Aaron Smale gives his personal account of being removed from his mother, and the legacy of loss and harm that reverberates through the generations

COMMENT: I can’t watch it.

I can’t watch the video my friend and colleague Melanie Reid put together, showing the state’s attempt to take a Māori child away from its teenage mother. I can’t watch it because I know it will tear me to bits, and I don’t know how long it will take to put myself back together. I know it will tear me to bits because I already know the story in a way. Because I’ve lived through my own version of it.

I’ve heard this kind of trauma before through the fragments my birth mother has told me about what she went through in 1971. She was 18 years old when I was taken from her. Even decades later you can still hear the anguish in her voice and see it in her face and body language when she talks about that catastrophic event.

“At a minimum I was given up under duress. At worst it was illegal coercion. She still lives with it.  While she made a choice to give me up for adoption, choice implies options. But the options were either curtailed or non-existent.” 

I still live with it too. Every day, in ways small and large. And sometimes, despite my best efforts, my children have to live with it because they have to live with me.

And yet, after decades of failure that has impacted not only me but thousands of others, the state is still doing it. It can’t seem to stop taking Māori children.

Newsroom headlined the story ‘Taken Generation’. Stuff cut to the chase and called it ‘Stolen Generation’, referencing what happened in not only Australia but Canada and the United States – the theft of indigenous children. Myself and thousands of other children weren’t taken or lost. We were stolen.

My friend Maria Haenga-Collins (another Māori adoptee) did her PhD under Peter Read, the Australian historian who coined the term Stolen Generation and exposed this crime Australia committed against its indigenous people. She concluded that Māori adopted children were taken through a “legal sleight of hand”. In other words, legalised theft.

Closed stranger adoptions affected all races of children during the period it was practised. But its impacts were particularly perverse for Māori children. My Pākehā birth family signed on to the secrecy and shame that underpinned closed adoptions in that era, giving up their own to protect some kind of respectability. My Māori whanau didn’t. They, like all Māori, had a centuries-long tradition of adopting children within the extended whānau for a variety of reasons. One of those was to maintain the child’s identity and whānau connections. Giving them to a complete stranger you’d never met was unthinkable.

But Māori whānau were shut out of the process when I was adopted. Traditional Māori adoptions are outlawed in the 1955 legislation. To rub salt into the wound, the vast majority of couples applying to adopt were Pākehā and the vast majority of them didn’t want a Māori child.

I’ve got seven aunties in my Maori whānau. A number of them have told me they would have brought me up. That’s quite a few options. But it never happened because Social Welfare didn’t think to explore those options. Not only that, at the age of 38 I discovered I had a sister I didn’t know existed. She was also adopted. Again, our whānau would have happily taken her in but weren’t given a chance. The ramifications of that for both of us are ongoing, not to mention our father.

Australia apologised to Aborigines for the Stolen Generations. They also apologised to birth mothers who had their babies taken from them during the closed adoption period. When Justice Minister Judith Collins was asked if New Zealand would consider taking a similar step, she sneered in dismissive contempt. Her arrogance summed up the arrogance of the state in its contempt for people it has failed. Not only failed, but harmed. Hers was the face of a criminal system without a shred of remorse.

Both Dad and Mum … tried to give me everything, tried to heal the hurt that their two adopted children came with when they took us in. But try as they did, they couldn’t heal that hurt. They were left to pick up the pieces of the state’s failed experiment.

It’s the same arrogance displayed by Grainne Moss, boss of Oranga Tamariki, when she stands up on national television and tells everyone that things are tickety-boo. Despite children she is responsible for being abused. Some have committed suicide under her care.

My adoptive father said to me quite recently that I should not have been taken from my own family. In a strange way it was a relief to hear him say it. He wasn’t saying he didn’t want me. What he was saying is that he’d observed the harm adoption had caused me and it shouldn’t have happened. Both Dad and Mum – and that’s what they are – tried to give me everything, tried to heal the hurt that their two adopted children came with when they took us in. But try as they did, they couldn’t heal that hurt. They were left to pick up the pieces of the state’s failed experiment.

My Mum died of cancer in April. She was still trying to heal our hurt in her last days. Our hurt had long ago become hers. But neither of us deserved it. Despite that, I’m grateful I got time to thank her for the love and loyalty she constantly gave.

One consolation I have is that I was taken as an infant and not a child. It took me nearly 20 years working as a Māori journalist before I began to understand the impact of Māori children taken from their families and put in state welfare institutions. When I did work it out it was hiding in plain sight. They’re not just the Stolen Generations. They were stolen and abused.

As a journalist and now as a PhD researcher I’ve listened to dozens of stories of these individuals and the harm they’ve suffered by being taken and abused at the hands of strangers. Those strangers were employees of the state. They were paid for by you, the taxpayer.

I’ve sat listening to these individuals and more often than not their only “crime” was that their family was poor, or they had wagged school, or some other trivial offence. And they are brown.

I’ve seen the masks they wear occasionally slip to reveal a traumatised, frightened – and yes, angry – child.

Then state agencies come along again when they’re adults and persecute them and their whānau further for how their lives turned out. After the trauma of being stolen when they were children, many then suffer the trauma and indignity of having their children and grandchildren stolen with a vivid knowledge of what awaits them. The UN’s definition of genocide includes the forcible removal of children.

When a child, particularly an indigenous child, is stolen from their whānau by the state, the state is stealing their identity, their history and the network of relationships that makes them who they are.

From the little I know, the whānau at the centre of Melanie Reid’s story has origins in this ugly history. And now that history repeats. Again and again.

It’s not just the individual stories though. It’s the scale and the ongoing nature of it, which tells me this country hasn’t learned a thing.

New Zealand smugly thinks we’re ahead of Australia when it comes to human rights and race relations. Bullshit. Australia fronted up to its Stolen Generations and apologised. They’re still screwing it up but a hypocrite is easier to deal with than a liar. A hypocrite has a moral standard even if he fails it.

The New Zealand state has lied. Repeatedly. For decades. The state has repeatedly denied there is a systemic problem or that Māori are targeted. Crown Law has denied and minimised allegations that the state’s own employees were abusing thousands of children, even though the multiple allegations amount to strong corroborating evidence. The state has failed to investigate crimes that were described by a High Court judge as “outrageous in the extreme”. Those crimes include rape and torture. Of children.

The state ignores the fact that many of the individuals in prison – of whom too many are Māori – are children of the state itself. It fails to acknowledge that lineage or the dysfunction it has sown in their lives. Politicians love to talk about being tough on crime. But they refuse to acknowledge their own crimes, the ones committed against Māori children on their watch. They refuse to acknowledge that many of the people they demand be punished were victims of the state’s crimes. According to these politicians, responsibility only cuts in one direction.

Now we have a Royal Commission to investigate these crimes with a chairman who can’t even stay awake while survivors are talking to him. Then that Royal Commission denies it occurred because it wasn’t recorded in the minutes.

This denial is telling survivors they are liars and can’t be believed, which is what perpetrators do to their victims to shut them up. It’s a further insult. The denial is unconvincing, to me at least, because I’ve witnessed the same thing in meetings I’ve attended.

Interventions of the state often inflict whole different categories of harm. In many cases the so-called cure is worse than the alleged disease.

But this isn’t the worst of the Royal Commission’s flaws. In the first instance it was set up by the perpetrator – Crown Law. Crown Law has treated survivors of horrific abuse with the same contempt that Judith Collins showed. And yet a lawyer from Crown Law was loaned out to Internal Affairs to set up a Royal Commission that is supposed to investigate this abuse and the Crown’s subsequent response.

The state is supposed to be in the dock, not telling the judge where he can look.

The terms of reference are silent as to whether state employees and institutions will be investigated for criminal behaviour, not just failures. At what point does Crown Law’s behaviour in defending and covering up for paedophiles and other child abusers amount to perversion of the course of justice and obstruction of justice? I doubt there will be an answer to that question because on current form the Royal Commission will be too gutless to investigate those categories of crime. The state often seems more concerned with protecting itself than it is with protecting children.

Yes, there are children at risk, serious risk, from members of their family. But the interventions of the state often inflict whole different categories of harm. In many cases the so-called cure is worse than the alleged disease.

Taking a child from its mother is a form of abuse. The amygdala is the part of the brain that is responsible for the flight or fight response and it develops early. It’s the alarm system that ensures survival. The only thing an infant knows is its mother. She’s its sole source of survival. Taking an infant or any young child away from its mother ruptures that crucial bond and sets off that child’s alarm system. Some people never learn how to turn that alarm system off. They live in a constant state of stress which manifests in a multitude of ways. Anger is one. Fear and anxiety is another.

It is not just an abuse of the child, it is also an abuse of the mother. My birth mother was psychologically devastated by having me taken away from her. It impacted on her subsequent relationships including with her other children, my siblings. That legacy of harm is still playing out today.

But it also affects the wider whānau. At a whānau gathering one of my many cousins said to me that my sister and I had missed out on the whānau, but the whānau had also missed out on us. You don’t get those years back.

When a child, particularly an indigenous child, is stolen from their whānau by the state, the state is stealing their identity, their history and the network of relationships that makes them who they are. It is causing irreparable harm. You can give that child to a great family – as I was given to such a couple – but you can’t give them back what you’ve stolen. You can’t undo the harm that loss inflicts.

The harm and loss caused by the Stolen Generations reverberates for lifetimes and across generations.

Well before that however, those who’ve caused the harm will walk away and not be held responsible for the consequences of their actions and choices they inflicted on those less powerful than them. The state never does.

That harm needs to stop.


Aaron Smale is Newsroom's Māori Issues Editor. Twitter: @ikon_media

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