Treatment of children under the Family Court uplift system constitutes assault, says a former child protection detective. But are the police sent in to enforce the orders being set up to fail?

Child uplifts carried out by police on orders from the Family Court are “complete lunacy”, says Charles Cadwallader, a former child protection detective from the UK.

Asked for his response to the videos revealed in Newsroom’s investigation Taken by the State, Cadwallader says: “I just saw a kid being assaulted. Plain and simple”

Another former officer and specialist in the treatment of children in New Zealand says police just aren’t equipped to deal with the complexities of custody disputes and child trauma.

And involving them in court-ordered uplifts should be an absolute last resort.

In New Zealand, if a parenting order is breached, an application can be made to the Family Court by the aggrieved parent or guardian for a warrant to take the children and return them to where they should be – using reasonable force if necessary.

But what is reasonable force anyway? he asks.

“How much further do you go? Do you handcuff the child? Should you mace them? Do you use a taser on them?

“I just don’t get it. The whole idea is to act in the child’s best interests. How can any force be reasonable?”

Working exclusively in child protection offers invaluable experience in how to defuse and manage these kinds of situations. Cadwallader, who has had to remove children in similar circumstances, says there are many more humane ways to resolve custodial disputes.

“You sit down with the parents, you discuss it all through …. you could do a thousand and one things [instead]. You don’t just go in there, pick them up and walk out.”

Cadwallader says it’s better to discuss the allegations against the relevant parent with them, keep open communication with both sides and speak to the child directly to find out what’s going on. Telling the family members involved you want to work with them – rather than against them – is remarkably more effective.

“You’ve got to be fair, friendly, firm but reasonable.”

“You’re not seizing a flat-screen TV. You can enforce the warrant but it’s how you go about doing it, and that just takes experience.”

Uplifting children in this way is illegal in the UK, so Cadwallader is baffled that the Care of Children Act legitimises the use of reasonable force here in New Zealand.

However, former head of the New Zealand Police Youth Aid unit Christopher Graveson says he believes officers sent in to uplift children are “set up to fail”.

Graveson now works as an international advisor on children’s issues in countries that range from Mongolia to Armenia, and Thailand to Kazakhstan.

He firmly believes interventions like these should strictly be carried out by social workers who have the experience – supported by police only in exceptional circumstances.

“It appears like front-line officers were doing this work and I almost sense that they are set up to fail. The work is really specialised, they’re challenging situations at the best of times and they should really be Youth Aid officers or officers who work with Oranga Tamariki.”

The additional complexity of dealing with children is heightened in these domestic disputes, making cops’ jobs just that much more difficult.

“It’s tough. No one likes doing that sort of work,” Graveson says.

“But you’re not seizing a flat-screen TV. You can enforce the warrant but it’s how you go about doing it, and that just takes experience.”

However, showing up in uniform to uplift children goes against universal best practice when dealing with young people, he says.

“Going in to use the warrant is the highest level of intervention. The test is, ‘What is in the child’s best interest?’ So, is removing those children in those circumstances in their best interests? If the answer is no, we’ve got to take a step back and figure out what is.”

The New Zealand Police released a statement after Newsroom revealed the uplift videos.

“The video is challenging and distressing to watch, and the welfare of the child is always the number one priority,” says Inspector Fleur De Bes, who is the prevention manager for harm reduction at the New Zealand Police.

She points out that police have a statutory role in enforcing Family Court orders, and that these orders are made for many different reasons.

“Police are not in a position to ignore the enforcement options which may be required arising from a court order,” she says.

“Police give careful consideration to when the warrant is executed to ensure that the child is removed without increasing separation trauma. Police work with the parent who has current custody of the child in an attempt to reduce the distress for all involved.”

De Bes suggests the Family Court is the place where parents who have concerns about parenting orders can raise them “appropriately”, also allowing for the child’s advocate to “hear the child’s voice”.

* 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

Cass Mason is Newsroom's news director.

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