There’s no doubt the young women of High School Mums will leave you feeling inspired. But the show should also spur change, says Emily Writes.
It’s unlikely anyone could watch High School Mums and be unmoved by the incredible young women and their children in it. The TVNZ show follows a year in the life of new mums and babies at Fraser High School’s Teen Parent Unit He Puāwai. All are teenagers, all are raising at least one child, and all are trying to graduate from high school.
It feels impossible that anyone could see 15 year-old Cierrah try to navigate co-parenting with the father of her child, a statutory rapist, and not be astonished by her resilience and grace. Her attendance is excellent at He Puāwai, so resolute she is to do well for her gorgeous baby Jonah. Who could watch Danielle, a mother of two who left school at 13 years-old, face homelessness after being accepted to study nursing and not champion her? Who could turn away from Dru, a head girl who is determined to make her mum proud and go to university while parenting her little one who is struggling with painful eczema?
Well, a lot of people as it turns out. Because we live in a country that routinely denigrates young mothers instead of cherishing and caring for them.
The second episode of High School Mums aired last night. The first episode saw Danielle facing homelessness despite all of her hard work caring for her babies while studying. She desperately wants to be a nurse. She might make it, but if she does she won’t have been helped by New Zealand’s waiting list for state housing which hit a record high in January. It has more than doubled in size to 14,500 in the past two years.
Her grit and determination is phenomenal. If she doesn’t get to study the fault won’t be her own, it will be ours for letting her down.
While the world lauds New Zealand and our prime minister for our apparent kindness, what life is like for young mums and their tamariki is rarely talked about. As far back as 2001, a study suggested the government should provide a minimum standard of living and sufficient childcare to combat deprivation. What has changed in 2020?
There are just 25 teen parent units in New Zealand, including four in the South Island. Judy Buckley is director of one, the Murihiku Young Parents’ Learning Centre. Over the phone I can tell how passionate she is about her young learners and mothers.
“We continue to look at teenage pregnancy as a negative. It’s one of the five risk factors that was outlined in Bill English’s social investment policy quite a few years ago. But after working in this area for 11 years I can say it need not be seen as a deficit.”
Buckley says it’s the mitigating factors that harm young women, not necessarily the fact that they have a child young. “It’s what we do to make sure that they’re supported that’s important. That’s housing, that’s education, that’s health and above all it’s the stigma. It’s probably an unplanned pregnancy yes, but once they have made their choice we should be asking how are we going to help them?”
The view in New Zealand of teen mothers as negative statistics causes a huge amount of harm, Buckley says.
“Start seeing how many of these young parents are motivated. Of course there’s poverty and there’s sometimes a life of violence, but when they get pregnant it’s a moment where they say ‘I want something different for my baby’. And it’s then, if you can wrap around them, that I’ve seen what can happen. I’ve seen people go on to have amazing lives.”
Buckley sees the challenges young parents face every day. One is in getting childcare. Without it, new mothers cannot study. In 2012, the government introduced a requirement for young mums to be in education or training. In return, they receive a Youth Parent Payment. The Youth Parent Payment should pay for early childhood education for their babies.
“It can be one barrier after another and that’s what pays for the early childcare. I would like to see when a young person comes to us whether they’re pregnant or have a baby that they don’t have to jump through miles of hoops to come into education. And that includes whatever benefit they’re on because I see it as an investment.”
A failure of welfare payments can change the course of a young person’s future, Buckley says: “everything can fall apart just like that”.
If they’re not in education or employment their payment is docked. On High School Mums we saw some of the reasons why young mothers might not be able to attend school on any given day when they have brand new babies.
Stuff journalist Brittany Keogh obtained a report from the Ministry of Social Development through the Official Information Act earlier this year. The report found that “teenage beneficiaries are being left with as little as $3 spending money per week and are at risk of being exploited”.
Investment is the word Buckley keeps returning to. An investment in these young people and their children shouldn’t need to be fought for when you see just how bright they are, how determined and motivated they are.
“It’s an investment in them. In their education. Education is incredibly important but it has to be education that sees them as parent and learner not one or the other.”
The young women of High School Mums are exemplary parents. They have to be as they’re held to an impossible standard – and the risks of not meeting it are terrifying. Māori babies are five times more likely to be removed from their mothers.
In 2019, a letter signed by 18,000 New Zealanders called for systemic changes to Oranga Tamariki. The letter called for Kaupapa Māori Whānau Ora approaches controlled by iwi and Whānau Ora organisations to be implemented. The petition delievered 16 recommendations to the government.
This month, The Children’s Commissioner published the first of two reports after undertaking a review of Oranga Tamariki. The report was damning, with the first recommendation being: “The system needs to recognise the role of mums as te whare tangata and treat them and their pēpi with humanity.” The report also found “unprofessional statutory social work practice” is harming mothers and their babies. It also found pēpi Māori and their whānau are experiencing racism and discrimination.
In response, former Māori Party leader Dame Tariana Turia called for Oranga Tamariki’s chief executive Grainne Moss and minister for children Tracey Martin to resign. Whānau Ora leader Merepeka Raukawa Tait told Radio NZ: “The social workers and the practitioners within Oranga Tamariki – their expectation is that Māori mothers will fail. Their expectation and the way they treat Māori is that the mothers are the enemy.”
At the end of June 2019, there were 6,429 total children in state custody. Of that number, 4,420 children were Māori (69%), Tamariki Māori make up only 25% of all children in Aotearoa.
If you think tamariki are “better off”, read the report What Makes a Good Life published by the Children’s Commissioner. Here’s an excerpt:
“Children and young people who completed the survey were asked about how much they agreed or disagreed with a series of 17 statements about elements of wellbeing, to see how they are currently experiencing wellbeing. Children and young people in care fared worse in every area of wellbeing the survey asked about, and the difference was statistically significant for 14 of the 17 statements.”
In a session with a He Puawai counsellor on High Schools Mums, Cierrah shares a childhood memory from when she was just six. “If you keep doing that,” she was told, “CYFs will take you away”.
The mothers of High School Mums face health inequalities too. Dru finds out her little one Areka’s eczema is due to a dairy allergy. By the time he is diagnosed his skin is raw and Dru has missed study to care for him.
Health inequalities can begin early for many young mums, particularly if they’re Māori. Sometimes as early as in the labour ward. A 2013 research report from the Ministry of Health shows that Māori women experience inequalities in access to maternity care and report lower levels of satisfaction with maternity services than most other women from other ethnic groups.
At the time the associate minister of health Tariana Turia said: “We know that Māori babies suffer disproportionately from low birth weight, pre-term birth, stillbirths and neonatal mortality than most other ethnic groups. Improving the support services we provide in these early stages of life will help prevent negative outcomes later in life.”
“I just want the best for my kids” is what all the mothers say on High School Mums.
Last night’s episode left the heroes of High School Mums beaming, excited for their future. Despite the fact that for some, housing is a shared studio motel room and no safe place for the children to play.
In High School Mums we see what many have known for a long time – that despite living in a society that disempowers them and then blames them for not being empowered enough, young women are striving for excellence. Despite facing barrier after barrier and a public who are often indifferent at best and cruel at worst, these girls are thriving under circumstances many comfortable New Zealanders would falter in.
We are so lucky to have these young women in New Zealand contributing to our shared future. They’re doing the crucial work of raising their babies and being the best that they can be with the support of a dedicated few. Any parent would be proud to have them as daughters, any baby lucky to have them as their mum.
So yes. High School Mums is inspiring, but if it doesn’t inspire you to action you’ve missed the point. Before you move onto the next television programme take a moment to look at how these young girls fight for a brighter future. Imagine what their path would be like if they had the “team of five million” behind them instead of against them.
Are you in the team or not?
Both episodes of High School Mums are streaming on TVNZ on Demand now.