The chairman of the Hawkes Bay District Health Board has reprimanded elected board member Jacoby Poulain for speaking out about the attempted uplift of a 19-year-old’s newborn baby from the Hawkes Bay maternity ward last month.

All afternoon on May 6, Oranga Tamariki, assisted by police, attempted to uplift the newborn baby, but each attempt was averted by two midwives and the young mother’s lawyer. The next night, under the cover of darkness, Oranga Tamariki, with a large contingent of police backed by hospital security, again attempted to uplift the baby. This went on for nearly six hours until the early hours of the next morning.

The mother’s main support midwife, Ripeka Ormsby, had her swipe card disabled by the DHB and security prevented her from entering the hospital. Also locked out were the mother’s whānau and respected kaumatua.

The young mother, with none of her support people, clung to her baby while facing off two social workers who spent hours in her room trying to get her to give up the baby.

The full story is here.

A week later, Poulain published a column in which she described the HBDHB as having ‘failed significantly in its duty of care to provide safe and adequate care to mother and child in this situation’.

‘It appears that this mother was treated in an incomprehensible manner. She was unnecessarily denied legal rights to be heard in a legal matter so crucial to her, she was denied healthcare which is a fundamental patient right at a most critical time and seemingly she was detained with police guarding her door. These are human rights violations.’

Poulain told Newsroom: “The health board first and foremost has a legal duty of care to provide and uphold quality healthcare to its patients. Uplifts of newborns from hospitals are traumatic and extremely detrimental to the health of both mother and child. Questions need to be asked about their involvement in newborn uplift matters especially when co-operation with other agencies results in detrimental patient care. Health boards are mandated to protect and promote the health of their patients. My view is that health boards need to be involved well earlier in providing wraparound support and creating health plans for the families so as to strengthen whānau and make uplifts unnecessary.”

Health board member Jacoby Poulain

Following the publication of her article, Poulain received a letter from the board’s chairman Kevin Atkinson on DHB letterhead. In it, he writes he is ‘concerned about these comments and your approach to the media’ and that it was inappropriate for Poulain to speak publicly in the way she did as her comments were ‘inaccurate and put the DHB and board in an unfavourable light when this is not justified’.

Atkinson goes on to say Poulain’s ‘comments and actions do not comply with her obligations as a board member, and any freedom of communication with the media should comply with the board Code of Conduct and Ethics and the DHB’s Media Relations Policy’. He highlights five sections of the code and one from the policy.

Following this letter, Newsroom understands Atkinson pulled Poulain into a private meeting, where there was a strong exchange about her public comments, however she would not be drawn on this.

“There are parts I can talk about and parts it’s best if I don’t. There’s a legal process to follow. But this has escalated. They’re wanting to silence me. The correspondence that we’ve had – the tone and spirit – I take as an attempt to suppress my political voice, which I believe is essential in order to do my job as an elected representative,” says Poulain.

“I feel the chairman just wants to focus on a conversation about my actions, namely my comments, and I’m saying that’s not fair and balanced because I believe if we’re going to talk about people’s action we need to talk about everyone’s, including the initial incident.”

After the private meeting, Poulain, a trained lawyer, sent a written response to Atkinson. In it she says her legal obligations under the Public Health and Disability Act 2000, among other laws, override those of the board’s Code of Conduct and Ethics, and told Newsroom she disagreed with the way Atkinson applied the code.

“I disagree the code applies to this situation – its attempted application is inconsistent with my rights to freedom of political expression, embodied in case law. Also I note his letters are silent on the health board’s legal responsibilities towards patients such as the young mother in these matters, which I believe a health board is wrong to simply ignore and overlook in such situations with our most vulnerable patients.”

In his letter, Atkinson defends the actions of the hospital on the night of May 7, saying Poulain’s comments showed ‘a fundamental misunderstanding of what actually occurred and who was in control. The situation was almost entirely controlled by Oranga Tamariki and the police, as both agencies have significant powers when uplifting a child’.

Poulain disagrees with this assessment: “I think he’s failed to acknowledge and uphold the powers the health board has and the rights and responsibilities of patient care in such matters. I’m not saying the hospital should work against court orders, I’m saying that the hospital – the DHB – should work much more intimately with other agencies and the family well before it comes to crisis point where a child is removed at their premises. There are deficiencies in understandings of the law DHBs are required to uphold for patient care in such matters.”

On May 28 Atkinson sent a second letter to Poulain. In it, he says he disagrees with much of what was in her letter and that he remains of the view that Poulain should have met him before she discussed matters with the media.

Poulain says all she wants is an open discussion about the issues facing vulnerable patients, such as a young Māori mother facing the uplift of her newborn.

“We are nowhere near solving the issue, far from it. Hence the critical need to have open, transparent public discussions about such matters. I’m struggling with the fact that we aren’t able to do that easily. A big part of this picture is I feel that society still doesn’t know that huge injustices are occurring in this space, especially by people not part of this demographic. In other words, you’ve got one side of the community yelling out injustice and state abuse and you’ve got the other side saying ‘sit down be quiet’ and failing to see or hear the story of this side claiming these injustices. I don’t know why they don’t want to have this conversation, and that’s what’s so frustrating.”

Poulain is waiting to meet the board after she was unable to make the original planned meeting due to a scheduling conflict.

Newsroom sought comment from Atkinson but was told he was out of the country and would address it next week when he returns.

Read more: NZ’s own ‘taken generation’

Health board member muzzled over uplift

An injustice we can no longer tolerate 

Oranga Tamariki ‘pleased to support mum’

Bonnie Sumner is part of the Newsroom Investigates reporting team

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