Baby uplifts spark action by Methodist Alliance members

This article was first published in the August 2019 issue of Touchstone.

Several members of the Methodist Alliance are involved in a collective to help reduce the number of babies – particularly Māori babies – being uplifted at birth. Our director, David Hanna,  says this reflects a long Methodist tradition of challenging injustice.

Many New Zealanders were deeply shocked when they saw graphic images of an attempted removal of a 6-day-old baby from its 19-year-old mother published in June by online news service, Newsroom.  They provided a rare glimpse into the reality of life for those who are largely powerless.

The issues raised by the attempted “uplift” at Hawkes Bay Hospital by Oranga Tamariki social workers and police have now sparked four separate inquiries.

But as shocking as the images were, they came as no particular surprise to me and other staff at Wesley Community Action. We have recently been involved with a very similar case.

In February this year a young woman who had previously spent time with Te Waka Kotahi, our specialised foster-care programme for high-risk young people,  contacted one of our social workers to say that her baby had been taken away while she was having a shower just a few hours after giving birth.

What followed was three months of often frustrating negotiations with Oranga Tamariki as we eventually found a way of reuniting the young woman and her baby – first under the supervision of staff at our home in Tawa and more recently with a whānau member supported by an iwi provider in the central North Island.

We know that she will face challenges in caring for her baby. But we strongly believe that she has to be given a chance to try – and the support she needs to help her do that.

As Robyn Pope, our Manager Practice observes, children in the care system have a deep longing to know that their mother tried very hard to keep them.  “This is something that sits with kids in care for the rest of their lives,” she says.

We were concerned, too, about the long-term impact of uplifting the young woman’s first child at birth. The subsequent children legislation, enacted in 2016, means a parent who has had a child removed previously must prove they are capable of keeping any new baby. Removing her baby meant the young woman involved was much more likely to lose any future children. .

Lifewise, our sister organisation in Auckland, has recently dealt with several similar cases.

In fact, we and fellow Methodist Alliance members Lifewise and the Christchurch Methodist Mission, have been concerned about the growing number of tamariki – especially Māori tamariki – being removed from their families for some time now. The figures for newborn uplifts are particularly shocking, with Māori babies now four times more likely to be removed at birth than non-Māori babies.

Providing a voice for community and iwi organisations

To help address these significant concerns, in August last year I initiated a gathering of community and iwi organisations that provide child-protection and whānau well-being services. We wanted to make sure our voices are heard in this important debate. Our over-riding message is that we need to be doing more to support whānau under pressure, and that if children do need to be removed it should be transparent, brief, and non-recurring.

The involvement of Methodist Alliance members in this collective reflects the Methodist Church’s long commitment to social-justice issues, and entails both challenging State actions that breach the Te Tiriti o Waitangi and providing practical support for people in need.

We’d like to see more attention being paid to supporting parents long before a child is born – rather than social workers sweeping in immediately afterwards. We’d also like greater acknowledgment of the expertise and knowledge of organisations like ours. Our staff often have a much deeper knowledge of a whānau’s situation than those working for Government agencies.

We acknowledge that in some cases children do have to be removed from their parents.  How this is done is important and we need to ensure this challenging step has been well-signalled beforehand and based on sound information. Parents should also receive on-going support so they know what they need to do to enable their children to return.

Two members of the Methodist Alliance are also involved with a new programme, supported by Oranga Tamariki,  to help whānau with older children to stay together. Lifewise piloted the Mana Whānau programme last year, providing support for whānau who are at risk of having their children removed, or who need support to have their children return home from foster care.

Earlier this year, Wesley Community Action set up a Mana Whānau programme based on Porirua which is achieving very positive results.

We know that we are just a small piece of a very complicated puzzle. But as members of the Methodist Alliance we see our work as part of the long Methodist tradition of working alongside people in need and challenging injustice.