean Te Huia who raises the roof when she gives a scathing assessment of the treatment of tamariki and whānau by the state, and the effects of colonisation.
“We can talk about the children of those uplifted who lose their whakapapa, the children who never go home. We talk about the mothers who carry a baby inside them for nine months knowing that on the day they give birth, because they’ve had a previous baby uplifted, no matter what changes they’ve made in their lives, face that terrible moment when someone comes and takes that baby from them at birth. I don’t want to hear anymore. We need justice for our families. We need a legal system that listens to our families. We need to be able to be heard. We have a whole community, a Māori community. We know what’s best for us. We know what we need.
"We don’t need overseas caregivers coming here in this country. We know state care does not work, so why is it still happening? Because children are a commodity, because there’s a multi million dollar industry happening around our kids. Everyone in this room has a voice and we need to stand up for our tamariki. We can’t be silent anymore.”
She gets a standing ovation.
John Tamihere also receives plenty of cheers when he talks about this not being about leadership, but about our looking after tamariki: “a sacred duty” and that the hui is about “designing a process where the courageous and the brave can come out of the darkness, protected, and tell their stories.” He also invites the room “not to get into the mamae (pain), because we understand it, that’s why we’re all here, we’re looking at not recovering yesterday, but seeking the direction and control of our future, tomorrow.
"That’s what this hui’s about. Raising up, a calling, a movement, setting in place a time where no longer can we accept the type of treatment that has been dished out. We cannot have third party interventionists of an agency that has failed 14 reviews in 20 years, and gets rewarded with $1.5b of taxpayer money when Whānau Ora funding gets slashed.”
Then the stage is filled with a panel of heavy-hitter kaumatua: Dame Tariana Turia, Dame Naida Glavish, Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi, Sir Mason Durie, Sir Mark Solomon and Maanu Paul. Dame Tariana says she “made a mistake working for the state for 18 years”. Dame Naida talks about her 32 great-grandchildren and marching into court last week to tell the judge she wasn’t going to leave without her mokopuna. “We know what’s good for our whānau. Gone are the days when we continue to be hurt by the truth and comforted by a pack of lies. It is our day.” She ends with a quote “from Arapeta Einstein: no problem can ever be solved in the consciousness that created it. And where we are today is an opportunity to shift the consciousness.” Sir Mason follows by asking the room whether they need to “fix something that is broken or design something tailor-made for our future.”
After the lunchbreak are the wānanga. These are four different workshops, each in their own room. One focuses on students, researchers and academics, another on health professionals and clinicians, and a third on those in social and community practice. The fourth is filled with whānau who want to share their stories.
“I just don’t have a voice. No one’s wanting to hear me,” a young mum tells me. She was taken into state care as a child and abused, and now has concerns for her four children who are also all in state care. She is attending the national hui today with the hope that something might change, that she might be able to get her children back, and that it won’t happen to anyone else - but says she’s afraid the system is too broken.
“Maori should be treated equally. We’re getting our children legally stolen from us. There’s no accountability.”
The sense of injustice is almost too large to fathom. The mamae for many is overwhelming. But there is also a sense of positivity, that something, finally, might be done to change the system so many say is broken.
Out in the hallway, the Waatea News team, who are livestreaming the event, interview a range of people throughout the day. One of the interviewees says Oranga Tamariki isn’t broken but is working “exactly how it was intended to”. There is little doubt that anyone here today trusts or wants the Ministry for Children to continue to be responsible for the tamariki of this country.
When everyone returns to the conference room for the feedback from the wānanga, the mood is sombre. Many have shared their stories, their expertise, their hopes, their fears. This is hard emotional and practical work.
But there are some overall themes that emerge: that solutions must be Māori-led, and must be led by Whānau Ora, not Oranga Tamariki; that Māori must work together as a collective; and that something must be done immediately. ‘Press go now!’ the whānau room implores. What about the thousands of pepi and tamariki in care now, so many of whom are being abused? Something must be done ‘now, today, this second’.
For those who have never been heard, who have spent their lives being lied to, abused, gaslit and punished by the state, today has been a turning point – but only if things change. Only if they get their babies back and stop being targeted by the state. Only if they achieve self-determination and robust support. There are plenty of unanswered questions, and an abundance of anguish. But there is also hope.
Before the lunchbreak, Shane Taurima, CEO of Māori TV and the MC of the hui, told the audience: ‘We’re making history here today.’ And that’s exactly what it felt like. If this is the beginning of a huge shift in this country, it can’t come soon enough for those at this historic hui.