There are about 6300 children currently in state care. This is the true story of two of those children, Gabriel and Jesse. It is based on the facts, as told to Stuff by staff at Oranga Tamariki. All names have been changed.

Social worker: We’ve had another  call about these two kids, Jesse  and Gabriel. The history’s not  great. We’ve had a lot of calls  about them in the past few  years, to different offices.  But every time we move in,  they leave town.

The children’s dad, Fred, has had custody of the children since their mother was found to be hitting one of them, as well as abusing drugs and alcohol. But Fred has problems of his own. 

Woman caller: The Dad's a meth head, for sure. He's paranoid, reckons everyone's out to get him.
Woman caller: Nah, I don't know if he's still on it. I don't like the look of it.

When they arrive in another new town, the family is living in a tent at a campground. Again, people are worried.

Man caller: Those kids shou;dn't be living like that, its not right. The other night I heard him whack one of them, I'm sure of it.
Man caller: I had a go at him about it, but he just bailed.
Policeman caller: Yeah, they moved here a couple of months ago. We've all been a bit worried. It's a tight-knit community.
Policeman caller: People say they've seen the dad yelling at the kids, and driving them around unrestrained. They all look unkempt.
Red-haired woman caller: Yes, we've been worried. Sometimes we don't see them at school for days.
Red-haired woman caller: We tried to talk to Dad, but he's very defensive.

Oranga Tamariki was getting more and more concerned about Jesse and Gabriel. One of its social workers confronted Fred, for a third time.

Beach scene: I stayed out of swinging range.
Woman in beach scene: You've got to stop lying! If you want to keep your kids, there has to be a safety net of people looking out for you.
Beach scene: But he wasn't interested in working with us

More reports came in ...

Elderly lady caller: Well, I don't know, but the kids are left alone a lot, and they look dirty.
Elderly woman caller: And his driving! He's so erratic, and the kids never have seat belts on.
The family moved again. This time to a more isolated spot.

Over a period of three years they moved 18 times


…and the reports kept coming in…

Yellow-shirt man caller: The kids are always late to school. They're bedraggled, and they've got scratches all over their legs.
Yellow-shirt man caller: We think they might be living in a hut in the bush? I'm not sure there's even electricity up there.
Blonde-haired woman caller: Yeah, of course we're worried about Fred and the girls. He's my brother, but what can we do?
Blonde-haired woman caller: You can't get through to him, he's a loose unit. Believe me, I've tried.

Oranga Tamariki's main concern was Fred would take off again. He had said he would kill anyone who tried to take the kids off him.

A social worker talked to Gabriel, the older girl, at school.
She suspects they're being hit
Social worker: That was enough for an urgent custody order. Oranga Tamariki decided to act.
The next day at school ...
Social worker: Okay, guys, we want you to be safe, and right now we think being with Dad isn't the best thing for you. So we're going on a little trip together.
Gabriel: Where are we going?

Gabriel and Jesse don’t know what’s happening. They’re driven a long way to a big building in the city, where they have a shower and eat some noodles.

car travelling to the city

Meanwhile, a social worker goes with the police to tell Fred what has happened.

Policeman in car: I'll just radio in - reception can be patchy out here.
Social worker in police car: There he is. I'll just give him the Custody Order.
Fred driving off: You can't take my kids!
Policeman: He's too late.
Social worker: Let's go
ten weeks later Gabriel and Jesse have yet another new home.
Social Worker: Yep, so we've had an evidential video interview where the kids disclosed physical abuse by Dad.
Social Worker: The whole whanau came in for a family group conference, but dad just minimised everything.
Social worker: They're in permanent care now, and he's up on charges.
Social worker: Do you know, the last thing I said to them?
Social worker: You'll never have to keep secrets like that again.

This isn’t the end of Gabriel and Jesse’s story.

It’s really just the beginning.

By the age of eight, most children in foster care will have been moved an average of seven times. Some have had up to 60 placements.

Around one in ten kids in care will suffer further harm, from emotional distress to physical and sexual abuse.

The majority will leave school at around age 15, without NCEA Level 2. A third will have their first conviction by this time.

Gabriel and Jesse were two of 1915 ‘entries’ into state care in the year to June 2018. In the last five years, there have been almost 10,000 ‘entries’ - an average of more than five per day.

The total number of kids in state care has increased for three years in a row.

Is this what’s best for Jesse, Gabriel and the thousands of other kids like them? Can New Zealand do better by its most vulnerable children?

Michelle Duff investigates in the four stories below.

Jesse and Gabriel’s story has been told with pseudonyms and without reference to any specific locations to protect their identities.

Sharon Murdoch
Animation & development:
John Harford
Michelle Duff
John Hartevelt