Authorities took three children from a woman. They also helped her be a mum again

TRIGGER WARNING: This article references domestic violence and abuse.

The kitchen table is straining under the paperwork.

Piles upon piles filled with hundreds of documents recounting trauma, police callouts and assaults.

But what could have been a never-ending cycle of loss and pain for Sandra* has somehow stopped, rerouted and changed course.

The state took three of her children away. Years later, it also helped the Manawatū woman and her partner turn their lives and become parents with children in their care again.

'Underground adoption agency'

There’s no way to sugar coat Sandra’s view of the Child Youth and Family (CYFs) workers who took her children.

“Underground adoption agency, that’s what I think about CYFs and what they did to us back then.”

There’s also no way to sugar coat Sandra’s family life at the time. Violence between Sandra and her partner was frequent, and more often than not she was on the receiving end of it.

Police reports filed from their early relationship read like a horror film – kicking, punching, slapping, screaming.

When the violence erupted, the children were there, witness to the attacks.

The psychological trauma imparted on those kids was unavoidable – and the couple quickly caught the attention of CYFs.

“You think you’re doing the right thing calling for help but you’re actually setting yourself up to fail,” she said.

She doesn’t remember the first interaction she had with th agency, but she knows she also didn’t fully grasp how dire her situation was.

“We didn’t know anything about CYFs… I think once it got to Family Group Counselling, it didn’t seem to take long to get there and the removal of [our eldest].”

Taken into care

After a family group conference, Sandra says there it was agreed that the daughter would be placed into the care of one of her partner’s relatives.

Later the girl was moved into a “forever home” and her younger sister went on to join her.

“Then they were placed in the day-to-day care of a British family which hurt us because they’re Māori, we’re Māori – how are they gonna learn their heritage how are they gonna learn their roots.”

This upset Sandra, whose iwi is Tūhoe and Ngāti Kahu, because she was concerned they would grow up with no connection to their whenua.

Sandra appreciated the foster mother’s attempts to keep up te reo classes for the girls, but in a tragic turn of events the woman died of cancer, so now the children are being raised by their foster father.

Her eldest son – born before her tumultuous relationship with her partner – was also taken and moved into the care of his father – something Sandra assumed had been legally enforceable.

She only discovered years later that it wasn’t.

“I didn’t know that the whole time, that his dad didn’t get an order, there was no custody thing. So in actual fact he was still legally mine.”

She’s now in her early 40s but still blames herself for not knowing, for not understanding that she could have fought for him more.

While in the care of his father, she claims the boy was assaulted, and says if he had stayed with her “he would have been safe”.

At 14 he called her up, asking if he could come home, and told her he’d been subjected to years of violent abuse.

Shattered, Sandra tried to reconcile how the man who was entrusted by the state to care for her son may have hurt him even more than she already knew.

Abuse in care

Sandra’s story comes ahead of the Royal Commission of Inquiry’s hearings into the abuse in children’s residential care.

Those sessions, beginning in May, will examine and report on abuse and neglect in residences run by the state, including family homes.

The Royal Commission says that at any given time, Māori make up more than 60 per cent of children in care of the state.

Reform, name change, and controversy

In 2017 the Government undertook the biggest reform of children’s care in New Zealand, launching Oranga Tamariki in the place of Child Youth and Family. The overhaul came after a year-long review and at the heart of the changes were a greater focus on early intervention and preventing trauma, giving children a greater say in their care, and working more closely with families to keep children in their homes. The age for state care was also raised from 17 to 18, and will later rise to 21.

However, many of the old problems persisted and the agency remained in the headlines for the outsize number of uplifts of Māori children.

An attempted uplift straight from a Hawke’s Bay maternity ward in 2019 led to no less than five reviews of Oranga Tamariki and its child uplift practices: an internal review, and inquiries by Whānau Ora, the Chief Ombudsman, the Children’s Commissioner and the Waitangi Tribunal.

Earlier this year Oranga Tamariki’s embattled chief executive Grainne Moss announced she was resigning after four years at the helm of the agency. The number of children in state care and the number of uplifts has fallen under Moss’ watch, and partnerships are being created with iwi to prevent their tamariki from going into care or keeping them within extended family. However many prominent Māori leaders remained deeply distrustful of Oranga Tamariki and feel that transformational change has yet to occur.

Sandra is no fan of Oranga Tamariki taking babies from their mothers, although accepts it was necessary if children were in danger.

She says, though, everyone deserves a chance to change – and sees herself as an example of how someone with the right support can get back on track.

Sandra's path back as a mother

After he served a four-year stint in jail for family violence, her partner relocated to Levin. Sandra followed and soon became pregnant.

“With our six-year-old they came because they knew I was pregnant, ‘oh you’ve lost children?’ I said yes I have, ‘are you guys still having a few incidents?’ I said yeah. And they wrapped services around us, and I thank them, OT here put in family staff, Whānau Ora they wrapped it around our family.”

There we’re bumps along the road – nothing is perfect – and she said the first three years were a learning curve. They used the time to work with Whānau Ora in depth to address issues that did arise.

One of the biggest breakthroughs in her and her partners’ relationship came through a diagnosis – and medication to help her partner control his outbursts.

“They diagnosed [my partner] with bipolar, if we knew that back then we wouldn’t have lost our kids.”

Whānau Ora are at their house all the time, says Sandra, and if her husband is having any issues they pick him up and take him away.

The organisation is a contemporary indigenous health initiative that places whānau at the centre of decision making. Whānau Ora is about increasing the wellbeing of individuals in the context of their whanau. It differs from traditional social and health approaches that focus solely on the needs of individuals.

“Since finding out he’s got bipolar he’s medicated, we hardly ever fight, it’s nothing like before. It’s normal. And we have our kids, he had bipolar back then this is why we were struggling.”

Instead of being filled with dread, she says her husband likes seeing the Whānau Ora navigator come up the driveway.

“Three years out of jail for no domestic violence, that’s huge for us at the time.

“He started even trusting the police a little bit, he started being nicer to them not so aggressive, I think it helped him and us build trust in services.”

In recent years there has been an increase in discussions regarding the need for these types of action plans and wraparound services that have helped Sandra’s family.

Auckland University associate professor Janet Lynn Fanslow researches violence against women and says bringing together the response to child abuse and partner violence is the right thing to do.

“I do think that there is still a need for helping people to think not only around the holistic services, but also around all of the different aspects of life that people often need to be supported in which may you know may be things like budgeting or food security or housing.”

It’s impossible to take the children out of the picture and even if the violence is just between the parents, Fanslow says exposure to these incidents is as detrimental as if it were happening to them.

Oranga Tamariki regional manager for Taranaki Manawatu Bev Markham says their approach has shifted from assessing safety based on risks to assessing based on strengths and safety.

“The plan for Sandra has been to keep the children safe and strengthen the family unit, while supporting whānau to thrive.”

The agency says Sandra has worked extremely well with them and stuck to safety plans, even when things got tough.

Meetings normally happen in the home on an announced and unannounced basis and Sandra had an open-door policy that allowed professionals to call in when passing by, even if it was just to say hello or to see the kids.

“She had a team of professionals around her that worked well as a team, including joint visits to address any issues, and to celebrate successes.”

Sandra is in a better place now, but the loss of her children still haunts her, and the question remains – what would her life be like if this support had come earlier?

Sandra’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

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