Lawyer David Stone says we must address the entrenched, systemic problems plighting Oranga Tamariki and end the injustice of removing newborn babies from their Māori mothers 

COMMENT: Up until very recently, I, like many other New Zealanders, had no idea that a world exists in complete contrast to the sanitised, protected life that many of us know and enjoy.

While we might know of the ‘stolen generation’ of the Australian aboriginal people, few of us know that ‘God’s own’ has its very own increasing population of people stolen and ripped away from their parents, grandparents and whānau. And for most of us, we are absolutely oblivious to the fact that it’s happening every day here in New Zealand. So too have we watched on television those older people telling their stories of having been put into state care and being subsequently abused by those put in place to care for them.

But to know that those who have been put into state care includes newborn babies removed from their mothers immediately after birth, was a fact that is still too hard to come to terms with. But it is happening at an alarmingly ever-increasing rate that Māori mothers have just cause for concern.

Since literally walking into this world at the Hastings maternity ward my eyes have been crowbarred open to what many Māori mothers and whānau are experiencing right across the country. In the past two weeks my office (Te Mata Law) and I have been speaking with and interviewing many people, including mothers, fathers, grandparents, uncles and aunts the stories of whom all carry common threads.

While these are the stories of people separated by distance and locality, they are all joined by the disturbing similarities that speak to the insidiousness of harm that they have all experienced. While I do not look at their stories through stained glass lenses, and given that I am naturally inclined to play devil’s advocate (perhaps that’s my legal training kicking in), the sustained commonalities of their shared experiences have made me realise that there are indeed entrenched, systemic problems plighting Oranga Tamariki. The facts certainly support this allegation and it is hard for any other conclusion to be arrived at.

As people who have not had children removed from our lives, we find it hard perhaps to have compassion for those who have, after all, Oranga Tamariki wouldn’t remove a child unless there is a good reason to do so, or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. They must have been drug addicts, alcoholics, violent people, criminals and so on. After all, good people don’t lose their children. “They need to get their act together” we tell ourselves as we continue on living our lives with little care for them or their predicament, because our lives are good.

Te Mata Law’s David Stone. Photo: Supplied

Yes, in some instances the removal of a child is justified. There are parents who are drug addicts, who are alcoholics, who do live in violent relationships. But not all who have had children removed fall into these categories. Not all of them deserve to have their children removed. And this is when eyebrows are rightly raised because when you interview people who have had children removed you hear stories of why and how Oranga Tamariki came to remove children that it does raise issues of concern. Some of the problems and stories I’ve been told include:

I did everything Oranga Tamariki told me to do, but they kept moving the goal posts.

It didn’t matter what I did, I knew I was never going to get my children back.

They told me to my face I was never going to get my kids back, no matter what I did.

The social workers, it’s as if they’re on a power trip. They love having this power over you.

I had no input at all into the report that went to the judge, and based on that report he decided that I would lose my children. Where was my input? What say did I have in the process? I had none, none at all.

I’ve lost five children, I’m 33 weeks pregnant and I’m scared I’m going to lose this one too for no reason. My five children have never been together at the same time. They’ve never met each other and they have no idea who their brothers and sisters are.

Oranga Tamariki and the carers have cut me off: I can’t contact my children at all, even if I wanted to.

I’ll have my baby in the middle of the bush just to get away from Oranga Tamariki.

The system is not designed to help the parents or the whānau and it’s certainly not designed to put the baby back with its parents and whānau.

The system is not designed to help keep the baby and the whānau together. It just isn’t.

It doesn’t matter what you do: if they’ve made up their mind that the baby is going, it’s going.

Oranga Tamariki, the hospitals and the police all work together, you have no hope of winning.

I had no idea that they were going to take my baby: absolutely none at all.

When they came I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t know what my rights were and they certainly didn’t tell me what my rights were.

They told me I could get a lawyer as they were taking my baby away. Too fucken late then.

You certainly have to wonder if they are taking babies to order?

They came into our house, sat at our kitchen table for two minutes, didn’t look at the bedrooms or anywhere in the house and based on those two minutes at the table they had made up their mind that our house was not a safe house and recommended that our baby be taken.

They (the social workers) judge us. And who judges them? What specialised training do they have to judge us? These people have so much power. Based on what they have to say they have the power to change the life not only of a baby, but that baby’s parents and whānau for ever.

I was raped while in state care and my daughter who is in state care is being raped too.

My children have tried to run away from where they are being kept.

My children don’t know who I am, or who their brothers and sisters are.

As I prepare an application for an urgent hearing to the Waitangi Tribunal about this issue, I know I do so against a backdrop of prejudice and privilege. But as I heard my cousin who was recently admitted as a judge say in his speech, “I developed an intolerance for injustice”, it is that same intolerance that compels the filing of an urgent hearing, because this injustice can no longer be tolerated.

David Stone is principal at Te Mata Law Ltd, Barristers and Solicitors, and is chancellor of Te Pihopatanga o Aotearoa.

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