Māori Party founder and Whānau Ora architect, Dame Tariana Turia. (Photo: Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency)

The children come first: A day at the Oranga Tamariki hui

Ātea editor Leonie Hayden headed out to the hui for a Māori-led inquiry into Oranga Tamariki, the Ministry for Children, and found a unified Māori force that has decided enough is enough.

When first announced, Saturday’s Oranga Tamariki hui was to be hosted at Ngā Whare Waatea marae in Māngere. When four times the projected number of people registered to attend, its organiser, the Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency, had to cap registration and find a new venue. Requests for registration continued to flood in by their hundreds and the hui was moved to the substantially larger airport Holiday Inn.

Such is the strength of feeling for an independent, Māori-led inquiry into Oranga Tamariki, the Ministry for Children, or more specifically their practices around removing at-risk children from their families.

Māori children are over-represented in statistics around state removal, as are all indigenous children in colonised countries. As at June 30 2018, around 4260 Māori children were in state care, about 67% of the total – a number that has nearly doubled since 1989. An investigation by Newsroom’s Melanie Reid, who filmed an interaction between the state agents (police, Family Courts and Oranga Tamariki), and an overwhelmed new mother in a Hawke’s Bay hospital, exposed the reality of the state’s power to use what’s known as an order ex parte. This allows the state to remove a child without consulting family, based on the evidence of only one state social worker. 

Both the line-up of speakers and the audience was made up of a who’s who of Māori leadership. People filed promptly into the large conference room at 9am, each sporting a coloured wristband that determined one of four workshops they would attend later in the day, separating out researchers and academics, clinicians and health professionals, social and community practice workers and whānau who had been directly affected by the removal of children. 

While waiting for the speakers, justice reform advocate Moana Jackson shared with me his desire to see the inquiry take the time it needs to implement new structures. “If we make too much haste, if we rush, we’re not going to be able to cover all of the issues. 

“There are lots of whānau directly affected by this whose voices need to be heard, and that can’t be done quickly. But I also don’t want us to still be talking about this in five years time and nothing has changed.”

He anticipates opposition from the Crown, the same barriers facing all kaupapa Māori initiatives striving for meaningful change in Māori lives. “In the end the solution requires a transfer of power, a recognition of rangatiratanga, a recognition of the fact that there’s nothing in the Treaty that gives the Crown the authority to take our mokopuna, or the authority to imprison our people.”

The walls of the Oranga Tamariki hui were covered in thoughts and recommendations from the hundreds of people in attendance. (Photo: Awerangi Tamihere)

Kaikarakia Rangi McLean, chairman of Manurewa marae, kicked off proceedings before passing over to the day’s MC, Māori Television CEO Shane Taurima, who quickly laid out the structure of the day and introduced the first speaker, Labour MP Willie Jackson.

Jackson began by emphasising that he was not partaking in the hui as a politician, nor were those in attendance from the Māori Party, the Greens or “the blinking National party!”, which got easy laughs.

“I’m not surprised they turned up because first and foremost they’re Māori.”

He paid tribute to the women that drive community work at Ngā Whare Waatea, the urban marae and service provider where he is chair, especially the work of his mother, Dame June Jackson. 

“We’ve been doing this work for three decades. [Mum] used to go in and take babies, but she’d clear the bloke out and take mum too. ‘Get out of the way’, she’d say, and pull the baby and the mother out.

“We all know we have to protect our babies sometimes, and protect our whānau. We’re not stupid. But the time of forgetting about us – kaumātua, extended whānau, hapū and iwi – has to be over.”

Head of the Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency, Merepeka Raukawa-Tait spoke of the swiftness of the response to the Newsroom story, and the number of people that got in touch with Whānau Ora looking for answers. “You were, in fact, quite demanding,” she told the room. “It was obvious that nothing less than an inquiry by Māori, for Māori, with Māori would be acceptable to you.”

Dame Iritana Tāwhihwirangi gives her thoughts to the Radio Waatea hosts, who broadcast live from the hui throughout the day. (Photo: Leonie Hayden)

The most enthusiastic response was reserved for the third speaker, Jean Te Huia, the Ngāti Kahungunu midwife at the centre of the Newsroom story, who along with family members was locked out of the hospital room while state services attempted to uplift the child. She was forceful in her criticism of the current Oranga Tamariki processes:

“When I talk to you about how whānau feel I’m talking from my heart. I’ve felt it, I’ve seen it, I’ve heard it and I don’t want to hear anymore. We need justice for our families.”

She relayed harrowing stories of children abused in state care and questioned why children taken from mothers in Auckland are placed in the South Island, why siblings are separated and why an overseas agency has registered caregivers here. 

Te Huia finished by encouraging those heading into the workshops to “open the doors. Open the floodgates… Disrupt, get as much information as we can to change what we can.

 “This isn’t done in anger,” she added. “This is done because we have a right to do it. We have a right as tangata whenua to stand up for our babies.”

Before heading into the panel discussion, Waipareira Trust’s chief executive John Tamihere offered some sage advice: to try to put mamae aside for the day so that minds were focused on strategy. “We understand that [pain], that’s why we’re all here. We’re not looking at recovering yesterday, but seizing the direction and the control of our future ”

At this point the panel of kaumātua were introduced, a pae so heaving with mana I thought the stage might collapse. Whānau Ora architect Tariana Turia, health and education advocate Rangimarie Naida Glavish, Kōhanga Reo founder Iritana Tāwhiwhirangi, Ngāi Tahu leader Mark Solomon, education pioneer Mason Durie and former Māori Council co-chair Maanu Paul were each asked to give their comments on why they supported a Māori inquiry and what they hoped the outcome would be.

Turia spoke of bravery, and a people at war. She asked that people trust each other and have faith in their abilities, and to focus on whakapapa. “When we focus on that, we know where children should be going.”

Glavish appealed to the room not as a leader but as a mother, grandmother and great grandmother, boasting of her 32 great-mokopuna to much laughter and applause. “My call today is to the grandmothers.” She reminded the room of the meaning of tamariki.

“Tama-ariki. Our children are born ariki.” She finished with an anecdote familiar to her whanaunga, a quote by “Arapeta” Einstein, who she said comes from the shores of the Kaipara: “No problem will ever be solved in the same consciousness that created it.”

Dame Rangimarie Naida Glavish addresses the crowd. (Photo: Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency)

At 90 years old, Iritana Tāwhiwhirangi is still a formidable presence. She spoke of a recent uplift from a Kōhanga Reo, the first in the country. “What a nerve!” she raged.

Tāwhiwhirangi highlighted the great work of kaupapa Māori initiatives, from Te Matatini to the Māori Women’s Welfare League – but was quick to point out that too many Māori agencies are operating in silos, making them easier to undermine by the state. This was met with many murmurs of agreement. She called for unification under Whānau Ora, a sentiment that would be echoed many times over the course of the day. She gave credit to the Māori Party for uniting te ao Māori on the seabed and foreshore issue, and urged people to come together once more.

Mark Solomon panned many of Oranga Tamariki’s processes, giving examples of unnecessary bureaucracy that negatively impacts on children, but cautioned that not every Māori community was operating with the necessary openness .

“In some of our communities there’s a deafening silence… what we tend to do as whānau is: ‘it’s not my family, it’s that one over the road.’

“We have to challenge what Oranga Tamariki is doing but we have to take some responsibility for ourselves.”

Now in his eighties, Mason Durie’s spark is not dimmed. He thanked the organisers for the invitation to speak, then joked: “Actually it wasn’t an invitation, it was an instruction.”

He posed a question for the workshops: “Do we put our efforts in trying to fix something that’s broken? Or do we design something new that will be tailor-made for our futures?”

Echoing Tāwhiwhirangi, he pointed out that a near-perfect system with a successful track record already exists. “We’ve got Kōhanga Reo, kura kaupapa Māori, whare kura, we’ve got kaupapa Māori health and social services. We’ve got Whānau Ora, we have a whole range of very well-qualified people. The only thing is… all of those people are accountable to an agency of the state.”


Read more: The call from the hui was loud and clear: give us back our kids


There was an air of purpose and anticipation heading into the lunch break. I got talking to a woman from a rangatahi youth suicide prevention NGO in Northland. She was about to participate in the wānanga for hauora and health practitioners, although she told me she could have easily been in the group for affected whānau. 

She shared with me how inspired she was not only by the speakers, but the structure of the hui. She was already formulating a plan for a national hui for rangatahi, by rangatahi, away from the expectations of adults. “They know what the problems are and what they need.” Breaking away into smaller wānanaga, she said, was a clever way to acknowledge that Māori are a diverse group and while our goals may be shared, an acknowledgement of different approaches is important. 

Kaimahi in the community and social practise wānanga. (Photo: Te Whānau o Waipareira)

After the break, people headed into their respective workshops. Media were asked not to attend the whānau wānanga, so I started with the researchers, students and academics. Researcher Rihi Te Nana had been brought in to run the workshop, a last minute replacement for her colleague Leonie Pihama, a leading voice in the response to Oranga Tamariki. She explained that the groups’ leaders had been asked to take five clear recommendations back to the advisory committee.

She asked the group to think back to the founding legislators for all state removal of indigenous children, the British House of Commons Select Committee on Aboriginals dating back to 1837, who created an assimilation template that was applied across the Commonwealth. 

“Consider that the system is not broken, but it’s doing what it was always meant to do.”

My aim to sit quietly and observe was swiftly disrupted as the room broke into smaller groups and we were tasked with mind-mapping specific recommendations. Finding myself in a group with a number of family lawyers, and having no professional knowledge to contribute myself, I offered to write up notes on a large sheet of paper. The lawyers were of the opinion that the legislation was sound, but it was administered poorly. All agreed the Family Court and the cultural make-up of our judges required as much scrutiny as Oranga Tamariki’s uplift practises. A heated exchange broke out later when each group presented their findings, with another group disagreeing most vehemently with ours, protesting that the legislation was in fact the root of the problem. Their recommendation was the immediate abolition of Section 78 of the Oranga Tamariki Act, relating to ex parte custody orders. I slipped out to find another wānanga with the sounds of good natured argument ringing in my ears. 

I couldn’t have found a more different environment in the kaimahi, community and social practice room. It was a considerably larger group, and I entered amidst a discussion about how social workers in different agencies – whether Oranga Tamariki, community services or NGOs – could better support one another. One group were advocating for a ‘Nannies Army’, giving kaumatua and older whānau, as holders of knowledge, more power in decision making around child interventions.

Similarly, the health practitioners in the next room were talking about collective support for Māori health practitioners operating in both Māori and Pākehā PHOs. They also demanded greater transparency of funding models, a sector-wide recognition of the effect of intergenerational trauma on health, and for the terms of reference to be considered under Te Tiriti (as distinct from ‘the Treaty’). 

At 2pm everyone came back together in the main hall to share their collective findings. Overwhelmingly, people were calling for kotahitanga and to be lead by Whānau Ora, in some cases calling for all state intervention services to be passed to Whānau Ora. Each wānanga had referenced Puoa-Te-Ata-Tu otherwise known as the Rangihau Report – a 1986 report on the effects of racism within the then Department of Social Welfare. Brutally honest about the effects of colonisation and the systemic racism that continues to disadvantage Māori, John Rangihau’s report was shelved and all its recommendations ignored. Across the board, people agreed that no more research was needed, nothing had changed since 1986. No more intellectualising issues that need immediate, practical solutions.  

The recommendations from the whānau group contained some of the most urgent calls to action – more local support and resources for whānau to access, and robust legal advocacy, not just legal aid.

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Mason Durie as a representative of the government advisory committee presented their own recommendations, including the creation of a secretariat to operate in the Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency, and a subsequent hui to be hosted by the Kiingitanga.

Dame Iritana Tāwhiwhiranga had the last word, where she lamented Māori dependency on Crown funding. “I’m going to set up a Givealittle page!” she quipped, before sending people off with a resounding “Kia mau te wehi o tēnei hui.”

Over the course of the day, I didn’t see any denial that many Māori children were in need of emergency intervention, nor did I see anyone solely placing the blame at Oranga Tamariki’s feet. But overwhelming, the call was for Māori solutions to Māori problems, which requires unification. Whānau Ora came through loud and clear as the agency of choice to lead a unified movement.

In the end, as identified by Matua Moana Jackson earlier in the day and echoed by Mason Durie, it’s a question of sovereignty. Like the seabed and foreshore, or language reform, or the land marches before that, Māori have reached another flashpoint that requires a nationwide challenge to authority. Tino rangatiratanga is within reach, the only thing standing in its way is the Crown’s inability to cede power. 


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