The other side of the Oranga Tamariki baby uplift story

The other side of the Oranga Tamariki baby uplift story

OPINION: You’ve probably seen it – the video of the young Hawke’s Bay mother with the week-old baby that Oranga Tamariki is attempting to uplift. I watched it, but my reaction was likely different to yours.

It’s hard watching, but it didn’t leave me wondering how Oranga Tamariki could be so cruel, or how the social worker could have made such an error of judgment, or why the family wasn’t given a chance to try, or how our legal system could allow such an injustice to happen.

I didn’t wonder, because I’m a family lawyer. Everyday I spend my 8.30 till 5  – but usually longer – dealing with the effects that drugs and alcohol, child abuse, domestic violence, neglect and poor choices have on our tamariki. I knew there’d be another side to that story, one the public won’t hear because everyone who could tell it is bound by court confidentiality.

New Zealand has the highest rates of reported domestic violence in the OECD, and Hawke’s Bay has the highest rates in New Zealand. Our rates of child abuse also leave us as an outlier among our OECD friends. Our backyard is pretty bleak, and no child should be raised in the dark.

Protection orders and domestic violence are the family lawyer’s bread and butter. There are few cases in which methamphetamine or violence isn’t an issue. We attempt to get parents to engage, and address the issues placing their children at risk. We fight every day for the children who do not get a say in their own welfare. Oranga Tamariki does this too.

The decision to uplift is never made by one person acting alone, or without professional consultation. It’s never made without genuine care and protection concerns.

Children must first come to the attention of Oranga Tamariki via a report of concern – schools, doctors, or people within the community are making these reports, which social workers are tasked with investigating. Attempts are made to engage with families. But if families refuse to engage, and concerns are substantiated, little choice is left for Oranga Tamariki.

In serious cases, a “without notice” application is made to the Family Court, for a decision on an uplift before the parents have a chance to be heard by the judge. An order without notice has to reach a very high threshold, so many things have to happen before that point.

I’d rather open the newspaper and read an article slamming Oranga Tamariki for getting it wrong than read yet again about a child being killed at the hands of the person tasked with keeping them safe. They’re the decisions Oranga Tamariki has to make on a daily basis – and they’re damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

We haven’t enough fingers to point the blame at all of the systemic issues that have created this culture. The blame sits on all of our shoulders.

Oranga Tamariki has the job no-one else wants. It’s under-resourced – usually having to take on far more cases than a lawyer in private practice would attempt, because if it doesn’t, who will?

It’s easy to say the ministry is in the wrong, but what does that achieve? It’s easy to say it shouldn’t make decisions on the welfare of Māori children, but if it suddenly decided not to get involved, would that solve the issues?

We should be asking ourselves what we can do to help address domestic violence, drugs and alcohol, and child abuse – regardless of a child’s bloodlines. If you are lucky enough to not be faced with these issues, you are privileged and you have a duty to use that privilege to help those without.

Drug reform? More supportive live-in facilities for new parents? More stopping violence education? Further Māori education? I don’t know the magic answer, but I urge you: instead of jumping on the  “Oranga Tamariki is wrong” bandwagon, have a think about how you can become an ally to improve our culture for the sake of our children.

A culture is created on the actions and intentions of a society. A society creates a culture, and a society can therefore recreate it.

* The author, who does not want to be named, is a family lawyer in the North Island.