Child welfare in the age of capitalist decay – a glimpse of New Zealand’s stolen generation

James Robb looks at the systemic issues surrounding the state taking children from their families.

A shocking documentary video released last week by Newsroom reporter Melanie Reid, shows the attempts by social workers employed by Oranga Tamariki, the New Zealand state’s child welfare agency, backed up by hospital staff and police, trying to ‘uplift’ a seven-day-old baby from his mother at the hospital where he was born. The video has lifted the lid on both the brutal process and the alarmingly high rate at which new-born babies are taken from their mothers by the state, especially Māori babies. As the practice becomes widely known and Oranga Tamariki goes into damage control, a broad discussion has erupted about the similarities with the widely-hated policy practised in Australia, past and present, of removing Aboriginal children from their parents into abusive orphanages and institutions. The practice was portrayed in the 2002 movie Rabbit-Proof Fence. So widespread was it in the past that those affected by it became known as the ‘Stolen Generation.’

The woman at the centre of the story and her baby. She cannot be identified for legal reasons. Photo: Phill Prenderville, Newsroom

In New Zealand about three babies a week are ‘uplifted’ from their parents and taken into state care. Of the 283 babies taken last year, about 70% were either Māori or Pasifika. (Māori make up about 15% of the population, people of Pacific Island descent about 8%. The total population of New Zealand is about 4.8 million.)

The video shows what is evidently a routine practice on the part of Oranga Tamariki of bullying, lying, illegal withholding of information, and highly questionable court proceedings. In this instance, this pack of bullies was deployed against a woman who, her midwife points out, has “no criminal background, no alcohol or drug problem.”

The basis of the court order supporting the uplifting was an admission by the child’s father that he used marijuana regularly, and a suggestion, disputed by the woman’s whānau (wider family) that there was a history of domestic violence. ‘Lack of parenting skills’, and ‘transient home environments’ were also cited. Auckland law professor Mark Henaghan points out that the court order itself was deeply flawed.

“The Oranga Tamariki application for a custody order on May 2 was made “ex parte” or without notice to the baby’s whānau,” Henaghan told Newsroom. “An ex parte application is an exceptional proceeding where there is no time to let the other side be heard because of the risk of undue hardship and harm. In this case the application was made on the 2nd May but not executed until the 6th May. A four-day gap shows the situation was not urgent. The baby was safe in the hospital with the mother and her supportive whānau. There was plenty of time to serve the intent to remove on the mother and father and give them time to respond and show the safety measures for the child and mother that were in place.”

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