Taken By The State

Baby uplift: the tip of the iceberg

Since Newsroom highlighted Oranga Tamariki’s repeated attempts to uplift of a baby from a young Hawkes Bay mother scores of readers have been in touch sharing their stories.

Many of the messages readers sent were heart-rending. All had similar themes.

Some readers said they were taken by the state as young children. Others had children taken from them and are fighting to get them back. Many are currently fighting Oranga Tamariki to keep their children.

A thread common throughout the many messages and emails is criticism of Oranga Tamariki’s process.

These criticisms come not only from people directly affected, but from professionals in the health and social services sectors who have witnessed uplifts.

Oranga Tamariki’s chief executive Grainne Moss has claimed the agency’s social workers have the most difficult jobs in the country. She told the AM Show: “For every 166 babies born in New Zealand there’s one of those that needs to be brought into care.”

She said Newsroom’s video of the 36 hours of attempted uplift is a “significant misrepresentation” of the events which occurred.

Much of the footage used in the video comes from the phones of family members in the room with the mother and baby, or from outside the hospital doors when the family was locked out while social workers attempted to convince the mother to give up her baby.

Readers messages show the tactics used are not unique to this incident. Tales of babies being pulled from mother’s breasts while they are being fed, young parents being forced to sign adoption papers without counselling or support and observations Māori mothers were treated differently to non-Māori people were shared.

An inability to counter accusations was mentioned several times as was the threatening nature of meetings, where case managers are seen to be on a “power trip”.

Over the coming weeks Newsroom plans to highlight some of the many stories which have been shared, however, given the number of messages not every story will be able to be told.

Below are some excerpts of what readers have shared.

Under pressure

A Family Court Barrister says she has seen a mother so traumatised about having her first child taken away that she wasn’t consciously able to acknowledge she was about to have a second child.

“She gave birth and while still coming to grips with the reality of the pregnancy and now a child she was visited by a CYFs social worker who told her she would not let her keep her child.  She got the woman to sign over a consent to adoption. With no support at all. No counselling. No legal advice. It was illegal and inappropriate and I had a battle on my hands to get that child back to her Mum.  And we won, very shortly.

“This scenario should never have been able to take place in a civilised country anywhere in this world.”

Sue O’Callaghan, an advocate for parents says she’s witnessed parents under unimaginable pressure to sign away the custody of their children to the agency.

“Parents have no idea of their rights and I remind them that without court orders they do not need to sign forms as often they are signing their children away and the court battle to have them returned becomes an added problem.”

False hope

Many of the parents who contacted us spoke of false hope and moving goal posts to get their children back. Parents that understood their children would be in care for days or weeks have found themselves still fighting to get their children back years on:

“They promised me if I lived with my mum and continued doing what they had planned, that I would not lose my child. They are full of shit. I lost my daughter because of them,” said one reader who is still fighting for her child nine years on.

“When they took her, I had just breastfed her, put her in her carseat, turned to my right to get her woollen shawl to put over her, and she and carseat was not there anymore, they were in the hands of police getting handed to CYFs.”

They come at night

Former Miss Universe New Zealand and kohanga reo teacher Harlem-Cruz Atarangi Ihaia went live on Facebook to talk about her experiences with the child welfare agency. As a registered Oranga Tamariki carer raising two children she says seen both good and bad from the agency.

She detailed how she had to intervene in an attempted early morning uplift of a child on the night of the tangihanga (funeral) of his carer, Atarangi Ihaia’s aunty who died of cancer. Atarangi Ihaia says the police came for the five-year-old at 2am in the morning to take the child from the wider whānau.

“I was stressing the point that we’re at a tangihanga and if you’re gonna uplift him he should be taken to the marae with everyone, with his whānau and his caregiver that looked after him for two years. They just wouldn’t listen to me.

Atarangi Ihaia says it was well past 3am by the time social workers arrived and she was able to negotiate keeping the child with a Māori social worker.

“What the social worker said to me is that if I wasn’t there they would have taken him from everything - from the tangihanga, from his whānau.”

Atarangi Ihaia says she’s not out to fuel any fires against Oranga Tamariki but she wants to see it deliver better tikanga-based outcomes.

“They do a really good job. There are some kids that need to be taken out of their whanāu and there are some kids that need to be with Oranga Tamariki but I feel like we need to work together.”

A view from the inside

As well as hearing from people who’ve been separated from their children and their parents Newsroom has been contacted by people working for various agencies in the sector.

A support worker with experience in the Women’s Refuge says the uplift practice is traumatising:

“Whether it was right or wrong, the reasons for the uplift, firstly the way it is done towards young Maori mothers is degrading and inhumane. Secondly, it is clear that young, Maori women are treated far worse and judged in the particular situations than white, well-off women.”

A hospital worker with experience in assisting with uplifts at birth says there have been many where they’ve had suspicions about the accuracy of the information used to validate a baby’s removal:

"The process itself is messed up. I understand some families do need intervening - but majority of the time, I see a bunch of power trippers who spend a lot of time judging families across the country, but can’t even sufficiently vet their own caretakers appropriately".

The worker says seeing a baby ripped away from its mother while she was alone and breastfeeding still haunts them.

“...seeing the infants teeth clenched to the nipple and being dragged off it was the most hurtful sight to have seen to this day. I will never forget that uplift and neither will my colleague who was there in the room.”

The taken

This collection of reader feedback wouldn't be complete without hearing from people who were taken from their families.

One reader wrote: "It sucked been taken away from my parents as a six-year-old till i was eight and treated unfairly at the home i was in."

A foster parent raising a child who was taken from the arms of his mother at six-days-old says as a baby his foster son would shake if the police were around.

The child had 12 caregivers in his first year of life.

The parent witnessed the boy having nightmares as a five-year-old, sweating and screaming about the police.

"He said that they were going to take him away because he is bad and that's why he's not with the mum. Well I nearly fell over... little does he know but that is exactly what happened...they held her down and took him while she was clinging to him."

Another reader who had a positive experience in care said: "I myself felt fear when I found out I was going to be a mother, my biological families background of family violence, gang association drug and alcohol were known and I knew I would be watched and monitored throughout my pregnancy.

"Before my foster mother passed she told me: "give them nothing to use against you. Do what [they say] and play the game" these words I grasped and today I still have my children."

Her biological mother is now her main support as she raises her children.

"It takes one willing to make change to create a trend but we have to be given that opportunity. I had to seek my own supports. I stood up and said, ' will not be, and my children will not be, another statistic."

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