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OPINIONPoliticsJuly 8, 2021

‘Nothing changes unless there’s public embarrassment’: the stain of state treatment of children in 2021

a kid with short hair and a black hoodie sitting on a swing with their back to the camera and it looks sad and lonely
It’s important that children’s voices are heard in court decisions Photo: RNZ

On the face of it, Oranga Tamariki’s leadership has come a long way from where it was two years ago. But why does it take media exposure for those in charge to do the bare minimum?

The past week has been another harsh reminder of how the state continues to treat our most vulnerable children.

Videos supplied to Newsroom by an internal Oranga Tamariki whistleblower show instances of a boy – as young as 13 – being put in a headlock, thrown to the ground, and subjected to physical force by multiple adults working in what is supposed to be a care and protection facility.

For those who have been following the Oranga Tamariki mess over the last two years, the latest video was probably not surprising, though it certainly would have been disturbing.

It shows a cycle of abuse, assault, trauma and disempowerment being perpetuated by the very people tasked with breaking that cycle. Rather than de-escalating difficult situations, using approved techniques and (in extreme cases) safe restraints known as MAPA (Management of Actual or Potential Aggression) holds, the video shows staff opting for what appears to be excessive physical force.

This latest Newsroom investigation comes as the Royal Commission of Inquiry into State Abuse continues to highlight the long-running abuse of children and young people at the hands of the state – in schools, psychiatric facilities and youth residences.

It comes as Canada uncovers more than 1000 unmarked graves of First Nations children at the recently closed residential schools, which were part of an abusive system that’s been described as “cultural genocide”.

If these stories have taught us anything, it’s that this aspect of our colonial history isn’t history at all. Children – disproportionately indigenous children – are still being harmed by the state. This is despite replacing CYFS with Oranga Tamariki, creating new legislation, reviews of Oranga Tamariki practices, and an urgent Waitangi Tribunal hearing.

But among the dark truth of New Zealand’s state care and protection system, the past week also appeared to present a glimmer of hope. 

After seeing the whistleblower’s video, Kelvin Davis condemned the actions of the staff involved as “totally unacceptable”. The children’s minister said he refused to defend the indefensible, and within days of the story being published, Davis and acting Oranga Tamariki chief executive Sir Wira Gardiner shut down the facility, ordered a review into the agency’s care and protection facilities, and put staff on immediate leave pending investigation. Following the resignation of embattled boss Grainne Moss, this was Davis and Gardiner’s first big test and it seemed they had passed.

Let’s be honest, this was the bare minimum. But the immediate and decisive action by Davis and Gardiner marked a significant shift in the way leadership has reacted to criticism of Oranga Tamariki during the past two years.

In 2019, Newsroom’s investigations editor Melanie Reid broke the story about how without notice applications were being used to swiftly uplift babies – disproportionately Māori babies – from their mothers, without notifying the parent or guardian.

Reid told The Spinoff the uplift story taught her how the establishment backs the establishment: The courts back Oranga Tamariki in approving the uplift, she said. The DHB backs the agency to facilitate the uplift; and police back the agency to carry out the uplift.

“The agencies all pile on top of each other, and that is the power of the state, and that is why whānau don’t have a shit show.”

This story led to five investigations, including an urgent Waitangi Tribunal hearing, which has since found the removal of Māori children is a sustained and systemic breach of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

As the tribunal put it: “The courage of the young mother and her whānau and supporters in allowing their experience to be publicised, combined with the professionalism of journalist Melanie Reid and her Newsroom team, has meant that a very important window has been opened into a world normally shut by the operation of privacy principles and court process.”

Internally, it also saw Oranga Tamariki change its practices. What followed was a series of “reverse uplifts” where children were removed from foster families to replace them with relatives – often without a proper transition, and sometimes leading to further trauma. This is an example of what Reid refers to as the reactive “pendulum swing” of Oranga Tamariki.

In the background, reviews and changes were happening. But on the outside, the chief executive, minister, and prime minister put up their defences.

Both Jacinda Ardern and then-children’s minister Tracey Martin refused to watch the video of the Hastings uplift; the one that sparked this two-year Oranga Tamariki saga.

The Waitangi Tribunal recommended all ministers watch the video, saying the short documentary “makes a case for substantial reform in ways more eloquent and direct than we can convey in words”.

Ardern justified her decision not to view the footage by saying she had previously seen videos of uplifts and therefore “had a sense of what’s likely to be contained in the video”. Martin said she didn’t want to give the video another click.

At the time, Martin and Moss admitted there was more work to do, but they stopped short of condemning practices or admitting wrongdoing.

So, on the face of it, things are different this time around.

Firstly, Davis and Ardern have both watched the footage of the care and protection facility youth workers using physical force against rangatahi. Then the swift, public condemnation, followed by decisive action, appears to mark a significant shift in leadership.

That is, until a quick scan of cabinet papers and reports from the Children’s Commissioner shows concerns about the use of force and restraints have been repeatedly raised.

Reid says whenever she and colleague Bonnie Sumner publish a new Oranga Tamariki story, a flood of insiders from the organisation would contact her to say what was really happening, and the same is true in this instance.

Following the publication of the whistleblower video, insiders contacted Newsroom and other media to say these issues had been well-known for years. Management, HR, head office, and unions had been alerted about “restraints gone wrong” in both child protection and youth justice facilities.

This is what the whistleblower refers to as “the dangerous dynamic” – the whole structural hierarchy is aware of what’s going on, and are either not acting on the information, or suppressing complaints using a range of strategies. “From where I’m sitting, nothing changes unless there’s public embarrassment, which is why we’ve got the whistleblowers coming to us,” Reid said.

While the latest response from Davis and Gardiner initially appears to move away from a defensive leadership that reinforces different arms of the state covering for each other, revelations that this information has previously placed on the desks of both the minister and chief executive raises further questions about motives.

It suggests – as Reid says – change won’t happen without public embarrassment, and in this case journalism that the state has repeatedly attempted to block. It also suggests those at the top are constantly playing a political game, and when public opinion shifts, they’re quick to shift with it, or risk falling out of favour.

Reid said her one wish would be the establishment of an independent body to help the hundreds of desperate Kiwis who contact media. “All these harrowing cases need to be lodged and assessed and dealt with, away from the faceless bureaucratic agencies these people say have landed them in dire situations.”

But state abuse survivors say New Zealand needs to look wider than the visceral issues of uplift and trauma. “We need to fully unravel and understand the commodification of children and how that is playing out through state agencies.”

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