New ACT MP Karen Chhour says her experience growing up with homelessness, poverty and abuse led her to the view that the system for looking after vulnerable children remains broken and society needs to take a stand.
In her maiden speech to Parliament she reflected on her own story. Here is the speech in full.
We often don’t have the hard conversations that are needed for many reasons.
They are too hard to hear; and we don’t want to face the truth that things are not as they should be.
I have come into this role knowing that I am going to have to have some of these hard conversations about the care of our children in this country.
In an Ideal world we would not need someone like me to stand here and say New Zealanders deserve better.
Unfortunately that’s what I am having to do.
I have watched over the years as governments past and present tip toe around issues that are so important to the average New Zealander.
I have waited for a government that had the courage to stand up and start saying what needed to be said.
Unfortunately this never seems to happen.
For years I never really told my own story as I was ashamed of it.
As I got older I realised unless we are honest with ourselves about our past we cannot move forward.
So here it goes.
I was born in Australia and brought to New Zealand by my mother when I was around a year old.
I was taken to live with my grandparents in Kaeo. Life was simple.
Power and running water was not a thing, unfortunately neither was indoor plumbing.
But I was in a loving environment, which was the most important thing.
I was moved to Auckland to live with my mother when it was time for me to start school.
This is when life as I knew it changed.
My mother had just married and was starting a new life and now they were taking on a child they didn’t really know at all.
To the outside world we looked like the perfect family.
But unfortunately nothing could have been further from the truth.
Life had got so bad that by the age of nine I didn’t think I was going to survive to the age of 10.
It was around this time I ran away from home and cried out for help, and this was my first experience with Child Youth and Family.
Unfortunately my cries for help went unheard and I was sent back into the same situation I ran away from.
Around this time my mother’s marriage was ending and she eventually ended up on the DPB.
What was going on at home was affecting me in my day-to-day life in many ways.
I was quiet and reserved and easily upset. This made me a target for bullies.
The bullying got so bad in intermediate that it was decided it was best for me to leave rather than dealing with the problem.
How often have we heard that?
I felt alone, with nowhere to turn in a system that had let me down in so many ways.
So I kept to myself and tried hard to stay unnoticed.
By this stage of my life my mental health was in the toilet.
I was at the point where I didn’t know whether I wanted to wake up the next day.
The simple truth is I was at rock bottom.
This is when a lady by the name of Donna noticed something was not right.
She came to me and asked a simple question, “Are you okay?” Donna offered me a lifeline that day – one I knew I had to choose.
One night I ran and ended up on her doorstep with just the shirt on my back and she took me in, no questions asked.
Now came my second experience with the system.
They organised family group conferences to try and find members of the family that would take me in.
My mental health did not seem to be a concern to them. I was made to feel like a burden.
Their questions made me feel I was to blame and being labelled a troublemaker.
Time went by and even though I loved living at Donna and Clarke’s I knew I couldn’t stay there forever.
So I started to ask questions.
This is when a social worker told me “I’m sorry, but none of your family wants you”.
I asked whether I could go back to my grandmother and I was told “your grandmother doesn’t want to take you again – it’s too hard for her”.
I spent years resenting my grandmother for this.
It is only when I got older that I found out she had begged social services to take me, only to be told that she was too old.
Can you imagine being a child and hearing from a social worker that nobody – not even your own family – wants you?
I have lived with these words my whole life.
The system needs to learn that children are not just a number or a problem to be gotten rid of.
They have minds and hearts of their own and our words can break them.
Eventually I was placed with a family member that did their best, but I always knew that I was forced on them and I never felt welcome.
I was a teen moving around from relative’s houses to friend’s couches and back with my mother when I had nowhere else to go.
I was bounced from pillar to post, and by the time I was 14 I had moved schools seven times.
I could not keep up, so I did what so many have done before – I simply dropped out.
I got a job, saved what I could and eventually moved into a flat and became completely independent.
I worked the graveyard shifts at McDonald’s, while I tried to continue my education by day doing a course.
I drank a bit and cried a lot, but I was doing okay.
One night I promised myself that if I ever had a family of my own I would never allow them to go through what I went through.
Yes, I made mistakes, I was young.
But it was then that I decided I would take on every opportunity that I could to try and better myself.
I have worked hard over the years to make something of my life that my children can be proud of.
It has not always been easy and I am grateful to my husband Meng who has stood by me through the tough times.
We started our family earlier than expected, having our first child at 18.
Meng found a job as a compressor mechanic and supported me while I searched for work.
Once the baby was born I worked nights at any job I could find.
Eventually Meng managed to find an apprenticeship in telecommunications, and that apprenticeship has led to so many opportunities for us.
I won’t pretend it was easy.
The hours were long and the income was low but he is now a project manager in his field.
Marriage came and then a second child.
Then a year later we had saved enough for our first home.
It wasn’t much, but it was ours.
And it was so much more than a house.
It was the happy home that I had never had.
Two more children followed, and we ended up living there for 15 years until we could finally afford the house we are in now.
I worked many jobs over the years to help where I could, but all I wanted was to be home for my kids.
So I stopped working and started helping my mother-in-law with her business.
I sourced work and helped preparing clothes for deliveries. In return she taught me how to sew.
This was amazing as it allowed me the time to do things I wanted with my children whilst learning a new skill.
I have spent the last seven years volunteering with the St John youth programme, holding the position of assistant divisional manager for five of those years.
Over the years I have been that mother in the classroom, helping with reading groups, school trips and anywhere else I was needed.
When we moved into our bigger home I took the skills my mother in law taught me and became self-employed in the New Zealand-made clothing industry.
This brings me to today.
Over the years I have watched and listened to people in my community telling me their stories.
It became clear to me that the system has not got any better than when I experienced it, in fact it’s getting worse.
My heart would break because I could relate so much to what they were saying, but I felt there was nothing I could do to help them.
I have watched so many promises being made to improve the system but it seemed that every time a promise was made they changed the name but not much else, whether it be Child Youth and Family, the Ministry for Vulnerable Children or now Oranga Tamariki.
It’s just the same broken system with a new letterhead.
This simply isn’t good enough.
I am one of the lucky ones.
I had people that helped me to believe in myself just enough that I could see my way out.
It’s because of them that I am able to stand here today and say enough is enough.
We can’t keep doing what we’re doing.
Society needs to take a stand and decide what is acceptable and what’s not.
I had the privilege of giving a similar speech to an audience during the election campaign and I am going to say the same thing I said to them.
Its high time the Government stopped the lip service and did something that actually helps the people that need it the most.
Governments past and present have spent years avoiding making any real meaningful decisions, but at least we now we have had an inquiry into abuse in state care.
The Royal Commission report is a good thing. It brings some closure to the victims and I am grateful that these people have been given the opportunity to speak up and finally have a voice.
But does this report really tell us anything we did not already know? Now we need more than just words.
Apologies only go so far and cannot be taken seriously when what we apologise for is still happening.
I stand here today not only as a survivor of abuse as a child, but a survivor of our system’s abuse.
It’s time we said what needs to be said; enough is enough; we won’t tolerate it any more.
We must focus on our most vulnerable – our children.
Parents are grownups; they can make their own choices and decisions.
Our children don’t have the ability to make big choices yet.
And they shouldn’t need to.
They deserve our guidance and protection.
ACT thinks this can’t really take place while there is such a focus on race and culture in the organisation delivering that protection.
As I said recently, when Grainne Moss stood down as Oranga Tamariki chief executive, ethnicity and culture should not be how we decide what is in the best interests of children.
Oranga Tamariki should be colour-blind and open to whatever will ensure a child’s wellbeing and safety.
It’s not a one size fits all thing, and having legislation that tries to make it that way doesn’t work for our children.
If that means placing a vulnerable child into the home of a family who desperately want to love and care for them, rather than doing everything possible to place the child back into the family that made them vulnerable in the first place, then that should be the solution.
As someone who has experienced three elements of placement – non family who wanted me, family who didn’t and extended family who did – I can tell you, as a young person you’ll take love, compassion and stability wherever you can find it.
That’s why ACT believes Oranga Tamariki needs reform, just not in the way that reform looks likely to be done under this Government.
But who knows, they might listen to me.
We actually need to set up a better system of support for all people in this country.
Proper care for survivors so they can move forward with hope of a better life.
I am really concerned if we don’t do something fast, our next generation is going to suffer in ways we can’t even comprehend.
For years I have been frustrated watching the numbers for homelessness, child poverty, abuse and mental health rise.
There seemed to be no party that was willing to have open and honest discussions around these issues.
I want to have these conversations and work to find a solution that is more than just throwing money at the problem.
We need to set up targeted help and put the money where it is needed the most.
I think we spend far too much time on the (isms) in this country, racism, sexism, and classism.
I firmly believe these can be used as a weapon to distract us from the important issues instead of focusing on what needs to be done in these areas.
The consequence of constantly putting labels on things seems to be that we have created an environment where expectations are lowered and personal responsibility is no longer a requirement.
I want to focus on people being the best that they can be and celebrate their successes in these areas, instead of constantly focusing on the negatives that give these people the platform they desire.
Please don’t misunderstand me when I say this, I know these things happen.
I myself have been on the receiving end of bullying, for some of these very reasons.
I was judged when I was younger, sometimes very openly, about just being another Māori drop-out that would never get anywhere in life.
I soon learned that it did not matter how hard I worked to improve myself, if someone wants to, they will always find a reason to try and drag you down.
We cannot just accept this is okay, but we also can’t let this distract us from reaching our goals.
We cannot afford to get this stuff wrong anymore.
The next generation is relying on us to learn from the past and get better.
That’s why I am proud to be standing here as a member of the ACT Party team.
They are willing to look at issues from an understanding of what’s good for the country and not just what’s good for the party.
I would like to thank everyone who voted to support us and look forward to serving you and all New Zealanders in the years to come.