In recent months, Oranga Tamariki (the Ministry for Children) has faced widespread criticism for its often-traumatising practice of ‘uplifts’, whereby newborn babies are taken from their mothers into state care. These uplifts by Oranga Tamariki are used against Māori and Pasifika parents disproportionately, according to data released by the Ministry. While the non-Māori rate of removal has stayed the same over the last ten years, rates of removal of Māori babies has risen by 33% between 2015 and 2018. What has been causing the recent spike in uplifts? Laura Kvigstad spoke with researcher Emily Keddell, a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Otago University, who has been analysing the data.
Emile Keddell is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Otago University. She is an expert in child protection social work.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Laura Kvigstad: What details can the data give us?
Emily Keddell: It shows quite a few things, but the main areas are relating to the increasing disparities for Māori. And that is true for children of all ages in the child protection system over the last ten years. It is of particular importance for babies being removed because the numbers show that basically the whole increase since 2015 is for Māori babies as opposed to babies from other ethnic groups.
LK: Can you go into a little bit more depth around those figures in terms of what they are indicating?
EK: The other thing that is coming through in the data that is being released is the regional effects in relation to babies being removed. That helps us gain a bit more depth of understanding that it is not fully about ethnicity but also a strong regional effect. Some regions showed a bigger increase compared to others. It is unclear why that might be because other regions also have some of the strong structural contributors to uplifting such as high poverty for example. So it is important to figure out what is going on in those particular regions.
LK: What regions are we looking at?
EK: The four regions are Northland, East Coast, Wellington, and Waikato. There are also eight other regions as defined by the Oranga Tamariki boundaries and those regions collectively have actually declined in baby removals in the last three years.
LK: Do you think there are some systemic issues at play?
EK: Our other inequalities project in my previous research looking into decision-making suggests that there are some definite things we should be looking at more closely. We need a really strong research-based approach to figure out what those things are. But some of those things that come to mind are the demand and supply of services in different regions, some regions might have fewer prevention services that are available to families before they have contact with the child protection service system. It may also be that different regions have developed different kinds of institutional cultural norms around the reasons for babies to be uplifted. So there may be some regions that take a more interventionist approach because of that when we compare them to other regions. Those are the two main things that we have examined.
The other thing that really is interesting in the recent data release is looking at the changes around the ways in which babies enter the care systems. There has been a big change from babies who are being removed in the post-natal period after they have been born as opposed to babies having orders made on them in the anti-natal period so while they are still unborn. Also, much fewer are being removed by agreement with families, so much more are being removed by the legal order pathway rather than families have agreed that ‘Yes actually, it probably is the best thing for me at this point of time to allow my baby to be placed in care’, and sometimes people do decide that for a whole range of reasons. But what we are seeing is much less of that and much more use of legal orders to take babies into care.
LK: Why do you think it is that the anti-natal uplifting is increasing so much?
EK: I think there has been a stronger focus because of the reform that has taken place, especially the reforms in 2015 on early intervention. I think for some people that has been equated with getting in earlier even before a baby is born and in some ways that is with a view to considering long term outcome for babies. On the other hand, it does beg the question around families being given opportunities to show they are competent or have plans put in place that may allow people to access the support they need to be able to parent. Obviously if you are not given that opportunity you never can show that.
LK: The kind of comparison between early intervention for the baby and early intervention for the family on the whole is quite different?
EK: I think it has been perceived in that way. Although there are always those competing interests in any child protection decision that you will be weighing up: what might be best for the baby, what supports are available to the family and the rights of the family. But also, with the baby there is no clear or easy way to decide which way that decision should fall. However, the baby also has right to remain with their family where possible. So if there are no supports available to families I guess the big question is why aren’t we supporting families more adequately to keep babies rather than going for this last resort option.
LK: What you find with these kinds of conversations is that some people will point to higher poverty, addiction, and domestic violence rates among Māori being the reason for this increase in uplifts, and this kind of commentary shifts the blame to an individual problem and away from a systemic one. What will you say to that?
EK: It is complicated, but I think in anything that has high rationalist outcomes you have got to at least include the possibility that institutionalised biases operate at the structural level that are feeding into the increase in disparities. But they may also play out through third-party variables like the ones you have mentioned as well. So to me it is not an either/or conversation, but I think we should be also thinking more about how the deep experiences around heightened poverty for Māori particularly are exacerbating some of those other issues as well. And without addressing those high poverty rates as part of a response to things like domestic violence or mental health, then we are limiting our response to that individualistic area rather than thinking about families and their whole social context.
LK: How have you found the governmental response as well as the media response to the uplifts?
EK: Well, it has been interesting. I think in any kind of social change there are different stakeholders that engage with the issue in different ways. I think it has been quite defensive, but I think that might be slowly changing as Oranga Tamariki realised that they actually need to engage with Māori, with the NGO community, and with society at large about this important issue. Hopefully we can have the public debates that are really important to progress this issue. And I think Oranga Tamariki did release this data voluntarily so I think there are good signs that they might be moving from their current position to one that is perhaps more able to engage with the very real concerns of people outside of Oranga Tamariki.
LK: What kind of changes would you like to see happen from government?
EK: I suppose because I am a researcher, I would like to see a lot more investment in research. As you know, we see these broad patterns but understanding exactly why they are happening is really important. So that is one thing. The second thing would be more attention to those social determinants, so more attention to income support and housing particularly which are being felt by family with children. Addressing some of those structural determinants is important and also really examining the funding of those prevention services. NGOs and Iwi are community-based services but the recent social services association [SSPA] report showed us those services are underfunded to the tune of something like six hundred thousand dollars per year when you compare what they are being expected to do and the amount they are funded by governments for. So that is really a key area for investment going forward if we want to see a reduction of those numbers because it is all about ensuring that families have enough support.
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