A large family “living rough” on the outskirts of Tiniroto has gone bush as the nation’s media tries to track them down.
Yesterday, camera crews and repo rters from at least two television channels and one national newspaper were pursuing them after East Coast MP Anne Tolley drew national attention in Parliament to their lifestyle.
Her concern was over the fact they were living in makeshift conditions and that CYF had not intervened.
The family’s 13 children were living without water, toilets and electricity and had not been attending school since August last year, she said.
But those who know the family say they are a “very loving” family whose only fear is being separated.
Sandra and Peter Smith, both in their 40s, in fact have 16 children, aged between 1 and 17, and have been living at various locations around Te Reinga, Tiniroto and Wairoa.
The children are described as happy, helpful and healthy, with the older ones helping out with the younger ones.
It is understood the family were victims of a violent home invasion in September 2006, when men brandishing guns, softball bats and bars forced their way into their Naenae home.
They have been transient ever since.
The family have applied to the Ministry of Education to home-school their children.
Nancy Brooking, who lived with the family for about five months when they stayed at her Te Mokai property, said both parents were very committed to their children’s education.
“The children were delightful, so happy and so respectful . . . if they saw me doing something, they would run over to help me.
“But they didn’t have the resources, they didn’t have anything.”
Ms Brooking worked in psychological services for 12 years at Rimutaka prison and said she has seen the end result of children who were not cared for.
“If this couple can get the support they need to continue to raise their children as they are, then the children will not end up where I’ve just come from. They are well cared for.”
The Smith children did not have any behavioural problems, she said.
Ms Brooking said she felt disillusioned after numerous approaches to agencies to get the family help with the resources they needed.
Social agencies seemed to view the parents as irresponsible in the way they looked after their children, when in fact it was quite the opposite, she said.
“They look at her and ask ‘why did you have all these children?’ In my tribe she would be a gem . . . I find her just amazing,” she said.
“She taught her children how to cook, how to grow vegetables and wanted to incorporate that into their education. She also taught them singing and interacting with each other.
The children had been to school but were subject to bullying and teasing about being poor and coming from a large family.
“They were teased about the fact they didn’t have what other children had, didn’t have the lunch that other children had — they just had peanut butter and bread.
“There was no bullying at home, no swearing — the older ones would always support the smaller ones. They are a really tight family unit.”
Ms Brooking said the parents struggled with transport costs getting the children to and from school.
She described Peter Smith as a quiet, reserved man who was very capable and intelligent.
“He was a top athlete when he was a young lad, but he had to leave school early to help his father.”
“I saw the same athletic ability in the children — they are very, very athletic.” .
Their dream was to have a little property where they could grow vegetables, home- school and raise their children, she said.
Ms Brooking said the conditions she was offering them were sub-standard and it began to worry her that the children were living in rooms that were leaking and the parents were sleeping on the floor.
But the family would rather stay together in sub-standard circumstances than have the children farmed out.
Ms Brooking said she asked agencies for help in improving conditions so the family could stay there, but received none.
The parents lived in fear of having the children taken away from them because of the substandard conditions.
They left Te Mokai and went to a campsite at Tiniroto over summer. From there, they moved down the road to a relative’s house at Te Reinga.
Neighbours say the parents kept to themselves but the children could often be seen playing in the yard, running around and laughing.
“The only crying we heard was from the wee baby. We never heard any fighting,” said the neighbour.
Child Youth and Family have said they will co-ordinate the support of other relevant agencies to help the family.
“The family have told us they are very upset at the large amount of personal information regarding them and their circumstances that has been discussed in public,” said national media adviser Lee Harris Royal.
“They have asked us to protect their privacy by not commenting on the family’s affairs in the media.
“We intend to respect their wishes.”
“Child, Youth and Family have been working with this family to find a solution to the issues they face.
“We will continue to do so. We are committed doing all in our power to support and strengthen this whanau.”