Taken By The State

Video a game-changer in child protection

I have been a social worker for 12 years, so I have seen a lot.

The video produced by Melanie Reid showing in detail the traumatic attempted “uplift” of a baby from their whānau really hit me in the core and in my heart. In my opinion it is a game-changer in child protection.

I acknowledge the strength and endurance demonstrated by this young mother and her whānau and in their decision to lay bare their story so that the general public can understand what is happening to our young mothers and babies. The absolute determination for human rights and client obligations shown by the Māori midwives leaves me with hope that we have among our professionals people who are willing to challenge and stand up for others. Kā mihi ki a koutou.

I am familiar with our child protection system from a multitude of perspectives: as a previous care and protection social worker, as an NGO social worker, as a runaka representative in our localised Runaka/OT partnership and as a PhD candidate studying foster system experiences.

As a survivor of the foster system myself, I experienced the disconnection from whānau, the lack of engagement by child protection services with my wider whānau and I endured a number of ‘stranger placements’ as a result. I had my personal details plastered across the local paper looking for placements rather than engagement with my whakapapa as possible options. So I am familiar at a personal level with the range of stories of our child protection service that repeat themselves over time, seemingly without any change.

As a social worker I am trained and registered with the Social Work Registration Board (SWRB). This includes signing a code of ethics and a set of practice standards. They are the framework which expects and demands we do our job in a way that upholds the mana and dignity of our clients. Our code of ethics includes integrity and honesty, respect of Māori as tangata whenua and building trust. Our practice standards include, Te Rangatiratanga, Te Manaakitanga and Te Whanaungatanga, defined broadly as mana enhancing, respectful, encouraging and warm, self determining and culturally sustaining.

As Social Workers this is a pretty great template for practice that affirms strength-based, whānau-led work even in the toughest situations. Like others I do not proclaim to be perfect in my role and in being human we make errors. At these times the only response is to acknowledge these wrongs and take the steps to make them right.

The behaviour of the workers from the Hawkes Bay District Health Board and Oranga Tamariki did not align with our practice standards. There are some serious concerns I have regarding the DHB role in denying a young mother access to her whānau and medical experts and I don’t accept the suggestion by the DHB on The Hui that a custody order made it act in this way. However, I am going to focus on the social workers' behaviour and systems failure.

Like many Māori women who have been through the state foster system, I also have experience of witnessing a ‘next generation’ ‘uplift’ (a term that is surely due for retirement). I was 18 years-old and at the time bathing my two year-old whānau member when the police and social workers turned up to remove her from her mother’s care. I was not allowed to finish bathing her and she was immediately taken from my arms. Without any adequate attempts at soothing or empathy she was gone. She was placed outside of whānau, hapu and iwi. The repercussions of this action, done in the manner it was, is lived out in our whānau today and particularly in the adult life of that then two year-old child. We know now that traumatic events sit in our DNA and have an impact on our lives.

Removing children from their immediate whānau is sometimes required but always the last resort. Removing Māori children from their whānau, hapu and iwi is never required. There are literally thousands of connections for a Māori baby or child, so placing outside of whakapapa just shows a lack of searching. And yet we see from generation to generation the repeat of child protection action that denies Māori access to our babies at whānau, hapu and iwi levels.

We don’t need to have the personal facts to know that what we witnessed on this video was an unacceptable dehumanising way of treating this young mother and the misuse of power and authority.

It excluded whānau, hapu and iwi at all levels, denied the Māori midwives access to their clients, denied the kaumatua access to support and denied the whānau the ability to support their mokopuna and mother.

This baby was not in any immediate danger that required action at 2 in the morning. How Māori social workers found themselves at the centre of this is in my opinion complex and gets to the core of the issues with our child protection system.

I do note it is not unusual for Māori to be used by government in this manner: we only need to look at Bastion Point and the use of Māori Police officers to find a clear example of Māori being forced in to unthinkable positions. But ultimately these Māori social workers will be required to answer those questions with in their own whānau , their hapu, their iwi and on their marae. I do not condone their behaviour but I argue the responsibility for their behaviour needs to be shared across the Oranga Tamariki organisation and ultimate accountability sits at the head, with chief executive Grainne Moss.

Let us consider that hidden behind these frontline staff, masked by the anonymity of the OT hierarchy were the decision makers, the supervisors, the practice leaders and the managers. Decisions are not made in OT without sign off by the people in these roles and before a court order given by a judge, affidavits have been written and checked, internal case consultations have been held and the hierarchy of Oranga Tamariki have ticked the plan off. The issue is so much bigger than the social workers we witnessed on film. What we saw was endorsed by layers of hierarchy within OT.

Following the release of this video the only response I needed from Grainne Moss was an absolute apology. I did not need statistics thrown at me and masked justifications of poor living environments and suggestions of drug use and harm. Anything less than an apology just replicates the power dynamics we all witnessed being played out on screen.

When social workers encounter complex whānau, they require honesty, openness and accountability and I demand that of Grainne Moss and all those within OT in the management positions.

They allowed these social workers with no relationship with the whānau to deliver this underhand and covert action which had clearly been supported by systemic and institutionally racist practice at higher levels. In the words of the mana wahine midwife Jean Te Huia “wear it and fix it”.

Aotearoa New Zealand is a colonised country and our child protection service is a product of colonial systems centred on child rescue and for Māori ‘saving brown babies’. Since the state started taking an interest in Māori children in the 1940s, Māori have been trying to shift practice towards a Māori world view. The Māori Women’s Welfare League, Matua Whangai and Pauo-te-ata-tu have all had a crack at breaking into the white-washed child protection system unsuccessfully. Pushing for change in child protection is not new to Māori. Transformation of the system to fit Māori aspirations has been promised for the past 30 years.

Our latest hope for transformation sits with the legislative change - Section 7aa of the Oranga Tamariki Act 2019 coming into force on July 1 - where partnership and accountability are offered to iwi. To see this successfully accomplished we will need to see OT start to behave significantly differently. We will need to see a willingness to actually partner with Māori where kaumatua are not locked out, where those that stand up to the system are actively listened to and there is a willingness to change ‘the plan’.

That is the opposite of what we witnessed last week. Let's not fall into the false reality that this incident is the exceptio. I regularly receive insider stories of racist and harmful practice within OT. The hope lies with those workers within OT who are willing to challenge these situations and push for respect and acceptance that Te Ao Maori has a place in our child protection system.

The Newsroom piece has led to two key announcements which, at least in the interim, provide some hope.

Minister for Children Tracey Martin met iwi yesterday to plan a way forward and an internal review of the case is now occurring. More substantial, in my opinion, is Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft's announcement of a thematic review of Oranga Tamariki's uplifts of Maori babies aged up to three months old. 

While this all presents as a potential turning point for child protection in Aotearoa, future liaison with iwi and hapu needs to occur before whānau have to resort to video recordings as proof.

If there is substantive intent by OT to behave differently we will see collaboration with every whānau before ‘uplifts’. I do not accept that transformation takes time. I ask OT workers to stop treating the whānau in these situations as though they are not fully human.

The behaviour we witnessed is not about transformation but about being a strengths-based practitioner which they were all trained to be. Devolution of power to hapu and iwi is a process - but, again, just get on and do it because it needs to happen now.

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