10 May 2019

Oranga Tamariki accused of bullying, racism over removal of baby

7:40 pm on 10 May 2019

Oranga Tamariki is being accused of bullying and racism by the Māori midwife who fought to prevent a young mother from having her baby taken away.

A 19-year-old mother was ordered by the Family Court to sign over custody of her newborn baby to the ministry because of a history of family violence.

Hawkes Bay Hospital

Hawke's Bay Hospital. Photo: RNZ / Peter Fowler

This led to a standoff at Hawke's Bay Hospital on Tuesday, where the building was put into lockdown while social workers and police tried to take the newborn.

Midwife Jean Te Huia from Māori Midwives Aotearoa said she and another midwife had met with Oranga Tamariki and previously agreed on a plan to support the young woman so she could keep her baby - but that all suddenly changed on the Tuesday evening.

"I suppose we lost trust, hope and faith in the system when we left the mother alone with her baby at the hospital at eight o'clock that night and within an hour of us leaving her there alone, Oranga Tamariki swooped on her, took police officers with her and again tried to seize that baby," she said.

Ms Te Huia said just the day before this happened, Māori Midwives Aotearoa legal representative Janet Mason had filed an urgent court application for the judge to reconsider custody.

She said the ministry should have waited. "What happened and what ensued following that was just bullying, out and out institutional racism and ongoing abuse by Oranga Tamariki to vulnerable families," she said.

She said the whānau is now allowed to keep the baby, using the same support plan that was discussed with Oranga Tamariki last month.

Grainne Moss

Oranga Tamariki chief executive Gráinne Moss says the case is complex with several people involved. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Ministry head Gráinne Moss defended how her staff handled the case, calling their approach caring and empathetic. She said it was too early to tell if it could have been handled differently.

"The case is very dynamic. There were multiple parties involved, with very different perspectives and views and the important thing to do is to focus relentlessly on the safety of the child. That's what we are committed to do and will continue to do," she said.

In a statement, Oranga Tamariki's East Coast regional manager Te Pare Meihana said the social worker had been working with the whānau for years and had "significant connection" with them.

"We were working intensively with mum for months beforehand, and for the last month she's been living in a teen parent home, working with us. Together we were trying to keep her baby safe. We want to uphold the mana of the mum and her whānau, so we're not going to go into the level of detail that others have," ms Meihana said.

She said the team working with the mother was "relentless" about using the best cultural approach. All the social workers involved were experienced - some having worked in the profession for 30 years - and most were Māori, she said.

"We're working with our partners and whānau to keep this baby safe. This is never about just Oranga Tamariki. It only takes a moment to harm a baby. As a community we must keep children safe."

Ministry figures showed the number of Māori newborns taken into state care rose from 110 in 2015 to 172 last year.

Since Wednesday Ms Te Huia has been contacted by other mothers with similar stories.

She wanted the system changed so families and midwives can be allowed more say in the courts over what happens to babies.

Dr Leonie Pihama, Director of Te Kotahi Research Institute at the University of Waikato.

Dr Leonie Pihama Photo: Te Kotahi Research Institute

Leonie Pihama, from the University of Waikato's Te Kotahi Research Institute, has called for Ms Moss to resign, saying the promised improvements when the agency took over from Child Youth and Family have not happened.

"Since that change we've seen no reduction in removal, in fact we've seen increases in removal. We've seen a significant increase of the number of Māori children at birth and we've also seen an increase of Māori children experiencing abuse while they're supposedly under state care," she said.

But Ms Moss said the ministry was on a journey to transform the system and was introducing legislative changes in July.

She said the ministry was trying to reduce the number of Māori babies taken away from their whānau.

Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft said he wanted people making decisions about the fate of children to take into account that the whole country was infected with colonial-based racisim.

He said nothing was more important than enhancing the bond between mother and child and too many Māori children were being denied this relationship because racism is infecting child welfare decision-making.

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