Oranga Tamariki faces further court action over its controversial removal of children from a foster couple, Melanie Reid and Bonnie Sumner report
The couple at the centre of Newsroom’s latest video that shows Oranga Tamariki removing their foster children are pursuing legal action against the agency.
“We believe they’re in contempt of court. The documents submitted by the social workers, and the information that they’ve said about us and written about us, we know 100 percent that they’ve misled the court. This is a state agency misleading and fabricating information,” says the foster father.
The foster parents featured in Newsroom’s latest investigation Oranga Tamariki: A New Wave of Trauma say they’re relieved the issue has gone right up the chain and the Minister for Children, Kelvin Davis, is reviewing their case.
“It is a great first step. It needs to go this high up. Whether we were the only ones this has happened to or whether there was 10,000 of us it needed to go this high,” says the foster father.
The documentary showed a harrowing account of children being taken from what social workers had called their ‘forever home’ with the foster couple – two and a half years after they had been placed there – and moved them to whānau they had spent less than a fortnight getting to know.
The video and related stories have been removed by court order until a full hearing can be held in a fortnight. Newsroom is fighting this.
After the story was published, Davis called Oranga Tamariki management in for a ‘please explain’, but sought a written briefing when he deemed that unsatisfactory. When the briefing and further questions failed to satisfy the minister he requested a formal practice review be carried out by Oranga Tamariki’s chief social worker Grant Bennett.
Davis described the newsroom documentary as ‘gut-wrenching’ and ‘heartbreaking’.
“The first thing that we should be thinking about is the wellbeing of those children, and…having children in a safe, loving family is the number one priority,” he said.
Central to the argument put forward by child attachment experts, kaumatua, social workers and caregivers spoken to by Newsroom is whether section 7aa – a piece of legislation introduced last year that means decision-makers must uphold the right of tamariki Māori to be connected to their culture and whakapapa – is being misused. The fear is that in the rush to satisfy the new legislation, tamariki needs are not being put “front and centre”.
The review also comes on the back of another investigation after the foster couple lodged a formal complaint with the Ombudsman in March, which alleges bullying by Oranga Tamariki staff, ‘unfair accusations’ of causing physical, emotional and spiritual harm to the children and accusing the state agency of distorting facts to fit an agenda to transfer the children to new caregivers.
The office of the Chief Ombudsman has confirmed they are conducting their own investigation into the complaint.
“The investigation is progressing. The Chief Ombudsman will soon be forming a provisional opinion. This will give his preliminary views on the complaint. The provisional opinion will be sent to adversely affected parties for comment. The Chief Ombudsman will then consider all the information before forming a final opinion,” said a spokesperson.
The foster parents are awaiting the opportunity to provide comment.
Numerous foster carers have contacted Newsroom and the foster couple since the documentary was released to share their own stories of children being moved using processes they describe as brutal and traumatic.
The foster couple say there needs to be a government inquiry into the treatment of children and families in the foster system since the new 7aa legislation came in.
“I definitely think a major inquiry into what’s gone on needs to happen, that’s why we took a complaint to the Ombudsman – because Oranga Tamariki think they’re above the law. I don’t know how to put it into words, they treated us terribly, and they certainly haven’t given any thought about the wellbeing of the children, not one bit.”
The foster father feels aggrieved about the way in which the children were transitioned to extended whānau, spending less than a fortnight getting to know them before being moved.
“It just breaks my heart. OT need to be held accountable for what they’ve done. Even if it can’t help us and the children it may help someone else not to go through it.”
The foster parents now have supervised contact with the children for 15 minutes each month over Skype. The pair try to keep a brave face for the tamariki they took into their care in early 2018, and who now have been taken to live hundreds of kilometres away.
“The process that’s happened and how they were taken it’s so sad. It’s just a cruel and nasty way that they go about their business. Not thinking of these children. Never, ever thinking of these children,” says the foster father.
“I don’t think they’ve had any thought or feeling of the children, they’re just trying to rectify what they’ve (OT) done wrong in the past and they’ve gone about it any way they want to.”
“And to get to this sort of level hopefully we’ll get some answers and understand what’s going on. Because at the minute it’s obvious that the people Kelvin Davis has spoken to so far have not got the answer for him.”
The couple have one remaining foster child and say she has been lost since her whānau siblings left.
“We’re still devastated obviously. Not a day goes by I don’t think about them to be honest. You wake in the night, it’s awful. I can’t get back to sleep just thinking about them.”
“Their foster sister has been very quiet since her whānau siblings were taken, she’s absolutely lost without them. We try to distract her and keep her involved in other things, but every morning without fail she mentions them. I’ve said it before but it’s like they’ve been in a car crash and we’ve lost them. It’s what it feels like.”
Their foster child recently went on a visit to Parliament.
The father says their hearts broke when she told them, “If I see Jacinda I’m going to ask her for my brothers and sisters back.”