A letter on how you have let my whanau down, a million times over. Names have been changed to protect the children's identity.
For me, it all started in 2003. But really, if you think about it, it started before that. When the mum, who was 18 had a baby and never stopped taking drugs. Not for the pregnancy and not after he was born. Let’s call him Leonard. Leonard was a lovely boy, such a cute kid with big brown eyes and curly hair. Like any normal boy he loved zooming his cars around the room and riding his “big boy” bike.
The first time that I realised things weren’t right, was when he was 3. His little brother was born (let’s call him Samson). We were proud Aunty and Uncle visiting the new baby. He had blonde hair and vibrant blue eyes and was the sweetest little cherub. These boys had so much going for them. A whole future.
The house was stark, empty, bare. Clean though, but honestly, the only time I’ve ever seen it that way. Realisation one, was looking in Leonards’ bedroom and seeing a bed, an old sheet and duvet and two toys sitting on the floor. There was a battered wooden chest of drawers in the corner of the room, next to the peeling wallpaper. The room was basically empty, no pictures hung on the wall, no posters, no favourite teddy, no discarded baby toys to pass on to the new brother. But I was just being rude right? My middle class, white, expectations of what a kids’ bedroom should contain. My sister in law was poor, on a benefit, she loved her kids. So maybe I shouldn’t be so judgy. But the dad had been off his rocker when Samson was born, off on the piss while his partner went into labour. We were there to witness it and we didn’t like it.
Leonard had two toy cars and a plastic trike to ride on. That was the full list of everything he owned in the world. He sat in the corner of the lounge. There was nowhere to sit, just a broken down peach coloured couch that sat neglected in the corner of the room, while we sat on the musty smelling carpet. There were steep stairs to the front door, with no childs’ gate to stop a wayward toddler from falling. The mum said she was hoping so and so would buy her one.
The dad and the two flat mates start toking up in the kitchen. Burning spotty’s on the stove. Mum was on the floor with us breast feeding her 3 day old son. The house was open plan and small, so they were taking their drugs within a metre of a breast feeding baby and 3 metres away from a car playing toddler. I looked at my then partner and we shared a look that only couples can. The dad offered the drugs, did we want some? Me: No, there are kids around. Did the mum want some? She stared at us. It was obvious. That yes, she very much did. This was one of those pauses that you see in the movies and read about in books and don’t actually think happen in real life. It was obvious she wanted drugs. And just as clear we disapproved of her having them. We both knew that the other knew and still we stared. Then Leonard came running over to his mum threw his arms wildly around her neck and screamed, pleaded, begged: NO, mummy! don’t!
15 years later his cries still ring in my ears.
It took me some time, years in fact, and having kids of my own, mulling over what I’d seen, before I realised what it actually meant. Leonard was 3, he knew his mummy took drugs and he really didn’t like it when she did. She obviously took drugs a lot to have that kind of emotional reaction and she’s obviously been taking them recently. She had just had a baby. Which means she took drugs, a lot, when she was pregnant.
We walked home after that and talked about what we’d seen. We didn’t like it at all. But what could we do? Who could we tell? How could we help? We didn’t think it was bad enough to call CYFS, and quite frankly we were young and that seemed way too scary. We thought we could help the mum, look after the kids, buy them toys, help out where we could. So we did. We visited as often as we could, bought Leonard a big boys bike, the green machine and just tried to be a good Aunty and a good Uncle and maybe things would get better?
It’s obvious they didn’t right? I don’t need to say that things got not only worse but much, much, worse.
Fast forward two years later. The drugs had escalated. Gone from regular pot use to regular P use. New flat. Broken windows. Holes punched in walls. Kittens with so many fleas on them they died. Dad off his rocker always shit faced, violent, controlling and abusive. Never actually hit the kids though. Pushed the mum around when he thought he could get away with it. If he's not punching her and they don't have bruises, it's not abuse, right?
When he was mellow he played computer games, violent R18 ones. In front of the kids. Sometimes with them on his lap. Mum, pregnant again, and 2 kids were taken, rescued, by family out of that house. Dad came to the safe house and took the kids. In the middle of the night. And took them back to the house with broken windows and glass on the floor.
We got them back in the morning. The resonating part for me was the bare pantry, it may not seem like the worst thing, but I’m a feeder, a nurturer. And to me literally not having any food is the worst of the worst. The only food in the sparse fridge was a crust of mouldy bread and a half open can of baked beans. That was it. Anyway, getting the kids somewhere safe wasn't easy. The mum loved the dad and wanted to be with him. There was violence. Fists in faces of my mother in law and babies, my baby. What kind of mother am I? Bringing my kid into this world of violence and drugs and inescapable horror? I vowed NEVER to have any of my children around the dad ever again (I did. Once. Four years later, in an effort to make amends. I regretted it again and never repeated the mistake). I sat with the kids and read them stories, tried to keep them out of the horror. Then dad snatched Leonard. So we got the police involved and got Leonard back.
We, the family, tried to keep the mum and the dad apart. He was obviously not good for her, controlling, abusive, violent. But she loved him. And she loved the drugs. So after a few months, a dropped court case for custody and an eff you I’m taking him back, from her. For the first time, we called CYFS.
I called CYFS. My husband was too scared to. Felt bad about calling CYFS on his own sister. But I knew I had to do it. The kids needed protecting. Someone had to step up. The judge from the custody case also contacted CYFS. And another family member also separately called CYFS. Because the judge called, we got an intervention. Although, I’m always the one that gets blamed for it, for getting CYFS involved, it actually wasn’t my call that made the difference.
We had an FGC, for those that aren’t in the know, that’s a Family Group Conference. Where all the family members are invited to talk about the situation, about the kids and what needs to be done to improve their safety. The drugs were obviously the crux of the matter. But CYFS refused to do anything about the drugs. Drugs aren’t a problem unless it’s affecting the kids they say. WTF how is it not affecting the kids? I think they were drug tested and failed. I think they were supposed to go to CADs but never did? My memory is a bit shady on the facts, but I do remember how I felt. Frustrated that CYFS didn’t take our concerns seriously, disbelief that they kept brushing off how much of a problem the drugs were. Laughing at an ex drug addict turned evangelical bible basher brother of dad saying they need to get married and find God, cos that will solve all their problems.
Nothing changed. They moved away. Out of our home town and down country. Out of our reach. CYFS dropped the ball and never forwarded the case, so they were never followed up in their new town. This is the second major way CYFS let us down.
There was a long time, where we did nothing. We hardly ever saw the mum or the dad or the kids. They had a 4th baby, we’ll call her Poppy. The 3rd baby we’ll call Stacey.
So that’s four babies all two years apart. Benefit. Poverty. Living in complete squalor. The most dirty, disgusting house I have ever seen. Dishes piled up, fridge not working, mouldy food. Dirt everywhere. Something out of a Charles Dickens novel. Except this is 1st world country New Zealand, 2008. Mum and dad taking P every day. The mum and dad lost their teeth from all the drugs. The mum looks 20 years older than what she actually is and was always anorexic-ally thin. Her breath stank from her rotting teeth. The primary aged children were getting their hands on alcohol and reportedly drugs and trying them out. Benefit money comes in at midnight. Dad is down the street at 12.01am buying drugs. No money for the week for food, for the power bill, for stuff the kids need. No money left.
It was like this for years and we did nothing. Felt we couldn’t. Had our own lives to live, our own babies to raise. It was put in the too hard basket. We'd already tried, right?
Youngest girl wee dare devil, drove the car at 6 and crashed it across the street and into a bush. At 3, she used to dangle herself out of windows, with a 2 metre drop to the ground. Fell off her bike at 5, got a massive slash in her stomach from some rusty handle bars. I noticed the scar years later and asked her about it. She never saw a Dr, never got stitches. Mum put a big plaster on it. Mum was, no doubt, too high to bother taking her kid to the hospital or A and E.
How are these kids still alive?! It's actually a miracle. CYFS you let these kids down.
I started university, had three kids of my own. I learnt a lot about poverty and the impacts that has on health and how it’s caused by our systems and our institutions. I realised, if the mum were to ever want to get out of whatever it was she as in, she may need a friend. So, I started texting her, just funny stories about the kids, kept in touch and when the shit hit the fan - we found out a child’s head had been slammed through a window, which smashed on impact - she agreed to go to women’s refuge.
They stayed with us for 6 weeks, we had 10 people in a tiny 3 bedroom house. We maxed out our credit card feeding them and then were hit with astronomical power and water bills. It took us YEARS to pay off the debt. But we didn’t mind. Things were getting better. We found her a new place, helped her move into it, cleaned up her old disgusting squalor Charles Dickens place, scrounged around and got lots of free stuff for her and her kids, so they had warm blankets, pillows, duvets, beds, pots, cups, pans. Once they were moved, we brought them milk from my work, big boxes of fruit, food. Popped in and visited, for a coffee, for a catch up. Even bought the coffee.
I, in my naivety, thought that this was it, the mum had turned a corner and things were going to be different. I asked her: will you ever go back to him. She said: I don’t want to live like that anymore.
Can you see it? I didn’t. I should have read between the lines. Listened to what wasn’t being said.
She went back to him. We got CYFS involved. We had another FGC. Again we felt our concerns were being brushed aside. The drugs aren’t a problem unless they affect the kids, was their standard line. Another FGC and another FGC and finally the kids are old enough to say: our parents take lots of drugs, we have no food. We don’t like it. We don’t like our dad living here.
Success! Dad no longer allowed in the family home. Mum and dad must get off drugs. Drug tests will be done. I said: if you don’t we’ll take the kids off you. CYFS said: hmmm we’re not at that stage yet. Really?
That was Friday. This is Monday. I get a text from mum: please come, Dad has hung himself.
Of course, I go immediately. My poor nieces and nephews. One of them told him to piss off. To leave. Then opened the bedroom door and saw him swinging.
We looked after the kids, they stayed at our house, while I took the mum to the hospital. A two or three week stint in ICU and dad has recovered. We’ve returned to the battle of keeping him away.
Getting the mum to do things to protect her children, getting custody, supervised visitation rights only etc. Like pulling teeth. She didn’t want to and she never did. She never did anything to protect the children from him. Another FGC. And another. These FGC's were coming thick and fast now, one every 3 months. I can’t tell you how many FGC’s we had. Plenty. None of the things that were supposed to happen as part of the agreement, ever happened. They were a complete waste of time and tax payers’ money.
We made a formal complaint about CYFS, for not doing their job and protecting the kids. We even went to the Human Rights Commission. If the social worker and the CYFS team had done their job, the dad would never have been there to hang himself. The kids would never have seen it, because no doubt its going to f*** them up for the rest of their lives. Do you realise how much damage that has done to the children? They denied all our claims.
There was me: I had to make a decision. The mum had made hers. I had tried to help the mum, but I felt I needed to put the kids needs first and that meant, I felt, going against the mum. I said: if mum doesn’t get off the drugs and start protecting the children we’re going to take the kids off her. This time CYFS said, yes, we won’t instigate that move, but we will support it by paying the court costs.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t want to be the bad one that was responsible for taking the kids off their mother, who they loved and still love. And what about the impact on me? On my studies? On my relationship with my husband? On my own children? I would have 7 kids! In a 3 bedroom house! It’s not what I wanted at all, but I thought the mum might take it seriously. That it might scare her into actually being drug free, sorting out her head and moving on.
It worked. For a bit.
Then she got back with the dad. They moved again, up North. I tried everything I could to stop it. I couldn't understand how they were allowed to move away from the family that was working so hard to protect them. It did not make sense. But all our efforts failed. They left. And they didn’t say goodbye. I will never forgive the mum for taking my nieces and nephews away and not letting us say goodbye. I understand it. But I will never forgive it.
At the beginning, I got lots of calls from the kids. They were homeless, living in motels and homeless shelters and sleeping under tables in their dads tiny flat. They were scared. They were unhappy. Aunty help. I was in class when I got a barrage of these calls. I had to call the Police for them, because the kids were too scared to. One kid had locked herself in a bathroom to hide from her dad. I had to introduce myself in class. I couldn’t do it, I just wept. And then I said sorry for being a dick and everyone laughed. I was actually really embarrassed. I’m not a crier and I definitely don’t bawl in public. But I felt so powerless, they now lived hours away and it was so much harder to help them. Before, when things were bad they’d walk over to our house. They can’t do that now. I felt like I had failed them.
I made sure CYFS up north were involved. CYFS passed it onto some unit or other that was supposed to be good, but wasn’t. We got out of the loop. Weren’t allowed to contact the children’s unit, without the mum's permission, which she obviously didn't give. We were blocked from the kids’ accounts on Facebook. So contact was now actually impossible. Weren’t allowed any contact with the kids and when we did wrangle it they would tell us lies, or say “My mum said, I’m not allowed to talk to you Aunty, cos you might call CYFS.”
Two years went by and a lot changed. The kids got involved in gangs, drugs, alcohol, shop lifting, and under age sex. The c word was liberally used on social media accounts. They got a tattoo gun and gave themselves lots of home done tattoos. Leonard dropped out of school at 16, his girlfriend started living with them at about the same time. The two girls missed a lot of school. Two whole years of school for one of them. That’s the first 2 years of high school for the eldest. That’s TWO WHOLE YEARS! And the Ministry of Education knew and did nothing. They have let our kids down. CYFS also knew and also did nothing. I will never understand how these kids have slipped through the cracks so many times.
I found out about it, about the no school at all after the first missed year and rung CYFS. They weren’t interested. We don’t care. You don’t know enough. Missing school isn’t a care and protection issue. Ring the Ministry of Ed. So I did. And after a barrage of phone calls and emails, where we had one argument where he didn’t believe me she wasn’t at school because there was no truancy report and I insisted that she wasn’t at school, as there were photos of her on fb hanging out with her mum. He said he’d look into it. Never did. And never replied to any of my emails or phone calls there after. A year later and she’s still not in school, fast forward to now and she’s still not in school. She hasn’t even done year 9. But she has 15 tattoos and a 19 year old boyfriend who is in a gang.
But let me back up. They got kicked out of their rental, up North. They had nowhere to go. They were homeless. Again. Do you know what that does to a kid? Being homeless? When your most basic needs aren’t met and you live in fear of where you’ll sleep the next night? They decided to come back down to our town and stay here. They couch surfed until they found a motel. Contact between us was limited. Mainly the kids using Facebook when they wanted something.
But things are different. The mum and dad are back on drugs have been for some time. But the kids seem to be ok with it, in fact, they’re joining in. The kids are allowed to do whatever they want, whenever they want and they love it. They no longer hate their dad, they think he's great, his gang friends are cool, drugs are cool, getting wasted is awesome. They find a house after several months in a motel and move ten minutes down the road from us. Since then, around 5 months, we have had next to no contact with the mum or with her kids. We have tried. But we never get replies. The kids have changed, they have spent the last two years being brain washed by their mum about how horrible I am. How I am interfering, a bitch. I'm only guessing what's been said, but I know, despite everything, it’s not good.
I contact CYFS again. But this time, instead of ringing the call centre to get the brush off, I contacted all the people who were previously involved in the case. None of them are in the same positions. But my email got forwarded on and nearly 4 months later we had a social worker, right before Christmas. So she couldn’t really do much. Now it’s February and I know she’s done something because the death threats have started again.
Did I not mention that before? This story is long, I skipped that bit out, but over the years there have been many police incidents, the dad tried to hit my husband over the head with a 2 by 4. We have received many death threats, text messages and the like. Two restraining orders have been written and we have had more police involvement then we care to recall.
I’ve told CYFS that they need to remove the children from the mums care permanently. There’s a new baby due next month. How on earth can she be allowed to keep it? Me: CYFS, you need to drug test the mum, we know she’s taking drugs now, she hasn’t stopped and she won’t. CYFS said we need to have an FGC. Have you read the file? Do you know how many FGC’s we’ve had? We’re not doing another FGC! CYFS told me there was no point. There were no foster homes they could go to and besides it’s too late, the kids are 18, 16, 14 and 12. That’s like shutting the gate after the horse has bolted and that's a quote. And we can’t take on another 5 kids. Especially ones that hate us.
So we have tried and tried and tried and done everything in our power to help these children grow into smart, capable adults who are able to contribute to society in some meaningful way. Because at the end of the day that’s what we want for our children. I hope, one day they will remember that I was there. I tried. I actually did my best. I bought you boxes of peaches and you used to sneak them and eat them in the middle of the night. When you were playing at the beach and got in water that was too deep I ran in and got you, even though it was cold and I don’t enjoy cold water. But how could I not? I took you to martial arts class every week, for years. I spent more than I could afford on birthday and Christmas presents because I knew you had nothing. We took you on day trips to the beach, on holiday camping. I did everything I could and gave you everything I had. And now I’m spent. And I don’t like it.
I make myself sound like a saint in this. I’m not. I don’t know if I made the right choices, but I always tried to and I always put the kids first. And I'm not the only family member that has been fighting for these kids.
The mum thinks I’m awful and hates me, she has turned the kids against me and now they hate me too, my own nieces and nephews. Baby number 5 is on its way. I'll never be allowed to cuddle it or bond in any way. And there is no hope. No hope for any of them and I can’t help them anymore. I love them. I want so much for them, but there is no going back from what they have seen, done, experienced. And it’s just too damn late.
We always said it’s like watching a train crash in slow motion. You want to stop it, but it’s too strong, too heavy. Now that train has crashed and there is collateral damage everywhere. I’m heart broken because I couldn’t stop what was inevitable and it shouldn’t have been inevitable. My children miss out on their family, their Aunty, their cousins and will have to grow up without them. My husband, his parents, his Aunties and Uncles are all affected by this. And now I have photos of my nieces and nephews on my wall, when they were still innocent and sweet. When they loved me and I loved them. And I cry. There is a huge hole in my life where they were and now they’re not. And I’ll never get them back.
And most importantly, what about my nieces and nephews? What will become of them? What will become of their children? How much will they cost society with their own drug taking, gang involvements, petty crime or unwanted pregnancies? Where the cycle of drug addiction, child neglect and abuse is repeated for the next generation?
What’s the point of CYFS if they don’t actually save kids? Who should be held accountable? Why didn’t the Ministry of Education step in and make sure those kids went to school? How can children in at risk situations be allowed to move to different cities and towns and not be followed up by a new CYFS department? Who’s fault is this? I always felt it was mine. But I now know it’s not.
It's too late for my whanau, but can we please make changes to our systems so it's not too late for others?
This letter was originally published anonymously HERE.