Once Were Warriors 25 years on: Children still fighting family removal, Māori more than most
Source: https://www.stuff.co.nz/news/112096103/-

2019-06-11 03:14:26

Squinting through her battered and bruised face, Beth Heke sifts through last night's ashtray cobbling together a calming cigarette - but tobacco won't soften the news she's about to hear.

In a haunting scene from the 1994 film Once Were Warriors, Beth's daughter Grace returns from court with news about her son, Mark: "They sent Boog away, Mum."

"How can they do that? Just take someone's son away?" Beth asks desperately, knowing the answer is all around her.

That morning, Boogie's welfare officer visited the Heke home and saw the aftermath of dad Jake's alcohol-fuelled rage, his corresponding report left the judge with no other option but to put Boogie into the hands of the state.

Beth's eventual redemption takes her back to her whānau and away from the abusive home the family endured, but 25 years after the film was released, New Zealand's children are still being removed from their families.

In 1999, shortly after the release of the film's sequel, What Becomes of the Broken Hearted, parliament debated the severity of a $5 million campaign designed to curb neglect within families.

At the time the campaign was announced, the Children, Young Persons and their Families Agency released statistics showing that Māori children made up almost half of its cases of abuse and neglect.

By June 2017, 5708 children and young people were in the custody of Oranga Tamariki - and over 60 per cent were Māori.

In the past five years, the number of times the state has intervened in the lives of Kiwi children has climbed by about 15 per cent.

In the film, Boogie flourishes under the foster home's manager, Mr Bennett, who helps him embrace his Māori heritage despite his initial reluctance.

However, not all of the country's most vulnerable kids are lucky enough to come across their own Mr Bennett.

A recent investigation into abuse in state care found more than 220 already-damaged children were further harmed in 2018.

Of the reported abuse, 36 children were sexually harmed, 182 physically harmed, 35 neglected and 83 emotionally harmed by caregivers, family members, other children and Oranga Tamariki staff.

The majority of the abused were placed with families they had remained with, or returned to, after state intervention; families said to be supported by Oranga Tamariki.


In February 2018, Auckland University of Technology published a study, which found almost one in four Kiwi kids were reported to child protection services.

The report, titled Cumulative Prevalence of Maltreatment Among New Zealand Children, followed 55,443 children born in 1998 until 2015 when they would be 17 years old.

It determined the frequency of notifications, maltreatment cases and first entries into foster care.

By age 17, 23.5 per cent of kids had at least one report to child protection services. Almost 10 per cent had been a victim of abuse or neglect, and 3 per cent had been put into foster or other care.

The report concluded child maltreatment was more common than was generally recognised, higher than the number of instances of medicated asthma among children, and as prevalent as child obesity.

The person charged with protecting New Zealand's children called state-run residences for at-risk kids a "relic of the past", and said they should be shut down.

Against a background of the Royal Commission into historical abuse in state care, Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft said Oranga Tamariki's care and protection residences needed to be phased out.

The five institutions nationwide were the "prison-like" orphanages of this era, he said.

In the Maiea Te Tūruapō, Fulfilling the Vision report, Becroft recommended opening smaller community homes, and shifting to kaupapa Māori providers - similar to the programme that worked for Boogie.

Becroft has been in the role for nearly three years, and said the office had nowhere near the resources it needed to fulfil its mandate.

As Principal Youth Court Judge, he was strongly committed to a specialist approach to dealing with youth and child offenders, and brought to the commissioners' role a particular focus on teenagers and adolescent development generally.


During the film, Boogie's father Jake thinks a stint in a boys' home would benefit Boogie: "It might toughen the boy up."

The view that detention centres and prisons are places for rehabilitation is something Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis is trying to remedy.

"There are a lot of people doing a lot of good work in our prisons, but they have to do so in a medieval system that was designed to punish people for wrongs in society which is probably the worst way to redress that behaviour," said Davis.

For more than 20 years New Zealand's prison population has been growing as the crime rate has been dropping. The country now has one of the highest imprisonment rates in the OECD - more than 50 per cent of whom are Māori, despite making up only 16 per cent of the population.

Davis is from the Ngāpuhi tribe, who account for about 50 per cent of New Zealand's 5,000 imprisoned Māori.

"We can't say we weren't warned," he said.

"Alan Duff's book, and the film, brought to light these issues and not a lot has changed. Family violence, sexual violence are still what we see in our greater prison population."

In fact, compared with 31 jurisdictions in Europe, the United States and Australia, New Zealand's prisons have the highest percentage of sentenced prisoners convicted of violent (18.5 per cent) and sexual (25.2 per cent) offences, according to Corrections.

One programme that is helping Māori men is wananga inside prisons, helping them to connect with true Māori beliefs and concepts.

"I spoke with a man released from prison in Whanganui who wanted to transfer all the things he had learnt in prison, like saying a karakia before dinner, and his family thought he had stepped in from a different planet," Davis said.

"What we also include the family in is the rehabilitation so they know why a parent is acting different and understand why the changes are being made," he said.

A key part of the programme is finding positive role models, particularly when a child has a parent in prison.

In 2011, a Pillars report claimed that at any one time more than 20,000 children in Aotearoa have a parent in prison.

Under the previous Government, the country had been looking at a future of mega-prisons, similar to those in the US.

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