One couple’s harrowing story of being caught in Oranga Tamariki’s machinations but managing to hold off – for now – a ‘reverse uplift’ of their whānau

We are a professional couple of Māori/Pacific Island/European heritage who have whāngai cared for many of our younger siblings, nieces and nephews over the decades. In late January 2019 we received a call from extended whānau who were desperate to find a permanent home for a baby and toddler.

The two tamariki had already been through three whānau families and for various reasons had to be moved again. Immediate whānau and Oranga Tamariki assured us they would support us for permanency and we made the naïve decision to step up and take in the tamariki on the basis of wide support for permanency. The tamariki arrived four days after the first call to us.

As a background the tamariki were abandoned (this was NOT an uplift) to Oranga Tamariki by their mother and taken into state care under court protection orders after failed attempts to return them to the parent.

We wanted to be the couple that stepped up and made a difference in the lives of these two beautiful tamariki as their start had not gone well to date. About two months later the social worker’s new supervisor introduced herself over the phone and she handled all future communications, not the children’s social worker. That is when the trouble really started and without delving into the details it became clear that the new supervisor had an agenda or was brought in for a purpose.

When the new supervisor took over we very quickly became the villains. We were being instructed, dictated to and ordered about on everything with no compromise. When we questioned any of their decisions or asked for help (for example with a toddler who was being triggered during visits with whānau) it was met with threats and emergency meetings. They stopped communicating with us or giving us information and tried to turn it on us. They stalled our caregiver registration for almost a year and stopped other whānau from being registered.

We both became very sick from the stress caused by Oranga Tamariki. They were obviously trying to break us and I subsequently became so ill from the continuous stream of orders, meetings and threats that I ended up in an ambulance to A&E with life threatening breathing difficulties.

We did not advise Oranga Tamariki of that incident or even mention when we were unwell as we did not want to give them another reason to threaten us and/or take the children off us. We were subsequently told in no uncertain terms that permanent placement was off the records and other arrangements were being considered in a report to be completed by the end of last year.

Early this year a new social worker for the children started. It soon became clear that her purpose was to move the tamariki to the previous whānau placement. This was against the wishes of the majority of whānau.

The final court report was issued around placements in January 2020 and we were advised that tamariki were to remain with us just for the medium term. It was not the result we wanted.

We were heartbroken as these tamariki were now trapped in a system that was planning to move them again.

Then the first Covid-19 lockdown struck and, as a consequence, I lost my job. Lockdown was like a mini holiday as we were finally free of dealing with Oranga Tamariki’s stream of demands and threats. We also had a major breakthrough with the three-year-old in terms of her emotional development, which was very encouraging.

Little did we know that both the supervisor and new social worker, with the children’s lawyer (lawyer for child) were busy plotting their next move against us. The children’s lawyer didn’t represent the children, he only supported Oranga Tamariki and agreed with every decision they made. Not once did he support or contact us regarding our concerns. He failed the children. We know this because we got access to our case notes. We were shocked and disturbed, but not surprised, as it confirmed our suspicions.

Disturbed, as Oranga Tamariki has its first listed value on its website as, “We put tamariki first – we will challenge things that are not right for the child”, and they did not live up to it. If Oranga Tamariki can’t follow the first most important value on their own website then what is their purpose?

This carried on for the remainder of the year while various reports, meetings, court proceedings and assessments were happening in the background. The exhausting and extremely disappointing aspect of dealing with Oranga Tamariki is that you always have to be planning several steps ahead of them to deal with whatever curve ball they throw at you.

Not long out of lockdown we were given notice that the tamariki would be ‘reverse uplifted’ in two weeks and placed into a situation which was risky for the children and had a high probability of failure. The majority of whānau opposed the decision but Oranga Tamariki had already made their plans and believed there was little time for whānau to put up any resistance.

The court battle

Fortunately we had also been very busy in the background and introduced Oranga Tamariki to our Family Court lawyer. (As an aside it is very difficult to find independent Family Court lawyers as many work for Oranga Tamariki or have worked for Oranga Tamariki and those who are independent are at capacity.)

So what generally takes months to prepare we had five working days to complete. Essentially we had to immediately stop the court orders to uplift the tamariki and defer any further actions until a full guardianship hearing. A date was set immediately by the Family Court and the court orders to uplift were temporarily placed on hold.

There were two court hearings to hear this over the following three weeks. Without going into the full details, the proceedings went in our favour, with tamariki not being moved until a full guardianship court hearing, which is set for next year.

There were two key findings from the court hearings. The first is that Oranga Tamariki attempted to reduce our status from whānau caregivers to supporting caregivers. Essentially Oranga Tamariki considered us as foster caregivers and as such we had no legal rights to challenge their decisions. The second, and most important, was the considerable attachment trauma that a near zero transition ‘reverse uplift’ would have on the two tamariki.

I should also mention that while there are always more stories when dealing with larger whānau, as not all will agree, we have found that sadly, Oranga Tamariki thrive on family breakdowns and dysfunction.

The United States and Britain have time spans of three to 12 months (age dependent) before permanent arrangements are made for children in state care. Those countries understand that permanent placement is the best outcome for children who come into state care.

In New Zealand there are seemingly no rules on how long a child stays in state care before permanent placement arrangements are made.

This creates the current disaster of children potentially being in state care forever while they are waiting upon parents and family/whānau to sort themselves out. Perhaps the United States and Britain are correct. Psychologically and developmentally, the early years are the foundation for these children’s lives and moving them around is a major failure by Oranga Tamariki.

There is no guarantee we will receive guardianship from the justice system. We just want to take our tamariki out of this failed system and have nothing to do with it ever again. We want to love them and nurture them without interference from Oranga Tamariki.

We are hoping the legal system will stand by the children, as we have. These tamariki have been failed by so many people (parents, family, Oranga Tamariki, children’s lawyer, previous minister for children) that should have put them first. From our experience it appears the common factor with all those who have failed these tamariki – and, we suspect, all the other tamariki in the system – is that there is no accountability.

As I finish this story our tamariki have been with us for nearly two years and are absolutely thriving. However, they are still officially wards of the state and still do not belong to any family/whānau which is in our opinion the greatest failing of the Oranga Tamariki model.

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