a boy is sitting at a school desk looking anguished, with his hand on his head. An adult wearing a CYFS badge approaches

The Quarter MillionMay 3, 2023

‘We didn’t know what was ahead of us, but we knew it wasn’t good’

a boy is sitting at a school desk looking anguished, with his hand on his head. An adult wearing a CYFS badge approaches

Tupua Urlich was five when he and his sister were put in a van and driven away from their distraught mother. What followed was years of multiple ‘family’ placements, isolation, shame and terrible abuse. Now in his 20s and a father, Tupua has become an advocate for the need for Māori to manage the care of their tamariki, without whānau being divided, and without interference from the state.

This article is part of The Quarter Million, exploring the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in State Care. Read the introduction here.

Illustrations by Izzy Joy Te Aho White.

Content warning: This feature describes physical and emotional violence, child abuse and neglect. If this is difficult for you and you would like some help, these services offer support and information: Shine domestic abuse services, free call 0508 744 633 (24/7, live webchat is also available); Hey Bro helpline – supporting men to be free from violence, 0800 HeyBro (439 276); Family violence information line to find out about local services or how to help someone else: 0800 456 450; Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 for mental health support from a trained counsellor; Youthline: 0800 376 633, free text: 234, email  talk@youthline.co.nz

Tēnā koutou katoa. Takitimu is the waka, Tamatea Arikinui is the eponymous ancestor, Ngāti Kahungunu is the tribe, Ngāi Te Rangikoianake is the subtribe, Kahurānaki is the mountain, Ngaruroro and Tukituki are my rivers, Poukawa is the lake, Te Hapuku is the eponymous ancestor, Kahurānaki is the marae, and my name is Tupua Urlich. 

The first five years of my life, honestly, were the best years of my childhood. Maybe we didn’t have much and there was alcohol and substance abuse and all sorts of things happening around us. But I can look back now as an adult and tell you I was far safer in those first five years of my life than I was after the state intervened. My whānau loved me, never hit me, I knew who my people were, I knew where I belonged. 

My mother is of Croatian heritage, she had a very religious upbringing and rebelled as a teenager. She experienced severe trauma throughout her life and unfortunately there was no healing for her and so that trauma was handed down through our whānau and is still very much in our lives today. 

My father, who was of Ngāti Kahungunu, also spent time in the social welfare homes and was subject to poor treatment from them. 

My mother had eight children in total, I’m the second youngest. My parents met at a rehab for drug and alcohol addiction, their joint trauma and life experiences had led them to that place. 

The day life changed for ever

The moment that the state intervened changed everything. It’s one of the hardest memories that I carry with me, it’s so vivid. There was a hui held at my mother’s home. These people were our whānau but I’d never met any of them, they were strangers to me and to my younger sister. One minute we’re just having a normal day at home, and next thing we have a van-load of people rocking up into the house and sitting down having a kōrero. My sister and I weren’t in the room, we were outside. 

Eventually we saw them packing bags into this van. We had no idea that we would be next to get in that van and we had no idea where we were going or what was going to happen. My mum was extremely upset to the point where, as we were backing out of the driveway, she just collapsed to the floor screaming. This obviously upset us, but my sister the most – I really felt for her. 

I remember that pure sense of not knowing what the hell was going on, sitting in a van for the six-hour drive back to Heretaunga. We didn’t know what was ahead of us, but we knew it wasn’t good because our mum was on the ground screaming and crying. When we arrived, it was a new environment with new people, so far away from what we’d known our whole lives.

The gates of hell

My sister and I stayed together for a little while, but eventually – they say it was due to my behaviour, it was too much to handle the both of us – we were split up, and that’s when the gates of hell really opened on my childhood. 

I left the whānau placement and was put in with non-whānau caregivers. That was the first time I endured physical abuse and it was close to on a daily basis. This was hard enough, but the thing that hurts the most was being ripped away from my whānau and having my other siblings still there at home; and then not long after that, having the last person I’d had in my life since day one – my sister – taken away and then I’m placed in with strangers who beat me nearly every single day. 

This CYFS caregiver went beyond physical abuse, he was cruel. How anyone could deem him safe or appropriate to take care of me, I don’t understand. I missed so many days of school due to the bumps and bruises and black eyes he left me with from as young as five years old. My pain turned to anger very very quickly, because no one was there, no one had my back, I’d been removed from my whānau, I’d been placed with strangers, and left there without being checked on for months and months. Very quick to separate me from my whānau, not so quick to ensure that they’d made the right move. 

The assault went far beyond just using his hands, he would use weapons, such as poles and wooden planks and whatever he had lying around. There’s one particular incident that never leaves my mind, when he hooked me in the head, a full-grown heavy-built man hooking a five-year-old in the head. I saw flashes, and that memory will never leave me. I was a child at the mercy of a monster.

There’s another really important incident that happened when I was living with this man. One day I’d just finished getting a hiding and I was crying on the floor. I was bleeding. The door opened, and he said, “Oh yeah, your dad’s dead by the way.” And the door closed behind him. And I’ll never forget that feeling. Even though my father hadn’t had an active role in my life to that point, I looked to him for protection, I looked to him as my source of justice, a person who would beat up these guys who were beating me up. And that was gone. 

Finally, after I was removed from this placement, I built up the courage to go to court for the abuse that this man put me through. And honestly, I wish I never did. I would have been seven at the time. Going into that court, I was terrified. Knowing that I was going into the same building as that man scared the life out of me. I spoke in that setting via CCTV and his defence lawyer used my emotions as a weapon against me. He said I was crying because I was lying. Not because I was terrified, but because I was dishonest. No one in the court stepped in to reprimand him for the way he spoke to me, not even the judge. 

I was not the only one taking this man to court for abuse. There were many other young people there. He was acquitted of all charges but one – that was for kicking me. He got 30 hours of community service for that. Thirty hours for months and months of abuse, fear, worry, pain, hopelessness. 

So, I’ve had no trust in any system, justice, police, or whatever it is, because I’ve known for a long time, I only have me to rely on. 

After that I didn’t have any stable placements, home was wherever it was. I’d go to school one day, the next thing you know I’m going to a different town, different people and a totally different sort of environment, without any sort of notice. I went to nine different schools in the 12 years I was in the state’s care.

Those so-called “family homes” are so far away from anything representing a whānau. I’d be living in places where I had bars on my window, alarms on my bedroom door, if I needed to get up to go to the bathroom, I’ve got 10 minutes otherwise that alarm’s going off. Groups tend to form in those places. The issue with me is that I’ve never trusted people, so I couldn’t form a group or join one of these gangs to look after myself. So, I always ended up pushing my limit, pushing it as far as I could or running away.

Something I feared the most when I started a new school was people finding out I was a CYFS kid, because I already struggled to make friends. And the only time you ever saw CYFS on the news it involved terrible things and I didn’t want people judging me on that. But every school that I went to, CYFs would show up wearing their bloody name tags with the CYFS logo, and that was it, game over, everybody knows you’re a CYFS kid.

My name is not Michael

One of my caregivers started calling me Michael. She believed my anger and bad behaviour came from the fact that, in her translation, Tupua was “evil and demonic”. She believed it was my name that was causing me to have such behaviours rather than the trauma of separation and abuse.

I’ll never forget going to school that day and the weird looks on people’s faces, the other tamariki in my classroom being told “he has a new name”. I remember not responding to it and being told off. My name is Tupua, my name is not Michael. My name was given to me, it’s not for anyone else to take. 

On the topic of names, nothing insults me more, as an adult who’s been through these systems, than seeing them slap beautiful kupu Māori onto ugly, oppressive, abusive Pākehā systems that are destroying our people. What gives them the right? Everybody knows Oranga Tamariki has a bad reputation, but when you hear Oranga Tamariki, what do you think? You think Māori. It’s time to respect our reo and stop using it to gain something. It makes the system look like a partnership with Māori, but I can tell you for a fact my tūpuna did not sign a treaty to have nothing more than an advisory role in the lives of our people. 

A system rife with racism

I can’t recall ever having a Māori social worker. To time travel a bit, at 15 years old I’d been self-harming quite a bit and had several attempts to end my own life. I was at the CYFS office in Takapuna because I didn’t know what to do. While I’m waiting there the social worker says to me, “Oh, you’re with youth justice?” I said, “No, I’m with care and protection.” And he said, “Oh, so future youth justice then.” And this was a care and protection social worker. 

The majority of the tamariki and rangatahi in this system are Māori and that’s not by mistake. You know, it’s a train track that the Crown has laid down for us and it’s so hard to get off. I’ve attended education centres with some bright young Māori men who just aren’t given the support they need, the support we’ve witnessed non-Māori receive. All of those guys made it into the gang life, into jail, all followed the train track the Crown laid down. 

We’ve just got to stop placing young people in police cells, locking us away and hoping that time will fix us. It doesn’t work that way. I’ve been into the cells a number of times over the years and I don’t say that with pride – none of those experiences were healthy. You’re placed in amongst adults who are often on drugs and aggressive. You have constant banging on the doors, you have swearing, you have abuse, you have a whole lot of anger, and you’re placing young people right in that environment. 

Instead of locking up young people suffering from pain, we need to start addressing that pain, and wrapping other things around them – love, care, nurturing, belonging. 

An ongoing struggle

The abuse, the hopelessness and the loneliness I suffered during my years in care was terrible. And when you top that off with no stability and a lack of direction, so many things suffer. My education, but most importantly, my mental health. Still to this day I live with anxiety without any known trigger. It’s just there. And whilst it’s hard to live with that, it’s hard seeing my babies have to deal with a father who has anxiety, who doesn’t always have the energy to play with them. I love my tamariki, but this system has taken something from them that you cannot deny.

I have a lack of trust, my relationships have suffered and so many people who were close to me have been hurt as a result of my childhood. It took me a long time to figure out how relationships work. 

We need to protect the next generation of tamariki from this beast that the Crown has created. The effects will be lifelong, there’s no questioning that. 

Stolen memories

I’m not as close as I’d like to be with my whānau. This is a result of the state alienating me from them. For four years of our childhood my sister and I didn’t have contact with each other. It wasn’t until I managed to find a caregiver who would actually pay me pocket money that I could buy post stamps and write letters and send money to my sister. I’d send lollies if I had extra money and buy phone cards and call her. That was the only way I could love my sister. But you can’t make up for those lost years. A letter is great, but it cannot replace memories and experiences together. 

Just because you leave the system, that barrier is still there. We are alienated from each other because the system did not value us as Māori tamariki belonging to a collective whānau, hapū and iwi. They throw these words around that they don’t understand and it shows in the treatment of our tamariki. As an adult, I’m still trying to develop relationships with whānau which should have been developed throughout my childhood.

We have to stop viewing children in isolation from their families. The wellbeing of our children should include the wellbeing of their whānau as a unit. If the whānau is not operating in a way that is safe or nurturing, do something about that, don’t just remove the children, because guess what, Crown, you don’t have a nurturing, safe, loving environment yourselves.

A sliver of light

When I was about 10 or 11 years old, I started attending an alternative education centre and that’s where I was fortunate enough to meet a man, Peter Nordstrom. Pete recognised and understood the importance of tikanga and te reo. He’d witnessed generations of those who had lost their cultural identity. Recently, I had a kōrero with him and he said he saw that I had such a strong lack in my whānau base, so his mahi with me was establishing that through culture, through tikanga. At that time I was learning te reo, I was learning the history of my people. I remember feeling grounded, comfortable, and I understood I belonged to my iwi and I had something to be proud of. 

Peter Nordstrom knew that anti-social behaviour is simply a mixture of two things: detachment and anger. How do you heal that? You must address the detachment. We have a strong history, we have strong whakapapa, we have a lot to be proud of as Māori and it’s important to embrace that. Having belonging is so important for anybody. 

The only time I saw reference to te ao Māori outside of that education centre was the koru patterns frosted on the glass meeting rooms of the CYFS office, which wasn’t a nice place to be. That was my small instruction to things Māori. For a long time that’s all I had. 

Up until meeting Pete I’d only been to my marae once and that was to bury my father. 

Acknowledging our parents’ pain

On my father’s side, I’m the second generation who have been through state care. My father and all of his brothers are deceased. I’m the eldest in my direct whānau line and I’m 26 years of age. 

My father was killed. I’ve lost two uncles. One, who recently passed away, suffered a lot with schizophrenia because of his experiences. He opened up to me before his death. The result of abuse and trauma and what the state does to our people is present even in death. 

I know many people who have cut themselves off from their whānau, they live by themselves, they go it alone, they’ve grown up to believe their parents are bad people and so they don’t want to connect back to that. 

Something I’ve learned as I get older is that it’s important to acknowledge the pain of our parents, the lack of support, the trauma that they have had to carry with them. I don’t believe for a moment that my parents were bad people. I believe they were human and they were responding to a lifetime of pain without any healing.

A token redress

My experience with redress was unsatisfactory. I recall being interviewed by two Pākehā staff members about the abuse I’d endured while under state care. It was maybe six months before I heard back and an offer of compensation was presented. That was the worst time to come at me with something like that, because the full effect of the pain and the trauma hadn’t even come, I had no idea what I was in for. 

I didn’t have a lot of options available to me at that time, I was only 17 years old, I was self-harming. That was sort of a dangerous time because I already felt I didn’t belong in society, I couldn’t connect, I felt like an outsider in this world, living on a youth payment benefit that hardly gave me enough to pay rent. I was literally starving almost three days a week. It wasn’t until much later that I realised that what I’d signed and what I’d accepted was disrespectful to myself. The government needs to acknowledge that when children are left in abusive places, we suffer, we suffer hard, and we suffer for a long time. 

I’m lucky. I’ve met good people and formed a solid network – that has nothing to do with my time in the system. A lot of us aren’t that lucky, I had people behind me who had my back, who I can be real with. A lot of this is understanding that, you know, all this pain and the anxiety that I carry, it’s not my fault, I shouldn’t be embarrassed by it, I should not be ashamed, the Crown should be. It’s theirs. They are responsible.

My issue with counsellors is when I was younger, I was being abused and I went to school and spoke with the counsellor, told him that I was being abused, he notified the caregiver, so I went home to another hiding. So even as an adult, I have a problem talking to counsellors. I prefer to speak with people I know. 

Counselling is talking to a stranger. Our culture is not strange, it’s close. It’s part of who we are.

Hands off our tamariki

The best thing the state can do is keep their hands off our children. Allow Māori to exercise tino rangatiratanga. We don’t need the Crown to give us power, we’ve always had it. We need the crown to respect our power. 

My mahi with VOYCE – Whakarongo  Mai advocates to empower children’s voices to be heard to enable a pathway to cultural identity. We are about acknowledging our tamariki and rangatahi as collectors of whānau, hapū and iwi. 

We need to stop saying, “Yeah, we’ll have a Māori advisory board for this and that.” No, we’re not there to give advice. These are our people. We need more power and more say in the spaces that are responsible for our tamariki, for our rangatahi. 

Our tamariki do not belong to a Crown entity. Knowing who you are and where you come from, the values defined by tikanga, they are the foundations to develop strong, healthy, independent, ready young people. Compared to the system that we were raised in, it’s like day and night. 

Our people, our whānau know how to take care of us. We belong to them and if anyone were to have a say in my life and my upbringing I would hope it would be my iwi, not somebody who doesn’t know me from a bar of soap. 

Being Māori and raised in a system that’s determined to separate you from your culture is modern-day colonisation. My whakapapa is my identity. It’s my people, my place, it’s my history and, in the context of my childhood, whakapapa is where I should have been and who I should have been with.