Justice Minister Amy Adams says no changes are planned to the law covering Family Court ‘uplift’ warrants where children can be taken from parents by police without notice – even when a child is not at immediate risk.
While she felt judges should decline to order such warrants if they “considered they didn’t have enough information”and said the government was concerned to ensure protections for children are “sufficient and appropriate” she said no improvements were planned to the Care of Children Act.
Newsroom revealed video yesterday of two without-notice uplifts of children involved in parenting disputes. Neither child was in danger at the time police forcibly removed them from a parent;’s home on application by the other parent. In both instances the child had refused repeatedly to go back to the other parent.
In one, a five year-old had been so upset Air New Zealand refused to carry her on the flight 700km to her father. The mother advised CYFS, but then police arrived unannounced at the home she shares with her parents and the girl.
The number of warrants issued for such action has risen from about 400 a year in 2014 to 600 in the past two years, about 11 a week. Applications can be made if one parent is late returning a child under a parenting order. The applicant can tick a box opting for the police to be asked to the do the uplift and not involve social workers, can allege risk to the child and the matter can be approved remotely by computer by a judge under an E-application system.
Otago University dean of law Professor Mark Henaghan, who viewed the uplifts, described them as not being in the interests of the child – the law’s paramount consideration.
Another academic, child psychology expert Nicola Atwool said the manner of the seizure of the children would cause trauma.
However a former Family Court Judge John Adams wrote for Newsroom that compliance with parenting orders was not optional and the sanction of forcible removals was necessary. He suggested children were better off in the long-run by the rulings of the court being followed.
Labour’s new leader Jacinda Ardern, who is her party’s spokesperson on children, viewed the video and labelled the uplifts “horrific”.
Labour has a policy to review the operations of the Family Court.
Yesterday the Human Rights Foundation also called for a review of the Family Court’s processes for protecting women and children.
Chair Peter Hosking, a former Proceedings Commissioner at the Human Rights Commission, said the Newsroom report was a wake-up call for the authorities. Foundation lawyers working in the Family Court had reported similar incidents.
“The Family Court has failed to establish processes that ensure that the welfare and interests of the child are the first and paramount consideration – as the law requires them to be. Whatever the conduct of the parents that led to the events in the Newsroom report, it is clear that the children’s interests have not been paramount.”
“Family Court judges take their responsibilities very seriously and these warrants are not issued lightly.”
Hosking said any review of the court needed to involve domestic violence and children’s rights service providers and users of the system as equal partners. “It is important the Family Court avoids the defensiveness displayed when responding to the earlier report by the Background Collective about its failure to protect women who have been subjected to violence in the home.”
Adams’ colleague, Social Development Minister Anne Tolley, had earlier said she would ask Adams to consider counselling services for children involved in without-notice uplifts. But Adams told Newsroom counselling and support was available through a number of agencies involved in Family Court matters.
“Many of these services specifically include help lines for young people.”
The government is looking at how children are taken from parents under the separate Oranga Tamariki Act, the law for dealing with children subject to abuse, but did not see a need to align the Care of Children Act uplift provisions with that law.
“Both acts require the welfare and best interests of the child to be the first and paramount consideration in decision-making, including any decision to issue a warrant,” Adams said.
The minister said by the time parenting orders were imposed there had been a severe breakdown in a relationship.
“The process is often fraught and difficult for all involved.
“Children are innocent parties in these situations and the law requires the court to act in their best interests. Family Court judges take their responsibilities very seriously and these warrants are not issued lightly.”
“It is time for a Royal Commission into the Family Court.”
The Backbone Collective, a group launched five months ago to give women victims of violence an abuse a “safe way to say how the system responded to them and their children when they reached out for help” said the videos shown by Newsroom were “harrowing and unfortunately all too common.”
Co-founder Deborah Mackenzie said the children in the uplifts were not in danger at the time.
“There was no need to take them in such a traumatic way, or indeed at all.”
“It is time for a Royal Commission into the Family Court. New Zealanders really need to demand a high level independent investigation is undertaken to determine the extent of these barbaric, unsafe and harmful practices – to lift up the stones to see what lies beneath.”
* Find Newsroom’s Taken By The State series here
* See the original investigation
* Read responses by politicians Jacinda Ardern, Anne Tolley and Paula Bennett, and the Children’s Commissioner
* Opinion: Retired Family Court judge John Adams
* Opinion: Child psychology expert Nicola Atwool