‘Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, right?’ Midwife Jean Te Huia says Māori families are disproportionately targeted in cases when often there is no fire. Freelance producer Phill Prendeville reports. 

Jean Te Huia, CEO of Maori Midwives Aotearoa, is clearly stressed.

“Oranga Tamariki staff have been in once already,” she says. “We wouldn’t let them take the baby so now they’re talking to their lawyers, police and security are stationed outside. They’re all just waiting.”

At Ata Rangi Maternity Unit in Hastings, an uplift without notice order has been issued – a court order that empowers the state to remove babies from their mothers in the interests of the child. This is a scene that plays out around the country for Māori babies on average three to four times a week.

Inside Room 20, a family and its supporters have just endured the first stage of a bitter custody battle with Oranga Tamariki. Te Huia and fellow Māori midwife Ripeka Ormsby, are doing all they can to care for the newborn baby and its young mother, who is recovering from a caesarean section, and to stop the baby being uplifted and placed in state care.

This is the couple’s second child. Their first was born a year earlier. A notice to uplift the child was issued on Oranga Tamariki advice and the baby was uplifted the day after it was born. A hospital midwife used the pretence of weighing the child in order to take it away. It is little wonder then that this whānau does not trust Oranga Tamariki.

But surely there must be good reason for the uplift to have been ordered?

Te Huia sits on the bed next to the young mother and replies: “I certainly think that when there are concerns for the safety of the child those concerns should be raised and they should be acted upon…

“There was family violence and there were things happening but you have a young girl who is being tarred by the same brush and being deemed as not being able to provide a safe environment for her baby … she is guilty by association.”

But where there’s smoke there’s fire, right?

“But what if there is no fire?” Jean Te Huia replies. “What if it’s a case of smoke and mirrors and personal bias, prejudice and imbalance of power played out in offices around the country every day, where a case worker can sit opposite you and without any real meaningful censure, decide the fate of your child with one report, one recommendation, ticked off by a co-worker in the office … which in turn unites all the state’s organisations as one in taking that child from your arms.’ 

The Oranga Tamariki staff have left a copy of the harm file they submitted to the judge, which details the reasons the child’s welfare is at risk and why removal is appropriate.

As she reads it, Te Huia looks up, removes her wide-brimmed glasses and says to the family: “If I didn’t know you … and I read this I wouldn’t let you have your baby!” Adding, “The unfairness of no other voice coming into this report that goes to the judge … makes it one-sided, unfair and unjust … I see a one-sided assumption that has been written by a person that does not understand the family, doesn’t want to understand the family … and is refusing to see her young client as a capable mother and that’s the problem.

“OT are essentially giving one individual the sole responsibility of determining the outcome for young families … just one person’s perspective and that is a very dangerous position to be in. Maoridom and whānau are about strengthening and supporting the baby and Oranga Tamariki say that they have undertaken that kaupapa, however, that’s not what I’m seeing here.”

Oranga Tamariki’s mandate states: “We support children, family and whānau to restore their mana, their sense of self, their important connections and relationships, their right to heal and recover, and reach their potential.

However, Te Huia says there is a power imbalance at play.

“Young, uneducated poor Māori women, and in this case also an uneducated partner, are being told they are not suitable to be parents from a middle-aged Pākehā case worker woman with no independent peer review to balance or disagree with her assumptions … it is the process. Their process is simply not right.

“I think the system has failed, in that the people willing to help… whānau members and professional midwives, are kept out of the planning, so the solutions that are being offered aren’t whānau-based, they’re not around the care and protection of the child at all.”

In a statement at the time, Oranga Tamariki’s East Coast regional manager Te Pare Meihana said “We’re working with our partners and whānau to keep this baby safe. This is never about just Oranga Tamariki. It only takes a moment to harm a baby. As a community, we must keep children safe.”

Statements like these, Te Huia says, are just words, hollow words … “We all want to protect the baby, but in this situation, there is an absolute imbalance of power. Here you have a young father who is illiterate and whose mother can barely speak English and a young Māori girl, obviously totally naive to how the system works, that together are fighting to keep their babies against a state force that has all the power and sets all the rules regarding this young family’s future.”

“To understand what brought us to this point,” says Te Huia. “This is a young family that do have complex backgrounds and needs, and they are far from picture perfect … but just look at how much love and support is here, in this room, for this child and they want to take this baby and place him into state care and they say it is in the interests of the child?”

Te Huia, with nearly 30 years’ experience caring for young mothers and their babies, continues: “I believe that the family has some learning needs and I believe there are opportunities to support them in their learning needs… I personally as a midwife don’t believe the baby is in danger but I do think that the opportunity exists to give these families some better understanding of how to provide a safer environment for their baby and all that help was, and is, in place.”

In making the decision to uplift, Te Huia says it was not just the young couple’s ability to care for the child that was under scrutiny, it was also the extended family’s suitability as they were integral to the after-birth care plan.

With this knowledge, both grandmothers left their violent partners and set up new independent homes where their children and grandchildren could be safe.

“I saw that her mother and mother-in-law had made every effort to separate themselves from what OT considered family violence that could not be tolerated,” says Te Huia. 

They both took up the challenge and made positive changes to their lives. As a midwife I had no concerns that these women were not trying their very very best that they could to make a safe environment for their granddaughter and daughter… after 29 years in the job I believe their changes were extreme … extreme.”

Oranga Tamariki states: “Our belief is that in the right environment, with the right people surrounding and nurturing them, any child can, and should flourish.”

Te Huia says whānau believed they were the right people to care for their own and were doing all they could to address and comply with OT’s concerns and expectations

Aside from both grandmothers leaving troubled and violent home lives, the young mother had attended antenatal courses and undertaken a family violence course. A care plan had been created which planned for the young mother and her baby to stay in a whare which supports young Māori mothers for the first six months where she would have around-the-clock care and a multi-disciplinary care team had been initiated around addressing the family’s needs.

The young father is also getting help. Local councillor Des Ratima is on board as a mentor, role model and guide for him.

Te Huia says that what became apparent, and appears to be the main reason for the uplifts, was the OT case workers’ concerns about the teenage father.

In her statement, Oranga Tamariki’s East Coast regional manager Te Pare Meihana says: “The social worker had been working with the whānau for years and had ‘significant connection’ with them.”

“We were working intensively with mum for months beforehand, and for the last month she’s been living in a teen parent home, working with us. Together we were trying to keep her baby safe. We want to uphold the mana of the mum and her whānau,” Meihana said.

For Te Huia this statement doesn’t ring true. The family did not trust OT and did not get on with the case manager at all, and in stark contrast to what Te Huia herself says she witnessed.

Te Huia now understood, she says, “why this whānau had repeatedly requested to have their case manager changed. Oranga Tamariki states that they respect the mana of people, that they listen, don’t assume and create solutions”. She says she saw none of that.

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