Māori mothers describe child welfare system as dangerous and brutal in new report

9:29 am on 8 June 2020

Māori mothers of newborns involved with Oranga Tamariki say the child welfare system is dangerous, brutal and racist.

Group of people with placards

A protest against Oranga Tamariki taking Māori babies into care. Photo: RNZ / Leigh Marama McLachlan

Their experiences have been detailed in a report from the Children's Commissioner, which was released today.

Judge Andrew Becroft is calling for fundamental change at the Children's Ministry, saying the system is racist and is being let down by some poor social work.

'I didn't even get to see him...'

The report Te Kuku o te Manawa is focused on how to keep Māori babies aged 0-3 months in the care of their whānau.

It gives a sobering and rare insight into the experiences of 12 whānau who have dealt with the state care system.

Of the 13 babies at the centre of the report, eight remained with their mum or parents but five babies were taken by the state.

"I'd been a mum from 16 to 24 and I didn't know anything else. I'd worked really hard and I was just in a really bad relationship and had severe depression and instead of being given support they took those children... they're keeping the kids forever and my whole heart broke in that moment and I just gave up," one mother said in the report.

The commissioner had earlier revealed Māori babies under three months old are five times more likely to be taken by the state than non-Māori.

But it is not just the disparity that is alarming - so too is the way the removals happen.

The report revealed armed police officers were used in an uplift, and one mother was giving birth when she was told her baby would be taken away.

"My whole pregnancy was pretty good, like no issues. Everything was up to date, never missed, did everything possible like parenting courses, the whole shebang. I did everything possible to make sure that I was proving to [CYF] that I'm doing right for my unborn… it wasn't till I was halfway through labour I found out there was already an automatic uplift and then it went to sh** straight up," the mother said.

Another mother had arranged for her new baby to be taken into care but she was denied the chance to see him beforehand.

"I gave birth to baby they took him out of the room and into somewhere else. I didn't even get to see him… she [midwife] was asking for baby to stay with me and she told them he needs the first drop of milk and all that but they just gave him a bottle and when they all left that was it, the only person I had there was my dad," she said.

Many of the mothers said they were poorly treated by their social workers at Oranga Tamariki and its predecessor Child, Youth and Family.

They said their efforts to become better parents went unnoticed and that they were kept out of loop, manipulated, lied to and threatened.

"She [CYF social worker] told me that if I was ever to have any other children that they'd be taken straight away and I would never be a mum again."

"I felt completely helpless. Helpless... We're just dealing with years of trauma that's just grown on top of trauma and you give up, you start to get weak and around that - the whole thing is trauma."

Newborn baby. (generic)

Māori babies aged 0-3 months were taken into state custody at five times the rate of non-Maori babies in 2019. Photo: 123RF

Oranga Tamariki marred by controversy

This inquiry is one of five that was launched after the agency tried to take a Māori baby in Hawke's Bay a year ago.

Judge Becroft said the system is letting down whānau, Māori and their babies.

"The 13 whānau that we interviewed had distressingly similar and negative experiences and I guess the depth of their distress and concern was something that hit me pretty hard," he said.

"They have been subjected to unprofessional and inadequate social work practice, they haven't been treated with humanity and dignity, they have been subjected to racism, usually structural, institutional racism.

"And their babies long term wellbeing and place within the wider whānau, hapū and iwi has not been respected or nurtured."

Judge Becroft said there were clear examples of the whānau experiencing racism and discrimination.

Māori babies aged 0-3 months were taken into state custody at five times the rate of non-Maori babies in 2019.

Findings of abuse have decreased overall, yet, more and more Māori babies are being assessed and removed earlier.

The rate of urgent entries into state custody approximately doubled from 2010 to 2019 - but stayed the same for non-Māori.

The report highlights six areas of change including treating mothers and pēpē with humanity, addressing racism and discrimination, and looking at unprofessional practice by social workers.

"Given that Oranga Tamariki's own internal inquiry highlighted exactly the sorts of issues that these mothers have been talking about, given that Whānau Ora with a wide sweep of over 1000 different contacts said the same things - I would have thought now the case for fundamental change is inarguable.

"Nothing short of equitable and fair sharing of resources with hapū and iwi and Māori organisations, delegation of power and devolution of services over time."

Judge Becroft will release the second part of the report later in the year, which will include its recommendations.

Minister and CEO refuse interview

Oranga Tamariki chief executive Gráinne Moss and the Minister for Children, Tracey Martin, would not be interviewed.

But in a statement, Moss said that all cases are highly emotional, challenging and complex, and these stories only represent a fraction of the 61,300 children they worked with last year.

She also took aim at the report for its focus.

"Although the role of the Children's Commissioner is to support and advocate for the welfare of children, the report has focused on the experience of their mothers and remained silent on the interest of their babies," she said.

"We are continually trying to improve on how we protect the wellbeing and lives of children but because of the report's small sample size and lack of recommendations, it is difficult to see how it contributes to our efforts and may even discourage people from contacting us with concerns about a child."

Moss said they have partnered with seven iwi and Māori organisations to set up their own models of care and protection, as well as entering strategic relationships with four major iwi including Ngāi Tahu, Ngāpuhi, Waikato-Tainui and Ngāi Tūhoe.

Minister Tracey Martin said in a statement that it is a sad reality that New Zealand has one of the worst child abuse statistics in the world.

"One of my visions for these children and their families is the delivery of the promise of Puao-te-ata-tu," she said.

"That is why the new operating model of Oranga Tamariki, fully funded since July 2019, is about taking a new approach, investing heavily in Early Intervention and Intensive Intervention and jointly creating by Māori for Māori support structures - building these services so that we, as a country, can better support these families so that their babies and children don't need to enter care."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs