30 Jul 2019

'Bullying, harassment and illegal practices' used to describe Oranga Tamariki

From First Up, 5:42 am on 30 July 2019

Despite facing 18 inquiries over the last 30 years, hundreds of families say investigations into the department of Oranga Tamariki, formerly known as CYFS, do not go far enough.

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A Christchurch protest against Oranga Tamariki Photo: Stanley McFerrier

They are calling on the government to conduct a wider investigation into what they say is a toxic culture within the department.

First Up received a flood of stories from foster parents, biological parents, social workers and children who were formally in state care after revealing the uplift of a seven year old pakeha girl from her Samoan foster parents in July.

Many of those who shared their stories are members of a social media group who rallied support for protests against Oranga Tamariki's uplfit practices around the country and the Hikoi which took place before parliament on the 31st of July.

Their stories span three decades up until now and First Up has a recording of a phone call made by a mother who had four of her children uplifted by Oranga Tamariki two years ago. 

The mother told First Up social workers have called her stupid, bullied and belittled her and repeatedly lied to her about when she could see her children.

In the phone call you can repeatedly hear the social worker dialling a phone key when the mother tries to talk. The social worker repeatedly asks: "Hello, are you going to listen or not?"

"You've ruined your child's life, you've ruined everything, you can't even communicate with anyone because of your job, you're not available to see your kid ... you still today can't even accept responsibility, talk like an adult ... can you hear the rubbish coming out of your mouth? You really need to seek some mental health support because you're not well," the social worker told the distraught mother during the call.

The mother, who cannot be named, says her experience with social workers has made her feel hopeless and often suicidal.

But hers is not an isolated case. More than 40 families have sent their stories to First Up alleging bullying, intimidation, harassment and deaf ears in their experiences with ministry staff.

These two mothers said they felt bullied by social workers.

"I was so insulted and so ashamed, I couldn't stomach it. I walked out. I was in tears," said one mother.

While another mother described social worker visits as extremely intimidating.

"Every time they visited, there was always two of them turning up by surprise, sometimes waking me up. Extremely intimidating. And they'd ask these questions multiple, multiple times over hoping you would trip up. They treated me as if I was a criminal."

First Up has obtained ministry documents from some of these families who say social workers targeted and harassed them with ministry staff later admitting to finding nothing wrong in their cases.

But there was no apology and the following mothers say that by then, the damage had been done.

"So my middle-child ended up in Christchurch Hospital with a bowel-fissure and the oldest one was suicidal. Both of them were suicidal to be fair. Both my husband and I are in counselling, our marriage has had huge stress and trauma. I don't know if we'll pull through," said one of the mothers.

"I thought that I was just completely on my own and singled out. It did leave me feeling really suicidal. It's a way of dehumanising a mother that's going through the system," another mother said.

"I was just completely terrorised. I became terribly terribly depressed. I lost all my friends because I was so depressed. I lost my community, I lost all my neighbours. I lost three years of my life and the first three years of being with my daughter because I was so depressed," another said.

Alleged wrongful practices

RNZ cannot go into all the details of each of their stories for legal reasons, but can provide details on some of the incidents of wrongful practices that they are alleging.

Caroline* said her sons described being sexually abused by an older child in their school. She reached out to the ministry for help but staff mishandled her case, she said.

"Oranga Tamariki were the ones who went into that school, they breached my privacy. They told the whole community that it was me that put in the complaint. 

"So as a result my family and my children have been ostracized and bullied within the community and trying to prove it under the Official Information Act has been very hard because they would not provide me with the information. I've spent three years getting the information. I've had a lawyer but I've spent $15k so far," she said.

Ashley* said her six-year-old son who has autism was assaulted by his father, her ex-husband, so she alerted the ministry. Social workers then showed up at her son's school and interviewed him without her knowing. They later dismissed her case.

"He had no support person at all, he came home so upset. And this is the next thing, my son's autistic and he generally doesn't blurt out things to people he doesn't know. He has to feel kind of comfortable with you. I said this to them. 

"So that was thrown back at me like 'Well autistic kids are supposed to have photographic memories so why wouldn't he tell us that something happened.' I'm like, 'umm, are you for real?'"

Peter Wilcox and his wife Rita were foster parents for four decades and they say the number of times they have witnessed wrong practice by staff are countless.

"Tamaki at two [years old], we'd had him for a year. We were told that Tamaki was Māori, we were not culturally appropriate. 

"The way he was actually transferred, he was picked up from after a hospital appointment. The social worker picked him up, he was taken off in the carpark screaming 'Mummy, Mummy, Mummy' and that was the last we saw of him for awhile. Basically it was the classic uplift. 

"They don't know how to screen for the right kind of parents. They don't know how to actually train them or teach them. And they don't know how to actually manage that transfer," Mr Wilcox said.
Fred* is a journalist who has reported on CYFS and Oranga Tamariki cases for years but now a close relative of his is in a court battle with the ministry over her children.

He said illegal uplifts without court orders, bullying, lying and taking parents' responses out of context is something he's seen all too often by staff.

"The young mums are particularly disadvantaged and made complete victims out of this whole process. Family Group Conferences that are not run properly according to the rules. Families are very much on the back foot."

Last month, Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft told RNZ that CYFS had systemic problems but Oranga Tamariki is good.

But everyone who shared their stories with us, disagreed.

"I do not believe that to be true. The problems that we are facing date back to the 80s. I've seen the same stuff continue on and on. A name change does not change the management, the culture. They've been mucking around for so long destroying kids," Mr Wilcox said.

"No. Absolutely not. If you saw that video of the baby being removed. What they - the professionals did, in my view, was simply abusive," former CYFS social worker Denis Smith said. 

And they all say a name change has made no difference to the toxic culture of staff and their practices.

"What currently is happening has caused us great concern. The management in OT need to seriously look at the past. They need to learn from the past. I would say they are not learning because they keep on repeating the same mistakes that we were seeing back in the 80s," Mr Wilcox said.

"This happened to me a considerable amount of time ago now but I get really upset and really angry when I see young mothers going through it right now and crying for their children," one of the mothers said.

'Too hard to fight back'

It is a department that Peter Wilcox, Fred and Ashley say has never owned up to its mistakes.

Mr Wilcox questioned how it was treating foster parents.

"No apology, no nothing. If foster parents are their most valuable assets, how can you treat them like that? Particularly parents like us who had been around for years, had huge amounts of experience, had taken on some of their most difficult kids and they just basically dismiss us like that. And that I think is really most saddening is we've got people who are professionals who basically should know better. Should be able to face up to their problems, face up to their failings and they are not prepared to do it."

Fred said it was very difficult to get Oranga Tamariki staff to change their decisions.

"It's very difficult to get the Oranga Tamariki staff to admit any errors or turn back on decisions that they've made. There has been a complaints service. That now is called a feedback service. It barely suits complaints as such it's entirely protective of the staff and there's also consequently no accountability."

While Ashley said the ministry did not react well to people it was dealing with knowing too much.

"The moment you know anything that seems to be a little bit more than what they might actually know, they just completely and utterly diss you and make you feel like you're absolutely wrong," Ashley said.

Caroline said it is too hard to fight back.

"Having to fight them was the hardest thing because they held all the cards. There's no checks and balances in the system. I'm an educated person. I'm an associated chartered accountant. I took one look at the OT system and it's absolutely flawed. 

"Oranga Tamariki will bend the rules when it suits them and when they've made a mistake like they have in our case, they will cover it up. And they are protected by Crown law and everyone else and you cannot take on the state. They have enough money and everything else and they will sink you. They will destroy you and your family. They don't care."

In the past month four inquires have been launched into the ministry after public backlash over its controversial attempt to take a Māori baby from its young mother in Hawke's Bay earlier this year.

The inquiries are headed by the Ombudsman's office, the Children's Commissioner, an internally-led inquiry by the ministry itself and a Māori-led inquiry spearheaded by the North Island Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency.

They will cover wide-ranging investigations into the ministry's practices of uplifting newborns, the uplift of Māori babies up to three months and the case of the Hawke's Bay mother.

But the families who talked to First Up say those inquiries do not go far enough and they want the government to do more.

"It's a recipe for disaster. It should be one single inquiry, a bit more thought should've gone into that," Fred said.

"Yes into bullying and intimidation of innocent people," Marie* said.

"I would actually be calling for pretty much OT to be completely demolished and to start from the ground up and that includes actually vetting the social workers properly and making sure they even have the right skills. They're not just straight out of some kind of uni degree," Ashley said.

But former CYFS social worker Denis Smith said another inquiry is pointless.

Mr Smith worked for CYFS for three decades before going into private practice as a counsellor for the last 20 years and he said with 18 inquiries into the ministry over three decades, they are still failing.

"We've had 14 prior to the expert committee set up by the National Party and this would just mean another one and I don't think we need another one. I think we just need to employ a group of people who can actually provide a service. 

"Every single inquiry has talked about running a bicultural service. Every single report over the last 30 years has said we've failed to do that. 

"We talk about handing on power and control to iwi groups to provide services for Māori and we started that in 1989 and we've still not done it. But we keep telling everybody how we're working hard to do it. And I don't know how long we as a country go on fooling ourselves that we're making progress when in fact we're exactly at the spot we were when John Rangihu presented his report on a  Māori perspective of the department in 1989."

Mr Smith said the ministry has a long history of racism and hopes an inquiry led by Māori will bring about change.

He said that whilst the ministry has a tough job, it needs to do better

"To be fair to social workers, they're in a system that is very rigid and forces them to make decisions that are out of their hands. They're at the mercy of a risk-adverse system. If we work together with families then we have positive outcomes. If we work against families and tell them, 'we know best' then you get the mess that we're in today."

Oranga Tamariki statement

Oranga Tamariki declined to be interviewed but did provide a statement from Glynis Sandland, its northern deputy chief executive of services for children and families.

Ms Sandland said often stories contain inaccurate information which paints a different picture from reality. Whilst First Up did get privacy wavers and birth dates from people in the story, she said Oranga Tamariki had not received permission nor received any substantial details about their cases and had been unable to address their claims.

She said Oranga Tamariki also had not had an opportunity to listen to the recording between the unnamed mother and the social worker prior to the story going to air and their concern was that the recording could impact on matters currently before the Family Court, impact the privacy of a child or young person in our care, or put staff at heightened risk. First Up did not name the mother, the social worker or identify any of the children.

In her statement Ms Sandland said:

"Our staff work in an incredibly emotional space. It's tough work, but they do it because they want to make a difference for our country's tamariki.

"They do so with empathy, often in difficult and sometimes dangerous circumstances. While it's impossible for us to provide context without knowing the details behind the situations described, the behaviour is contrary to our principles. Respecting the mana of people is one of our core values, and absolutely critical to our work.

"Of course as staff that know and understand this work deeply it can be hard to read these stories, as we are all working here to protect kids and help support whānau.

"We're always conscious that our work often happens in traumatic and challenging situations, where the consequences of getting something wrong can be devastating. It's important that we listen and learn from the feedback we receive so that we can improve what we do and how we do it. Having an effective feedback management system is a critical part of this.

"People wanting to make a complaint can do so through our website, phone or their local site. Our focus is on restoring relationships and resolving complaints as soon as, and as close to source as, possible. There is also a significant focus on establishing mechanisms and ways that support children and young people to raise their concerns and feedback with Oranga Tamariki.

The government also announced earlier this year that the Office of the Ombudsman will have an expanded role in overseeing the Oranga Tamariki complaints system. We've been working with the Office of the Ombudsman to support this."

Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters told Morning Report some of the Hikoi protest organisers' demands are unreasonable. 

He said the government has put $1 billion into reorganising Oranga Tamariki, and the agency is just in the process of making changes and putting partnerships with iwi into place.

"I'm going to defend decent social workers that put their heart out every day in many cases, they're not all perfect, there have been serious mistakes and we all know they're there, but to damn the whole system, as though that some how it's the fault of the government, the fault of the taxpayer and that if we could have control of the money we'd fix it, is not really a solution.

"When the state steps in after a court order, and it is after a court order, and acts to preserve a child's life and health, then it's not stealing, it's not abducting, it's the state stepping up to its charged responsibilities as a result of sound social policy," Mr Peters said.

However Laura O'Connell Rapira from the Hands off Our Tamariki Network said for many whānau having their babies taken, it does feel like they are being stolen. She said many social workers support their move to try and improve Oranga Tamariki and have signed the petition to stop babies being taken away from whānau.

*Names have been changed for legal reasons

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