Ardern: Child uplift footage 'horrific'

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern said it was not acceptable for police to remove young children from a caregiver at night, regardless of whether there had been a breach. Photo: Don Rutherford

Footage of children being removed from their homes by police have shocked the country. Here what the politicians and the Children’s Commissioner have to say.

The Labour Party has renewed calls for a review of the Family Court system following a Newsroom investigation into children being uplifted from homes against their will.

It has been a week of smiles from the new Labour leader, and Children’s spokeswoman, Jacinda Ardern, but it was replaced with a frown after watching footage of a young girl being taken away in the night by the police.

“Oh, that’s just horrific,” she said in an interview with Newsroom.

The story has raised questions about whether the wellbeing of children are being placed at the centre of decisions being made to uplift children without warning.

Ardern said although child custody cases are often complicated, it was unacceptable for police to take away a young child at night as illustrated in the video.

“Regardless of whether or not there was a breach, the child was clearly not in an unsafe environment, my understanding was that authorities had been notified of the circumstances, if there was a lawyer for child…that’s the person who should be acting as a spokesperson for this child, that’s the one where the question should have been raised what’s the best way forward on behalf of that child right now.

“It will be obvious to anyone, regardless of whether an order had been breached, that was not the right thing to do.”

She had heard anecdotally that there had been an escalation of these type of cases, alongside orders to make children a ward of the court and it needed to be investigated.

Labour wanted to see a review of the Family Court system, to ensure children’s rights and wellbeing were being looked after.

She would also like to hear from judged about whether they felt they were getting adequate information before making decisions on granting warrants.

“Our concern is ultimately there are a number of elements of the Family Court system that aren’t putting the child at the centre, where we see outcomes that just don’t sit well or aren’t what the public would probably expect.

“We’ve been pushing for a long time for a review of the Family Court, these are the kinds of issues I’d like to see raised in that review.”

Minister says uplifts traumatising

Government ministers were quick to deflect questions on the grounds of judicial independence, but admitted some concerns about the traumatic impact of the uplifts.

Children’s Minister Anne Tolley accepted the uplifts were traumatising for children, but said the Government could not interfere with decisions made by judges.

“It is distressing, there’s no doubt it’s distressing for children, but unfortunately that’s the decision that the judge has made and those people have to carry out those orders…
“Some of that has to be the responsibility of the parents, and these issues between parents are never simple, but a judge has all that information and the court has made that decision.”

Tolley said she had been mindful of the traumatic impact of uplifts when working on legislation for the new Ministry for Vulnerable Children, allowing for “more humane” approaches involving someone like a kaumatua.

“It was one of the very strong processes that the young people said themselves to me, that traumatic incident that happened where they had their possessions packed into a black rubbish bag and that was it.”

Family Court parenting orders - as outlined in the Newsroom story - were “a different process altogether”, she said.

“It doesn’t count what the government thinks, because it is a judicial order - so it is a judicial process and that’s where the decision’s made.”

However, Tolley said she would speak to Justice Minister Amy Adams about what support was made available for children involved in uplifts.

“Regardless of what happens to the parents, I’m always focused on so what is the follow-up for that child, what trauma counselling is then put in place for the child.”

The spotlight on uplifts as a result of Newsroom’s investigation could also influence the judiciary, she said.

“I think the publicity around this might make some judges think very carefully about how those protection orders are put in place, but each case would be individual, and the circumstances around each case would be different.”

Asked if she was concerned about the use of police to enforce parenting orders, Police Minister Paula Bennett said it was their job to uphold the law and carry out the order of the courts.

“I’m sure there’s cases where they don’t agree with everything they do, but it’s their job to do it and they do that professionally,” Bennett told reporters in Parliament.
“It’s police’s job to uphold the law and it’s judges that are making those decisions so we have full respect for that. I do as the minister and I expect police to as well.”

Children’s Commissioner – footage “deeply disturbing”

Andrew Becroft, a former Principal Youth Court Judge and now Children’s Commissioner, said he could not comment on individual cases but the footage was difficult to watch.

“I’ve watched it several times now and it’s no less distressing the third time that it was the first time. I mean it’s deeply disturbing and no parent would want a child of theirs treated in that way and it’s heart-rendering and it’s not how we would ever like children treated in a civilised community, there’s no other way of saying it.”

He was quick to note that although the footage is shocking, it only portrays a small slice of the situation.

Court orders mean what they say and need to be honoured, and any concerns can be brought back to court and discussed.

Parents also needed to ask themselves if they were putting the children first.

“I think it’s worth saying in these situations it’s important for parents particularly in these traumatic custodial battles that can get very ugly that they commit themselves to putting their children’s issues at the centre.”

The footage, however, did raise questions that would benefit from robust discussion about the mechanics of how uplifts were happening, including the time and manner that they were executed.

“No-one wants children in this situation chased around the couch like an animal and removed, there’s surely better ways to do it.”