“Oranga Tamariki told me I had five minutes to say goodbye to my baby and then they were going to take it… I hung onto my baby but I was worried they were going to hurt me and the baby.” These are the words of a young mother who in May resisted multiple attempts by Oranga Tamariki, the Ministry “dedicated to supporting any child in New Zealand whose wellbeing is at significant risk of harm now, or in the future,” to take her newborn baby from her hospital room in Hawkes Bay. During the standoff, whānau and midwives were shut out of the hospital. The grounds on which the Family Court ordered the “without-notice custody order” have since been called into question. University of Auckland law professor Mark Henaghan has told the media that it was “doubtful” that the custody order used by Oranga Tamariki should have been granted in the first place.
Two midwives, Ripeka Orsmby and Jean Te Huia, of Māori Midwives Aotearoa, were there at the Hastings Hospital, and tried to prevent the baby from being taken. Te Huia described to Newsroom how at one point the mother was left on her own:
the police stationed outside her room and a hostile case worker in her room. Her mother and her Māori midwife spent the night outside in the hospital car park. The DHB locked everyone out. This is a 19 year old girl enduring day three of Oranga Tamariki trying to rip a baby from her, alone.
Footage of the incident was shared by the media in June. The media coverage, along the resistance from the baby’s whānau, midwives, and iwi leaders, resulted in Oranga Tamariki abandoning at least 3 attempts to take the baby from the mother. Instead, she was allowed to go with her baby to a care facility, ahead of a new Family Court hearing.
The incident has sparked outrage. A group called Hands Off Our Tamariki organised rallies across the country on July 30, and have been petitioning for a halt to the removal of Māori babies and a restructuring of Oranga Tamariki in line with kaupapa Māori. Oranga Tamariki are being forced to account for the high incidence of Māori parents losing their babies through applications to the Family Court. According to information obtained through the Official Information Act, three Māori babies a week are being “uplifted” from their parents, and of 283 babies taken into care last year, more than 70 percent were Māori or Pasifika. The rate of Māori babies being taken within three months of their birth is 100 percent higher than those categorised as “other.” A Stuff investigation in 2018 reported that the number of Māori babies being taken into state care has significantly increased since 2015, while the number of non-Māori newborns being removed has not changed. Since the incident in Hastings, Māori Midwives Aotearoa has been contacted by many more women in similar situations. Jean Te Huia believes that “Māori women have a right to be frightened. I believe that these women are racially profiled. They have a right to ask why this is happening to us.”
Negative publicity has forced children’s Minister Tracy Martin and Oranga Tamariki chief executive Graine Moss to front to the public amid calls for their dismissal. Martin has responded that the ministry is already in the process of reforming itself after an earlier review, telling Newsroom that “the expert advisory panel that created Oranga Tamariki [in 2017, from its precursor Child, Youth and Family] said that everything had to change. The $1.1 billion that was announced in the budget a couple of weeks ago is specifically to make this change. There have already been strategic alliances signed to make sure there is a different way of Oranga Tamariki working with iwi for their children, our children.” Martin has said that she was “particularly sorry to see the events that unfolded in the hospital that day,” though in fact she, like the Prime Minister, has steadily refused to watch the footage. Since the events in Hastings the Government has announced three separate reviews: one to be conducted by Oranga Tamariki, one by the Children’s Commissioner and one by the Chief Ombudsman. An independent Māori-led inquiry has also been announced by the North Island Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency.
Many are pointing out that the removal or Māori children is not an isolated issue, but has many historical precedents. The history of closed adoption is one example. Between 1955 and 1985 adoption in New Zealand reached a peak of around 45,000 adoptions. A significant proportion of these were Māori babies, the majority of whom were placed with Pākehā families. In a recent Radio New Zealand interview, Professor Maria Haenga-Collins outlined how deliberate decisions made by the authorities resulted in a disproportionate number of Māori children taken from their whānau to be raised by Pākehā families:
Māori families and grandparents who wanted to adopt related children were often deemed by the courts too old and too poor, and preference was given to Pākehā strangers over Māori kin… Children placed in homes [within the whānau through the traditional fostering practice of whāngai] had actually no legal recognition in New Zealand and there was fear back then that these children could be removed.
Lack of support for single mothers contributed to the high rate of adoption, as did the stigma attached to “illegitimate” births. The 1955 Adoption Act required “closed adoption”, meaning that the child could not access information about their parents or vice versa. This was not changed until 1985. Considering the significance of whakapapa in Māori culture, the effect of 20 years without access to this information was profound.
When the issue of state care is raised, a common response is to turn blame back on Māori parents. Kingi Tūhetia Pōtatau Te Wherowhero followed this line in his response to the Hastings case, where he challenged “whānau, hapū, iwi to take care of our tamariki and where the need arises to place them in a safe home. We must avoid blaming the government and instead work on a solution.” This statement has little bearing on the Hastings case, where the whānau did not believe the child was in any danger at all. Moreover, such statements feed into the widespread misperception that child abuse is a “cultural problem.” In previous issues of Socialist Review we have cited a 2012 study by Raema Merchant which found that of the 9,000 cases of physical child abuse between 2000 and 2008, only one third were reported in the press and of those only 21 became household names, the majority of these being Māori children. The popular narrative where Māori parents are presumed to be unfit is fuelled in part by this skewed reporting.
One thing that the narrative of child abuse as a “cultural problem” obscures is the fact that the state is deeply culpable in the abuse of children in New Zealand. In 2017 four Māori men, dubbed Ngaa Moorehu or “the survivors”, approached the media with testamony about the abuse: physical, emotional and sexual abuse they had faced as children in state care. These men were among the 100,000 children who were taken into state care between the 1950s and the 1980s, more than half of whom were Māori. Their testimony sparked calls for an official inquiry, which Bill English’s National government shamefully rejected. In late 2017 the newly-elected Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern finally announced a Royal Commission into historical abuse in state care. “At any given time there are 5,000 children in state care and to all intents and purposes we are the parent” said Ardern at the launch of the inquiry in February 2018, and “any abuse of children is a tragedy, and for those most vulnerable children in state care, it is unconscionable.”
The Royal Commission, currently underway, is only considering historical cases from between 1950-1999, but there is no reason to believe that abuse in state care is a thing of the past. Oranga Tamariki’s latest report into the safety of children in care reported that 103 children were harmed in the three months between January and March this year. These numbers include those living in state care residences and those living with family as part of state care arrangements. 76 percent of children known to be harmed were Māori, proportionally greater than the number of tamariki Māori in state care (59 percent).
The state is deeply implicated in the cycle of abuse that sees generations of Māori children taken into care, only to suffer further abuse. Many children currently in state care are the grandchildren of those who were abused in state care decades ago. But the culpability of the state and the ruling class goes deeper than this. Study after study links family violence with poverty. Successive governments, through their direct actions, have kept Māori families in poverty. It was deliberate neoliberal economic reforms that saw one fifth of the Māori working-age population made redundant between 1987 and 1989. This onslaught on the poor, and therefore disproportionately on Māori, has continued. In 2017 the richest 1 percent of New Zealanders took 28 percent of the wealth created, while the poorest 30 percent of the population got barely 1 percent. Between 2015 and 2018 the net worth of the richest 20 percent of New Zealand households has risen by $394,000, while the net worth of the bottom 40 percent has not increased.
The intertwined injustices of racism and poverty are at the heart of the issue of Māori children being taken by the state, and at the root of this is colonialism. Colonialism is the process that robbed Māori communities of their wealth and land, and ensured that Māori people would occupy a marginalised place in the new, capitalist economy of New Zealand. Colonialism broke up traditional family structures where the responsibilities of childrearing were shared communally. While racist myths today paint Māori as inherently bad parents, descriptions of Māori child rearing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries paints a very different picture. The missionary Samuel Marsden observed that “there can be no finer children than those of the New Zealaners in any part of the world. Their parents are very indulgent, and they appear always happy and playful and very active.” He also observed that children were involved in public life:
The chiefs take their children from their mother’s breast to all their public assemblies, where they hear all that is said upon politics, religion, war etc. by the oldest men. Children will frequently ask questions in public conversation and are answered by the chiefs. I have often been surprised to see children sitting amongst the chiefs and paying close attention to what is said.
British author and trader Joel Polack observed the lack of corporal punishment within Māori society with disapproval, writing that “the children are seldom or never punished; which, consequently, causes them to commit so many annoying tricks, that continually renders them deserving of a sound, wholesome castigation.”
In contrast to more communal methods of child raising, the private nuclear family characteristic of capitalism has isolated parents and children from wider support, and has been a source of frustration, violence and deprivation. One of the rights that groups like Hands off our Tamariki are demanding is access to traditional support networks, whānau and hapū. But there is also widespread recognition that wider communities themselves cannot thrive in today’s society. For that to happen we need to reverse the class warfare that has seen the wealth gap grow as welfare, public services, childcare and public education came under attack. More than that, we need to fight for a socialist society organised not around the endless accumulation of profit but around human need, including the need of young people to be nurtured, cared for and allowed to flourish.