Oranga Tamariki 'weak, disconnected, unfit' – nearly all child uplifts to stop

Michael Neilson, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Wed, 29 Sep 2021, 12:23PM

Oranga Tamariki 'weak, disconnected, unfit' – nearly all child uplifts to stop

Michael Neilson, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Wed, 29 Sep 2021, 12:23PM

A damning review has found that Oranga Tamariki is a "weak, disconnected and unfit" agency - and the Government says it will cease the controversial tactic of child uplifts.

The Government has accepted all 25 recommendations to "fix" Oranga Tamariki, produced by a panel of some of the agency's strongest critics.

"The system is broken," Oranga Tamariki Minister Kelvin Davis conceded today, but he stressed the people who worked there were not.

The board, established by Davis in January, was damning not just of the child protection agency but the Crown for assuming its role in the first place.

"The Crown has assumed the lead role in supporting tamariki and whānau without really knowing how to be effective in this," report authors said.

In doing so, the Crown had "undermined the role of communities and particularly of hapū and iwi in leading their own communities".

The board called for resources and decision-making to be devolved to Māori collectives and communities, with a clear pathway for this to happen.

On Thursday Davis said the Government had accepted all recommendations.

Davis announced the review in January, just days after embattled chief executive Grainne Moss resigned.

It followed a prolonged period of intense scrutiny and criticism since the agency's inception in 2017, particularly around the disproportionate number of tamariki Māori in state care and their treatment.

The report, Kahu Aroha, was produced four months into the board's two-year appointment and was based on 70 hui across Aotearoa.

Matthew Tukaki led the review to advise Davis, who became minister after the 2020 election, on the agency's relationships with families, whānau and Māori; professional social work practices; and organisational culture.

Tukaki was also joined by Dame Naida Glavish, Shannon Pakura and Tā Mark Solomon - all "vocal critics" of the agency.

The report found Oranga Tamariki "remains necessary" and transformation was possible from within.

Recommended changes would see decision-making and resources shared "equitably" with communities to work alongside the agency in the prevention of harm against children with work starting over the next three months to engage Māori collectives and communities.

It also called for more strategic direction from the agency, and a governance board to support and examine the wider societal issues that influence much of Oranga Tamariki's work.

"It is self-centred and constantly looks to itself for answers. Its current systems are weak, disconnected and unfit for the population of tamariki it serves, and there is no strategy to partner with Māori and the community," the report said.

Tukaki said they wanted to see the primary role of Oranga Tamariki in emergency care and assisting these collectives and communities.

Oranga Tamariki would also be forced to stop majority of child uplifts, or without notice orders, instead only occurring when all avenues with community and whanau have been exhausted.

"This report will end uplifts as we have known them," Davis said.

Davis said the board's findings were "confronting".

"I asked it to get to the root of the problems with Oranga Tamariki and be completely honest with me about what it found.

"What they provided was a confronting yet powerful report and I am pleased to say the Government has accepted all their recommendations.

"From the outset of my time as Minister I have been committed to fixing the child protection system and these changes will go a long way towards doing that."

Davis said a plan was in place to follow the recommendations and an independent Governance Board established.

Davis said Oranga Tamariki staff had been doing "demanding and difficult work", but were not given adequate support.

"The new direction for Oranga Tamariki has been set. A plan has been put in place for change and alongside the members of my Ministerial Advisory Board and the leadership of Oranga Tamariki we are going to change the system.

"I want Oranga Tamariki to be the enabler that allows the regions to decide what is right for their particular area. To empower communities and Māori to help children and their families in a way that works for them."

The agency was established in 2017 to address long-standing issues at predecessor Child, Youth and Family Services, while reducing the disparities experienced by tamariki Māori.

Calls for change stem further back to 1988 with the publication of Te Puao Te Ata Tu, a Māori perspective on the Ministry of Social Development that highlighted institutional racism and urged partnership with and devolvement to Māori.

The issues facing the agency came to a head in 2019 after Newsroom published a video of the uplift of a week-old Māori baby in Hastings.

That event led to no less than five damning reviews of Oranga Tamariki and its child uplift practices: an internal review, and inquiries by Whānau Ora, the Chief Ombudsman, the Children's Commissioner, and the Waitangi Tribunal.

The Waitangi Tribunal, in its report He Pāharakeke released in April, called on the Crown to step down after finding Oranga Tamariki to be a "foundation of structural racism".

The tribunal recommended a Māori Transition Authority be established and called on the Crown to support this establishment for Māori to lead the way.

Prior to her resignation, Moss said the changes called for were happening, but would take time.

The agency has been undergoing a range of more rapid changes recently, dramatically reducing the number of children in its care and uplifts, increasing the number of social workers and enacting partnerships with iwi and hapū.

Moss' resignation was regarded by some as a necessary part of this transformation, despite her active role in securing many of those partnerships with iwi and hapū.

However, the changes had not dampened calls for a complete overhaul of the agency.

Tā Wira Gardiner, who took over from Moss as acting chief executive, recently had to shut down a care and protection residence after reports of abuse emerged.

In August Gardiner stepped aside due to health reasons, with Chappie Te Kani, Oranga Tamariki's acting deputy chief executive for governance and engagement, taking over.

The review report was originally scheduled to be completed by the end of June.

Ahead of the review release, Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said they were expecting a "by Māori, for Māori" approach to be adopted as part of any changes.

"That is the absolute minimum. Despite its name, Oranga Tamariki has had huge systemic failings, validated by review after review.

"But change and devolution needs to be something that is not just philosophical, but properly resourced.

While Te Pāti Māori was not in Parliament last term its members were active in protests against the agency and calling for reform.

Ahead of the election Te Pāti Māori campaigned on 60 to 70 per cent resources going to Māori under a new Mokopuna Māori Authority, reflecting the proportion of tamariki Māori in state care.

Ngarewa-Packer said they expected the board to have gathered feedback from across Aotearoa, and any changes to further reflect the "uniqueness of whānau and hapū".

"It needs to be ground up, and centre whānau and hapū.

"They need to be resourced and empowered to restore their mana, be able to reconnect our children back to their whānau, their whakapapa, and rebuild the community that existed before it was dismantled."