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Uplifting children is not a Māori problem. It’s a colonisation problem

Last week the Ministry for Children’s practices around uplifting children and putting them in state care were exposed in a harrowing investigation by journalist Melanie Reid. It’s no coincidence Māori are disproportionately targeted, writes Tina Ngata.

If you venture into the websites for the Ministry for Women, Ministry for Children and Ministry of Health, the images and language around a maternal healthcare journey, and subsequent support for parents and children, paint a very particular, positive picture: smiling upturned brown faces, the sun beaming down on them – full of hope and aspirations, looking up towards a bright future. Declarations of support for loving, nurturing environments and belief in young people living up to their full potential. The use of our potent moko kauwae as the logo for the Ministry for Women implies an acknowledgement of the sacred role of wāhine in the family and community.

What has been made very clear in the Newsroom article that rocked our nation is that the reality for young Māori mothers is very, very different. Like rats circling a bird’s nest, Ministry for Children agents come back, again and again, trying to wear down the mother and her family, trying to isolate and cajole, then threaten, intimidate and deceive. It’s a relentless assault upon the young māmā, her family and her child, a jarring testament to what young Māori mothers are put through within the health system.

This is not a new problem, but what Melanie Reid’s documentary did was put a face to the problem that Māori and Pacific whānau already know is out there. We live the reality of these intimidating tactics every day. Our health system has been identified as racist towards Māori from within its own ranks, and by the international Commission for the Elimination of Racism and Discrimination in Geneva. We have known for a long time that Māori children are many times more likely to be taken from their families than non-Māori. We have known for a long time (and unequivocally so since Aaron Smale and Mihingārangi Forbes’ reporting on Ngā Mōrehu) of the statecare-to-prison-pipeline. What Melanie Reid did was burst through the systemic walls – put up by the police, hospital staff and the DHB – that protected this practice, to expose the human face of this particular dimension of New Zealand’s colonial legacy.

What is also clear, in the documentary and in the language used by the state, is that overwhelmingly these babies are being considered and assessed as individuals, not as the child of a whānau or a community that is irrevocably damaged by their removal. Certainly not the victims of a racist system that was conceived to disadvantage non-Pākeha. But they are all of these things. They are mokopuna, and I would go into all of the beautiful, profound meanings of that word but I’m jaded from reading the hollow rhetoric on these state agency websites which demonstrate no idea of how to implement that understanding, let alone the intention to implement it.

All we need to know right now is that this is not an isolated case.

The figures show that excessive uplifts for Māori and Pacific Island whānau are happening nationwide, but now we also have evidence that the intimidation captured by Reid on camera is used as a matter of routine.

The E Hine – reducing barriers to care for pregnant Māori women under 20 years and their infants study has walked with Māori women aged under 20 in Hawkes Bay and Wellington through their journey into motherhood, seeking to understand their lived experience of a health system that is clearly failing them, their whānau, and their babies. This study included a maternal care system stocktake, and interviews with state agencies and service providers, whānau, fathers and of course the mothers themselves.

Having walked alongside and advocated for a number of young Māori mothers over the years, I can say that the Newsroom video did not shock or surprise me in the least. Many who are unfamiliar with the system may assume a parent must have demonstrated harm to a child in order to come to the attention of these services. In fact, the only thing you need to do is be considered ‘high risk’. The statistical storytelling of our colonial government means that when a Māori mother is xx% more likely to suffer violence, to not engage in healthcare, or to have a difficult birth, this is not treated as an indication of a flawed system – it is treated as an indication of a flawed mother. In that sense, minister for children Tracy Martin and her staff – who consistently point the finger of blame elsewhere – are very much the voice of the system.

Consequently, belonging to the statistical at-risk category (by virtue of being young and Māori) and walking into a hospital triggers a systemically racist treadmill of hyper-vigilant surveillance, unrealistic expectations and increased risk of state intervention. If you meet the additional criteria of having a Māori mother who was caught up in this same treadmill when you were born, it increases the likelihood of state assault significantly. It may never occur to most parents that going to hospital to give birth or taking their child to hospital for treatment will result in having them removed or permanently taken. But this is a real consideration for young Māori and Pacific Island parents. The young wāhine in the E Hine study were also therefore not unique in facing this threat.

Here are some of their experiences:

“Cause CYF got involved with my first son so we’ve had all that stuff and we’ve had to be like monitored… You never know what’s going on because they never tell you anything… I don’t like it. (Ngaio, interview 3)”

“They turned up on my doorstep… apparently we were beating up the kids… ‘Do you see anything on my kids? Do they look hurt? No, they look happy.’ And I wouldn’t let them in my house, because my house was a big mess, and ‘cause they would have claimed that as neglect… So I just talked to them at the door. And they just wanted me to strip my kids down so they could see them and see if there’s any bruises. (Mere, interview 6)”

“[CYF were] trying to trick me with questions like, ‘So you would leave your daughter with your mum if you go out drinking and that and do drugs and that?… And then they tried to ask me that again and I told them again, ‘I don’t do it!’ They just wouldn’t listen to me. Trying to be real assholes… It was just ticking me off. (Marama, interview 1)”

 “Mum had spoken to them not to speak to me by myself, a few times… but they kept coming in and asking me questions, and I had already said to them, ‘I’m not in the state of mind to answer questions,’ and they’d just come back in, keep on coming in and out… I was not in the state of mind to be answering questions from them, I was worrying about my son, not them. (Tia, interview 2)”

This last quote is from a young mother who came under Ministry for Children surveillance while in hospital with her baby son who had nearly died of SIDS. While he was recovering, the ministry agents and hospital social workers closed in on her in a manner she found intrusive, intimidating and judgmental, and the pressure remained that way for months afterwards.

Over the years I have seen this betrayal of trust – young mothers who go into hospital and are then subjected to questionnaires asking a raft of hypothetical, convoluted questions, or intrusive questioning about their home life that lack clarity and context. In some cases the young mothers innocently believe the social worker is there to help them, and answer the questions openly, not knowing that the information is being interpreted and used to justify putting them under scrutiny.

So no, what Melanie Reid has reported on was not an isolated case. Nor will it be fixed by the replacement of any one person. Should accountability be held by Oranga Tamariki CEO Grainne Moss and minister Tracy Martin? Absolutely. But just as this treatment is not isolated to Newsroom’s report, accountability is not isolated to those specific workers who facilitated that invasion, or even the leaders of that agency. This is a systemic issue that is fed into through education, health, justice and corrections, not to mention economy, culture and heritage. This is a colonial, racist system doing what it was set up to do from its very inception: dispossess indigenous peoples in every way. Make no mistake: the system is not broken. It is operating exactly as it is intended.

As Dr. Rawiri Karena points out in the clip below, the taking of indigenous children is a purposeful technique of the colonial commonwealth machine that was developed in England for application around the world.

For a clear understanding of how effective this has been we need only look to other settler colonial nations and their records of indigenous children, youth and adults in state custody:

If you look at these locations, all of the indigenous groups associated to them are radically different from one another, and there are even radical internal indigenous differences in countries like Australia and Canada. There’s no cultural common ground that predisposes us to crime, but what we do have in common is an experience of colonisation.

As Moana Jackson states:

“Māori and other Indigenous peoples aren’t born genetically poor nor collectively dysfunctional. Instead, it has been the dispossession through colonisation that has created the deprivation and that has destroyed the cohesion of once strong family units. No Māori prisoner can be isolated from the collective costs of that traumatic dispossession”.

Indeed, in reflection of the above statistics, it is quite clear that no indigenous prisoner can be isolated from the cost of their traumatic dispossession from their whānau. As Khylee Quince reported in a recent article:

Over 70 percent of our prison population has a care and protection background – many removed from families into state care. Children in care are 107 times more likely to be imprisoned by age 20 than other children.

Equally disturbing and connected – the ‘state care’ to mental health pipeline:


It is not an Aotearoa problem, it is not a Māori problem. It is a racism problem.

We cannot continue to look at these issues besetting Māori and Pasifika people – abuse in state care, homelessness, hyper-incarceration, higher mortality rates, and the taking of children from their homes – and assess them independently, as if the core issue of colonial racism is not the driving factor. How many times must our government continue to address these issues at an agency level before it will accept that the entire system needs an overhaul?

In the same article, Khylee recalled:

A couple of months ago I met with a Māori inmate in Mt Eden Prison. He was 50 years old, and told me that his cellmate had first been his room-mate when they were eight years old in Hokio Beach Training School 42 years earlier. He talked of their life-long relationship, and their “graduation” from state care, to youth justice residence, to adult prison as if it was inevitable. This is one of the “pipelines” those of us who work in criminal justice refer to – the “welfare-to-justice pipeline” – a metaphor referring to the connection between being removed or uplifted from family into state care, and offending as young people and as adults.”

It is chilling to think that this is the same trajectory that could have been set were the midwives and whānau of the young woman in the Newsroom story not as vigilant as they were – and equally chilling to consider the other families, every week, who are not as fortunate. Each of them will have a story as heartbreaking and harrowing. Ironically, this evening while I was writing this, a tweet from United Nations Rapporteur for Indigenous Rights Vicky Tauli-Corpuz popped up:


Our māmās are sacred. They are strong, resilient, and capable. Given a chance they are amazing mothers. We must view this as the default for our young Māori mothers. Wraparound, whānau-inclusive support and protection for a young Māori māmā does not just serve her – it serves her baby, her whānau, and as that trajectory continues, it serves our entire community. We must shift the perception from one of a young parent as an individual, to that of us as a community who, in failing them, are failing ourselves.

We must also strip these harmful organisations of the Māori façades they use to cloak their ongoing colonial project. The first step on the pathway to justice is truth, and every day that we allow these groups to maintain their lies about caring for and supporting Māori whānau we are denying them an important opportunity to confront their own racism. For 250 years now, colonial forces have assumed rights over Māori lands and Māori bodies that simply are not theirs to take. This will only halt when we call it for what it is: a continuation of the racist colonial project of indigenous dispossession.

Then, and only then, will we start our journey to true justice for our children, their māmās and whānau.


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