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

[Note: this post was updated on 24 June with comments on the obfuscatory character of the term ‘domestic violence,’ and on the source of Oranga Tamariki’s tendency to act on unproved accusation and racial profiling. The alterations are in bold and are labelled].

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.’

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

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.”

Professor Mark Henaghan. Photo: George Murahidy, Newsroom

Henaghan also points to some serious problems with the evidence presented to the Court and the process followed by Oranga Tamariki. ““The affidavit supporting the application was not by the case worker who had been working with the family. It was given by another social worker who could only have got their evidence second-hand which is hearsay,” he said. The judge granting the order directed Oranga Tamariki to inform the mother, but this was not done.

This was not the first of this woman’s children to be ‘uplifted.’ In the video, Jean Te Huia, one of the woman’s midwives who is also CEO of Ngā Māia Māori Midwives Aotearoa, explains that her first child was taken by deception. While the woman was recovering from a difficult labour ending in an emergency Caesarean section, the hospital staff told her that they needed to take the baby ‘for checking,’ and so she willingly handed it over. When she asked an hour later why her baby had not yet been returned to her, she was told it had been uplifted.

Now Oranga Tamariki accuses the woman of ‘lack of parenting skills.’

When her second child was born she and her whānau were better prepared. Knowing the concerns about the father’s drug use, the midwives had arranged for her to stay in a care facility for young parents which in the video is called “Te Whare ­­­­____”, an institution certified by Oranga Tamariki, when she left the hospital. Other members of the whānau were organised to take shifts in supporting her. Oranga Tamariki had been notified of this plan, and the family had no reason to believe that this was not acceptable to them.

The whānau also made sure they were there at the hospital to thwart any attempt to steal the baby. They employed a lawyer to advise them when one of the midwives got wind of the impending uplift.  When Oranga Tamariki turned up at her bedside unannounced, with a child car seat and some legal consent forms for her to sign, the woman refused to hand the baby over. There were several further attempts to pressure the woman into signing over the baby, despite the fact that the lawyer acting for the woman had informed them that she had filed an injunction with the Family Court. The injunction was to prevent the uplift taking place until after there had been a hearing on an application to rescind the uplift order.

Police in the corridor outside the woman’s hospital room (from video).

The whānau recorded the exchanges with the social workers on their phones. Hospital officials and security guards entered the room at intervals, telling some people to leave the room and telling others to turn off their phones. Police waited in the corridor outside the room.

The woman’s whānau were then instructed to attend a family group meeting with Oranga Tamariki. They strongly objected to the terms demanded by Oranga Tamariki, who insisted that the meeting would be at a venue 10 minutes away from the hospital. This excluded the mother and baby from participating. The whānau decided to attend on Oranga Tamariki’s terms anyway, for fear that if they refused, their non-attendance would be used against them in future custody proceedings. The meeting resolved nothing, but the whānau were assured that there would be no further attempt to uplift the baby until the hearing on the rescinding of the uplift order had taken place.

But that night, Oranga Tamariki and police against arrived at the hospital and made yet another attempt. The woman was now on her own. Her whānau found themselves barred from the hospital. Even her two midwives, who had both spoken in support of the woman, and who have swipe cards giving them access to the hospital, found that their swipe cards had been deactivated and the hospital security barred them from entering. Police were guarding every entrance, and told them that the order to uplift the baby was being executed. In the video the woman’s whānau, fearing the worst, bring mattresses and blankets to the hospital entrance and stand vigil, communicating with the woman by phone. Late into the night, the social workers keep badgering her to hand the baby over, so that “then you can have a good sleep.” The family urgently tell her by phone to keep refusing to hand him over, and to refuse any medications the hospital staff might offer.

The whānau were joined at the doors of the hospital by Des Ratima, chairman of Takitimu District Māori Council, who negotiated with police and case workers until 2am, when Oranga Tamariki eventually abandoned the third attempt to take the child. A month later, the mother is shown in the video staying at Te Whare, with the support of her whānau. The long term custody is to be determined at a further hearing of the Family Court.

Jean Te Huia, CEO of Ngā Māia Māori Midwives. Photo: John Cowpland, Stuff

Jean Te Huia comments, “The ‘state take’ of babies has now got to a point where New Zealand needs to wake up and open their eyes to what is really happening. Three Māori babies a week are being uplifted from maternity units and taken from their mothers in this country. The state’s authority to uplift children is based on information from Oranga Tamariki, often from anonymous sources, so the women have no defence against the uplifts,” she said. “Last night as [the mother] lay alone clinging to her baby, the police stationed outside her room and a hostile case worker in her room. Her mother and her Māori midwife spent the night outside in the hospital car park. The DHB locked everyone out. This is a 19-year-old girl enduring day three of Oranga Tamariki trying to rip a baby from her alone. What is that, New Zealand?”


Oranga Tamariki argues that while such interventions are inevitably distressing for all concerned, they are necessary to protect the child from abusive environments where parents are drug users or have a history of violence.

This argument needs to be taken seriously. Although comparative statistics are hard to come by, it is generally agreed that New Zealand has a high rate of domestic violence of all kinds in comparison to similar developed countries. Police attend about 100,000 incidents of domestic violence every year. According to Professor Janet Fanslow, co-director of the New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse, in New Zealand one out of three women will report having experienced either physical or sexual violence or both in their lifetime.

Nia Glassie, whose brutal abuse and murder in 2007 sparked national discussion on violence against children

In recent years there has been an ongoing public discussion of the question of domestic violence in general, and violence against children in particular, following a series of horrific cases of abuse and murders of very young children. The extraordinarily brutal killings of two Māori toddlers, Nia Glassie in 2007 and Moko Rangitoheriri in 2015, raised widespread concerns. The predecessor of Oranga Tamariki, then known as Child, Youth and Family Service (CYFS) came under heavy criticism at the time for failing to intervene to save the lives of these children. The rate of uplifting appears to have increased after that, as did Oranga Tamariki’s tendency to act preemptively, before the violence had taken place, which can only mean acting on rumours and unproved accusations, as well as statistical likelihoods – in other words, on racial profiling. [updated 24 June]

The thinking that guides these decisions and judgments is never stated openly, but is plain enough to see in the video. The police, hospital staff and social workers who gathered in that hospital ward, like a pack of wolves circling around a mare and foal, knew exactly what they were doing and why. The Māori woman fitted the profile of a ‘bad parent’ – by her youth, her ‘transience,’ and her nationality. Her baby ticked the boxes of all they look for in a child ‘at risk,’ especially the most important one: that he was Māori. The elephant in the room of these discussions is the idea that Māori parents are bad parents. This ‘explanation’ of the disproportionate rate of uplifting on Māori children is never expressed openly – they don’t dare –  but it pervades capitalist society in New Zealand nonetheless. It is part of the toxic legacy of the violent dispossession of Māori that took place in the nineteenth century, whose effects continue in various forms down to the present.

Samuel Marsden early missionary to New Zealand, who said, “There can be no finer children than those of the New Zealanders in any part of the world. Their parents are very indulgent, and they appear always happy and playful and very active.”

And there is not the slightest truth in it. There is nothing Māori about abusing children. In fact, early European observers of Māori society – in the period before the colonial assault gained momentum – often remarked on what attentive and fond parents Māori of both sexes were, how they seldom or never used physical discipline on their children. Some of these observers deplored this as showing indulgence towards the child. Coming from early nineteenth-century Britain, they were accustomed to far more brutal methods of child discipline. The horrors of the Nia Glassie and Moko Rangitoheriri kind are not the product of Māori society; they are the product of the destruction of Māori society.

If it is true that this woman has no criminal history – and at this point no one has disputed the claim – then the ‘history of domestic violence’ in the family is either an unproved accusation, or it is a history of violence against the woman. It is hard to imagine a policy better calculated to perpetuate domestic violence, to force women to continue to suffer violence at the hands of their partners without reporting it, than this one, which punishes the victims of such violence by ripping their babies from their arms if they report it.  One of the most terrible punishments imaginable is routinely inflicted on women without even a court hearing. Never has there been a clearer example of the fact that the welfare of children cannot be protected at the expense of women, but is inseparable from the welfare of women themselves.

The very term ‘domestic violence’ itself covers up the true nature of this violence, by lumping together two distinct kinds of violence, and gives the courts openings to carry out such injustices. The question would be much clearer if it was called ‘violence against women.’ [added 24 June]

Jean Te Huia asks in anguish, “What is that, New Zealand?”

The answer is: this is ‘child welfare’ in the age of capitalist social decay. The rulers present to us a choice: either we must accept having our children regularly being physically, sexually, and emotionally abused and frequently murdered by their parents and family members, or, alternatively, we must accept having our children grabbed from their mothers arms, their families torn apart forever, on the basis of the flimsiest of ‘evidence’ and anonymous accusations, with no right to dispute the truth of the accusations, nor present an alternative course of action to ensure the child’s safety; we must hand them over to the gang of bullies. And in both cases, the greatest horrors and outrages are to be inflicted on the children of the oppressed nationalities.

They try to force all of us to choose between these two ‘alternatives.’ Anyone with an ounce of humanity will reject both of these hideous ‘choices.’ The most encouraging aspect of the video is that it shows many people who understood the situation with complete clarity, who adamantly rejected both of these alternatives, and who were fighting for a different course of action. The courageous midwives, Jean Te Huia and Ripeka Ormsby, the reporter, Melanie Reid, and above all the woman and her partner and whānau, should be commended for their firmness and dignity. Those responsible for the legal violations, including those who made the custody application ‘ex parte’ when that was not justified, those who lied to the judge about the baby having already been uplifted when he had not – these people should be facing jail time.

Farrell Dobbs

Working people the world over confront these questions as we begin to recognise that the rulers are incapable of solving such problems, and can only deepen the brutalities and injustices that we already endure. They are not new questions. I recall once hearing a recording of a talk by Farrell Dobbs, a leader of the fighting Teamsters union in Minneapolis in the 1930s, in which he explained how the great union fightback turned into a broad social movement of emancipation of the working class. Along with organising their own hospital for the strikers injured in battles with cops and scabs, the union local even organised the adoption of children among the workers themselves. In doing so, they thwarted the efforts of bourgeois charities, which sought to break up the families of workers through forced adoptions.

In a world where the most basic social relations are thrown into a state of crisis, where the motion towards women’s equality has been thrown into reverse, and the national oppression of Māori intensified, there are, and will continue to be for some time to come, cases where the safety of the child requires that they be removed from the care of their parents. They are not so common that three uplifts of children each week are needed in New Zealand, but they do exist.

In such situations, the working class must fight to defend, and where necessary mend, the social fabric of our class. We must reject the alien interference of the state, and fight to keep these children within our broader family and social networks, just as the Teamsters Union did in 1934, so that they can be returned to their parents at the earliest opportunity. This is necessary above all in the case of Māori children, where the deep institutionalised racism of the New Zealand state exerts a powerful pull in the opposite direction. The whānau of the woman at the centre of this battle and her midwives provide an outstanding example of the kind of actions that should be taken wherever there is any concern for the child’s safety. We must place women at the centre of such decisions – the child’s mother in the first instance, as well as grandmothers, aunts, sisters. We must recognise that violence against women is one of the greatest destroyers [updated 24 June] of the social fabric of our class. And that therefore, the fight for the welfare of children is inseparable from the broader fight to raise the status of women.

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

  1. Pingback: Child welfare in the age of capitalist decay – a glimpse of New Zealand’s stolen generation – Redline·

  2. Pingback: The profound political implications of Ihumātao | A communist at large·

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