One small step for OT, one giant leap for human rights

One change arising from the searing internal report into how the Ministry for Children tried to forcibly take a baby from its mother could have profound and beneficial effects for the rights of parents and families.

The ministry - which many Māori refuse to call by its co-opted name Oranga Tamariki - didn't so much fall on its sword yesterday as fall on its face when releasing the internal investigation into a Hawkes Bay 'uplift' attempt.

It had come out defensively in June when the video of its attempt in Hawkes Bay to take a week-old boy from the arms of its teenage mother was broadcast by Newsroom's investigations editor Melanie Reid.

Oranga Tamariki's chief executive Grainne Moss and the children's minister Tracey Martin claimed the video was unfair, out of context, and "a significant misrepresentation" of what went on. Martin hadn't even watched it. Her Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, declined to do so.

Language was used that implied the disclosure of the agency's abuse of its powers was in itself liable to leave blood on the hands of those raising the alarm. 

The ministry's inquiry report published Thursday shows the video story was absolutely in context and representative, and utterly fair. 

The camera, and the reporter, did not lie.

The uplift attempt was an outrage in its planning, misleading of the Family Court, and in its attempted execution. Only the iwi leader Des Ratima, the whānau and their lawyer, the midwives and the mother and baby came out of that episode with credit.

Oranga Tamariki put on the cloak of apology and humility on Thursday. But it is transparent.

For months since the aborted uplift, positive public relations stories have been seeded with news organisations to try to defend and resurrect support for the organisation's practices.

Since the video was published, the agency has stimulated almost weekly public relations stories in news media willing to accept that it was a hellishly difficult field for the public servants trying to care for children - and that social workers would be "damned if they do, damned if they don't" in uplifts of children.

There were anonymous social worker opinion pieces decrying the criticism and seeking sympathy. There was an embedded video on Māori social workers, a profile with Vogue Magazine-style photography of the agency's chief legal officer and commentary designed to win back support for a deeply-flawed ministry. Most of the commentary suggested critics of the Oranga Tamariki practices were complicit in any further child harm, or worse, arising from changing the uplift culture.

Oranga Tamariki's most disturbing practice, broader than the Hawkes Bay case, had been to allow the recommendations of one or two social work staff to determine the fate of a baby and a whānau through a pro forma, urgent application to the Family Court. These applications were regularly done "without notice" meaning the family was not told in advance and had no right to argue their case before a judge in a far-away city who would only see their case by email and would be required to decide their fate by ticking boxes on forms, as recommended by OT.

'Without notice' uplifts were at the heart of the Hawkes Bay case and at the heart of Newsroom's investigation into what had occurred when social workers, hospital staff and the police together tried to force a young mother, with her whānau physically barred from the hospital building, to hand over her baby - likely for good.

'Without notice' uplifts were commonplace, not rare.

These uplifts, under the legitimacy of an overworked and electronic box-ticking Family Court, were a powerful focus of national hui and protest that arose after Newsroom broadcast Reid's video investigation in June.

They did not give a targeted family any right of review, no timeframe to lodge an objection. In the High Court, such 'ex parte' actions usually give the targeted party seven days to come back to court to argue why the order imposed is not justifiable. In the Family Court process it could take many months, or years, and at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars which most families did not have.

The bottom line? Once the baby was removed - sometimes on the word of one social worker - it could be removed from its mother and family for a very long time.

The internal inquiry has now recommended, and Oranga Tamariki's Moss has accepted, that the ministry should now make all uplifts 'with notice' - or, basically, allowing families to know what they intend to do and to exercise their rights under natural justice to have their say beforehand.

If there is "imminent and immediate danger" to the baby, a without notice application to the Family Court could still be sought, but now having to go through three sets of hands and eyes within the ministry at local and regional level, rather than the one social worker determining, with the help of a filing legal officer, the fate of a family.

Whether that protection is sufficient is debatable. The Hawkes Bay case was said to involve such imminent and immediate danger. But five months on, the mother, baby and father have been surrounded by whānau and support and as Melanie Reid reported on Thursday on Newsroom, are living in a house in Hastings and now being progressively reunited with their 20-month-old girl, who was previously uplifted by Oranga Tamariki and kept from them.

But the depth of the injustice felt by families, by iwi and by Māori generally at the without notice uplifts should be eased at the prospect of, in most cases, their now being advised. Being consulted. Being able to have a say before tamariki are taken.

Newsroom was subject to attempts by Oranga Tamariki at the Media Council and Family Court to prevent our reporting on this case. Tracey Martin, disgracefully, suggested the whānau had "lost control" of their own story through our video report and repeated Grainne Moss' claims the 40-minute story misrepresented more than 36 hours of footage of the attempted uplift.

Martin tried to say her ministry had worked with the mother and father for months. Midwife Ripeka Ormbsy at the time called that "more like demeaning, and controlling them and giving them no options", and said the minister was trying to make the family out as much worse than they were. "Everything in the video is true," said iwi leader Des Ratima at the time.

Said Jean Te Huia, of Aotearoa Maori Midwives: "The truth is in the video. No amount of bullshit from Tracey Martin changes what New Zealand got to witness as it unfolded.

"Saying the whānau have lost control of the story is just unbelievable. The whānau love Melanie Reid, without her they say they wouldn’t even have their baby. The harm that has been done to them has been done by Oranga Tamariki."

Now Martin is saddened. But determined to keep Moss in place and to move faster on their ideas of changing Oranga Tamariki.

Moss is full of public apology, five months after being so indignant at the truth - at the video. Yesterday, asked why she had called the Newsroom story a "significant misrepresentation" she deflected, saying the report called for change and in June, emotions had been running high.

Cooler heads, earlier in the process, than Moss' and Martin's might have prevented such outrage.

Moss said: "We need to do things together. We absolutely have more work to do, and I acknowledge that."

Meanwhile, there have been "significant consequences" for those in Hastings who had been involved. These presumably include the social work staff who, in July, Moss lauded as having probably saved the equivalent of a whole school roll of children over their years of social work. But, back then, emotions were running high.

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