WELLINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - After a three-year battle with the New Zealand state to get her children back, Maori former nurse Ellen Hiini was recently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
She is not alone in her struggle - thousands of indigenous children have been moved into state care under a decades-long practice known as uplifting that many Maori people see as a racially skewed legacy of colonization.
“I am always anxious,” said Hiini, 53, who herself grew up in state care after she was removed from her parents aged 13.
“I didn’t realize I had been living with that shame and guilt for many years,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Hiini’s teenage daughters were taken away by the children’s ministry in 2017 after her partner was alleged to have sexually abused them, something she denies.
Indigenous rights campaigners and health experts say uplifting disproportionately affects Maori mothers, with studies showing they are more likely to fall into depression and take their own lives.
About 60% of the more than 6,000 children taken into state care in New Zealand are Maori, a group that accounts for about 17% of the population, official figures show.
The children’s ministry, known officially as the Oranga Tamariki, said family violence was the main reason for removing children, with drug and alcohol consumption also playing a part.
It acknowledged the number of Maori children in its care was disproportionately high, but said it had fallen by about a third compared to a decade ago.
“We have some challenges ahead and we have always said we can’t do this alone,” a ministry spokeswoman said in emailed comments.
The uplifting of children is among a raft of social issues to have sparked protests and led to rising discontent among the Maori, who say the government has done little to break a cycle of poverty and violence in their community.
Protesters call the children New Zealand’s “stolen generation”, echoing a term used to refer to indigenous Australians forcibly taken from their families as youngsters under an official policy of assimilation.
Maori women between the age of 15 and 44 were twice as likely as non-Maori women to die by suicide, according to Te Rau Ora, a non-governmental group that runs suicide prevention programmes for the Maori.
“Young Maori women are more likely to report depression and self-harm than men,” said its chief executive Maria Baker, who said they were also more vulnerable to domestic violence, sexual assault and institutional racism.
Between July 2018 and June 2019, 61 Maori women killed themselves, three times as many as in the same period a decade ago, data from the chief coroner’s office shows.
Resentment and tensions between the Maori people and the government boiled over last year when thousands took to the streets to demand better land rights and an end to uplifting of their children.
The country’s biggest indigenous rights protests in more than a decade, they were triggered in part by an attempt to take a newborn baby from her teenage mother in hospital that prompted outrage.
A Maori-led independent inquiry highlighted accounts of discrimination, including of Maori mothers being unfairly targeted by the children’s ministry who perceived them as unable to provide a safe environment for their children.
The panel urged the government to introduce legal reforms to end the practice and set up a national help desk manned by the Maori families who need help with caring for children, according to the report, published in February.
The children’s ministry said it would “learn and improve” following the inquiry.
The inquiry has forced New Zealand society to take a “cold hard look” at its treatment of the Maori, said David Stone, a lawyer at the Te Mata Law firm, which provides legal advice to Maori families.
Some Maori campaigners say this may be too little too late, after generations of trauma that have left many women reluctant to get seek help when they need it.
“If Maori women seek help because of domestic violence or because of issues relating to their mental health, more often than not the reaction is to take away the children,” said Prue Kapua, president of the Maori Women’s Welfare League.
“The effects on the mothers’ mental health is enormous and results in depression, anxiety and suicide,” added Kapua, whose group works with Maori women and their families.
Maori mother Stacey Maree Mills’ three sons were removed in 2017 due to family violence.
She is traumatized, but she resists using medication prescribed for anxiety, fearing it could jeopardize her chances of getting her children back.
“If a mother has had a child uplifted and gone to a doctor for medication, it is used against her in court,” said the 34-year-old.
“Since the day my children were removed, I haven’t slept properly. When you take away someone’s children, you take everything away from them.”
Reporting by Preeti Kannan; Editing by Beh Lih Yi and Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org