Oranga Tamariki report: Midwives and support workers detail heartbreak of whānau

8:34 pm on 23 November 2020

The Children's Commissioner wants no more urgent uplifts of tamariki and pēpi Māori from hospitals but has stopped short of recommending an end to all uplifts where the whānau is not notified first.

Newborn baby. (generic)

A community worker says the removal of a child affects the entire whānau. (File image). Photo: 123RF

It's one of the recommendations from the newly released second part of the report Te Kuku O Te Manawa, from Judge Andrew Becroft's inquiry into the removal practices of Māori babies by Oranga Tamariki.

There were 94 participants interviewed for the report who had either been subject to a report of concern or had involvement with whānau that were, including 19 whānau members, seven midwives, 43 community support workers and 25 Oranga Tamariki staff.

Midwives shared how they were not included in decisions made by Oranga Tamariki to remove babies from their whānau and the process of removal was often done in underhanded ways.

One midwife said a mother got out of the shower at the hospital to find police were in the process of taking her baby, and in another instance, a midwife said Oranga Tamariki arranged a meeting with the whānau, midwife and agencies, and took the baby while this hui was taking place.

Another midwife said she still cries about the removal of a baby she heard over the phone.

"I just got home, seriously it was about three in the morning, and she's on the phone and her mother's crying and they're screaming. You can hear the panic going on and people banging on the door to let them in because the police are here and, 'we're going to take that baby'," the midwife said.

"Just broke my heart."

A community worker said the removal of a child affected the entire whānau and as a result family members often turned to drugs and alcohol or attempted suicide.

"...when their children are removed you can see the hope leave their eyes... the spirit leaves the parent until they are reunited... it destroys them... you've just ripped an iwi off, not just a whānau, they ripped an entire whānau, hapū and iwi by doing that."

A finding of the report was to stop all without-notice removals from hospitals, birthing units or maternity suites, "in order to respect te whare tangata and the needs of pēpi to bond, breastfeed (when possible) and have a calm, trusted and safe environment".

Children's Commissioner, Andrew Becroft

Judge Andrew Becroft Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

"They ought to be places of well-being, care and wholeness - not trauma and dislocation," Judge Becroft said.

He said informal discussions with district health boards about implementing this had been "encouraging".

However, he said they stopped short of calling for an end to all removals of pēpi Māori from their mothers, calling instead for Oranga Tamariki to "prevent" the use of them.

"We chose the word 'prevent' very carefully because that's what we want to move to.

"We believe that with much better early intervention, collaboration, iwi leadership they will never be necessary and that's what we're moving towards but ... we stopped short of using the word 'stop'."

South Auckland social worker Rhonda Tautari has witnessed eight police officers surrounding a young mother in hospital to remove her baby.

Social worker Rhonda Tautari told the Tribunal that she was there to speak for the tamariki and teenage mother's she works with - 80 percent of which are Māori.

Social worker Rhonda Tautari told the Waitangi Tribunal earlier this year that she was there to speak for the tamariki and mothers she works with. Photo: RNZ / Meriana Johnsen

"That sense of abandonment, 'where are my parents, why am I not with them,' the effects that [can have] not only on the child but the mother is like 'oh my god, I've lost my child' then [they] have to replace that child, therefore they go out and have another child and you've got another baby that's in the system," Tautari said.

"There shouldn't be any without-notice uplifts, at least prepare a whānau that can get somebody who's placed within that whānau to take that baby," she said.

"Let's work with the whānau because at the end of the day they have all the answers, they know where their strongest supports are and where their weakest points are."

Explicit inclusion of Te Tiriti o Waitangi in the legislation will ensure partnership

The key recommendation from the report is a call for Oranga Tamariki to transfer resources and power for the care of Māori babies and children to whānau, hapū and iwi.

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Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Lady Tureiti Moxon from the National Urban Māori Authority said there were already plenty of examples of Māori models of care, such as kōhanga reo and Whānau Ora.

"And we've got lots and lots of Māori providers who've been in this realm for a very long time and who have worked really hard over that time to have Māori whānau stay within their iwi and keep their whakapapa ties strong, and they're the ones who're going to be doing this," Moxon said.

A major legislative change recommended in the report was to explicitly incorporate Te Tiriti o Waitangi into the Act, which the report said "would be a massive step with huge implications", including opening up Oranga Tamariki to High Court action if a policy or decision by Oranga Tamariki was thought to contravene Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

"Surely that's exactly what is required, that's how the system will change, simply to have a notional commitment without teeth, I think, is inadequate," Judge Becroft said.

He was referring to the clause 7AA introduced mid-last year and designed to put the mana, whakapapa and culture of a child at the heart of all decisions, but which he said did not create "true Treaty partnership".

Assistant Māori Commissioner for Children Glenis Philip-Barbara said including a treaty clause would ensure the partnership was between equals.

Glenis Philip-Barbara is the first Assistant Māori Commissioner for Children.

Assistant Māori Commissioner for Children Glenis Philip-Barbara Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

"Equal weighting given to mātauranga Māori and Western knowledge, equal consideration given for the dynamic within that relationship that determines where power sits, where decision-making rights reside for tamariki Māori," Philip-Barbara said.

"I mean it's 2020, we signed Te Tiriti back in 1840, I think we're way past time."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern agreed that while partnership with iwi was the only way forward, she would not commit to transferring the powers of Oranga Tamariki to Māori, hapū and iwi.

"It sits with us for very good reason - because it is such a significant use of power - but the way it has been done has been hugely problematic and so rightly now we've had four reports all looking into this issue and now it's our job to act on that, but we're not going to do it unilaterally otherwise we'll end up repeating our mistakes."

Ardern said they already had agreements and arrangements with iwi and Māori organisations in the preventative child care and protection area.

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