A Family Court judge has declined a bid by children’s agency Oranga Tamariki to force changes to a Newsroom video story about its attempt to take a newborn baby from its teenage mother.

The agency wanted the court to make Newsroom – and Stuff.co.nz which also published the documentary – remove details from the story but Judge Max Courtney said it wasn’t for him to rule on – either the law had been breached or it hadn’t and if so Oranga Tamariki could report Newsroom to the police.

Oranga Tamariki’s action, following an attempted complaint to the Media Council over earlier stories on the case, was lodged by lawyer Linda Clark for her firm Kensington Swan as an urgent memorandum to the court.

Barristers Tim Castle, for Newsroom, and Robert Stewart for website Stuff.co.nz which also published the Newsroom story, told the court they rejected Oranga Tamariki’s claims about alleged breaches of the Family Court Act and would oppose the bid for orders to have changes made to the video story.

The video showed a case at Hawke’s Bay Hospital in which three Oranga Tamariki social workers, with police support, tried over two days to take a week-old baby boy from his mother after persuading the Family Court to provide them with an uplift order, citing the safety of the child.

The whānau and the woman’s midwives say the young mother is being blamed by association with her and her partner’s wider family’s background and has strong, caring support.

After strident opposition from the mother and father, their two mothers and whānau, and two midwives and iwi representatives, Oranga Tamariki said it would not try to take the baby but returned at night, when the mother was on her own and tried until the early hours to persuade her to hand over the child. Her midwife and family were barred by the hospital, security and police from entering the hospital to be with her.

Finally she was allowed to stay with the baby and leave the hospital with the boy and stay at a care facility. A further court hearing on the bid to remove the child is set for next week, but the children’s agency has said in a statement that the mother and child have done well and it is ‘supporting’ them.

Oranga Tamariki attempted the court action against Newsroom on the basis this site had identified the child and mother, which Newsroom and Stuff reject.

Oranga Tamariki chief executive Gráinne Moss defended her agency’s actions around uplifts to Parliament’s social services committee on Wednesday morning, saying 98.5 percent of Māori children were not in care.

“It’s one of the hardest things, if not the hardest thing, that a social worker ever does – but they do not do that alone, they do that with other professionals, they also do that with the Family Court, they’ve often worked extensively for a long period of time.”

Moss said Oranga Tamariki had been working with a number of iwi and hapu to improve Māori involvement in its processes, and said it was up to communities to provide support.

“Babies live in communities, they don’t live in government organisations. It only takes a moment to harm a child, and if everybody in the community can step up and provide that care and protection, then there will be no need for us to provide that safety for that child.”

Asked how that claim stood up to the actions taken by Oranga Tamariki as shown in Newsroom’s investigation, Moss said: “I think all of the experiences we have are very dynamic and very challenging and require a great deal of skill.”

She did not offer a direct answer to whether she wanted to see fewer Māori babies being taken into care, saying only that she “would love to see children safer and thriving in New Zealand”, while she also did not directly answer a question about where there was institutional racism within Oranga Tamariki.

“I think what we see is an openness and a willingness to partner with Māori organisations, we’re doing things differently … we’re incredibly open to working differently to get different outcomes for Māori and we’re delighted with the partners who want to come on that journey with us.”

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson said she and many other New Zealanders were outraged by what Newsroom’s investigation had revealed about the treatment of Māori by Oranga Tamariki.

“It looks like we could do a much better job before we get to that traumatic crisis point where we start to damage more people’s lives, and where we start to create more trauma that we could have avoided if we had put in place proper support conversations and proper planning way further up the track…

“I want to know about all the parts of the system that lead us to a disturbing crisis point where we are witnessing a young woman with no power being threatened with her baby being taken away – there is no excuse for things getting to that point.”

While the Government was committed to building the Māori community’s trust in Oranga Tamariki, that trust did not currently exist.

“Just today I’ve had a mum in Wellington feel threatened about her newborn babies being taken away from her, twins, and what she is saying is, ‘I need support, not for my babies to be ripped away’ – there’s a lot more that we can do differently.”

Davidson said she had asked government ministers questions about the risk assessment tools used by Oranga Tamariki, the use of without-notice applications for uplifts, and the relationships the agency had with local iwi and Māori organisations.

“This is a big part of what my responsibility needs to be to whānau Maori, to mokopuna Māori, and as a new grandmother I cannot imagine how stressed and frustrated I would feel about the birth of my mokopuna and the threat of that baby being taken away.”

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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