Findings of the Māori-led inquiry into Oranga Tamariki highlight the trauma and heavy-handed state approach behind New Zealand’s appalling child care and protection statistics. Teuila Fuatai looks at the key findings and reaction to it.
Dame Naida Glavish: ‘The treatment of Māori women has been inhumane’
Dame Naida Glavish led the governance group which oversaw the inquiry into the Ministry for Children Oranga Tamariki’s child uplift practises. The 11-strong committee was a who’s who of Māori leaders including four knights and five dames. Following the release of the inquiry report on Monday, Glavish also led the media charge on Oranga Tamariki. She told RNZ the report, which encompassed the experiences of 1100 people, mainly Māori, showed the Crown was not honouring Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Common and repeated stories of harrowing, heavy-handed state involvement with whānau, including the use of armed police and multiple officers to uplift tamariki, amounted to “unprecedented breaches of human rights and the treatment of Māori women has been inhumane,” Glavish said.
She called for the resignation of Oranga Tamariki boss Grainne Moss, who as chief executive is responsible for ensuring the well-being of tamariki Māori who come to the department’s attention. That responsibility is enshrined in the Oranga Tamariki legislation and relates to upholding Te Tiriti.
Notably, stories from whānau about the state’s care and protection service continues to pour into the Whānau Ora commissioning agency for the North Island, which undertook the inquiry. Stories in this week’s report were collected over September and October last year, during the inquiry’s whānau research phase. The inquiry was one of five sparked by publicity of the attempted uplift of a Māori new-born from hospital last year.
Care and protection is steeped in colonial roots, but legislation has improved
An impressive review of Crown care and protection policies and practice, dating back to the 1860s, forms one section of the report. Drawing on a range of research, it details the evolution of state care and its impacts on Māori since the 1867 Neglected and Criminal Children Act. The historical context shows today’s care and protection legislation is less racist and more informed than it has ever been – enshrining whanaungatanga and relationships of whānau, hapū and iwi with tamariki.
In its analysis of the current laws, the report examines the effectiveness of enshrining the specific rights of tamariki Māori in care and protection legislation. It focuses on changes introduced in July, using the case of a grandmother who spent five months fighting Oranga Tamariki for custody of her six-month-old mokopuna.
The case, reported by RNZ last year, culminated in a Family Court judge returning the baby to her grandmother. The judge said that under the Oranga Tamariki act, he was required to place children in whānau care when available. He also acknowledged the importance of whakapapa of tamariki Māori, and said the benefit of the baby being with her family outweighed some of Oranga Tamariki’s concerns. When asked about the case, Oranga Tamariki told RNZ it had not been aware of the grandmother’s specific concerns. While it acknowledged it should have “proceeded in a timely manner”, it said there was confusion around assessing the grandmother due to its own internal processes and court proceedings occurring simultaneously.
The inquiry report says that while new legislation appears more responsive to Māori children and their whānau, “there is great and yet unexplored potential for [it] to be used in a much more effective way to protect the rights of whānau”.
Māori do not trust the state with their tamariki
One of the report’s key themes is the inherent lack of trust whānau have in Oranga Tamariki and other Crown departments. Historical and current experiences of abuse; traumatic and aggressive uplifts; unnecessary separation of families; biased, obstructive and absent social workers; heavy surveillance of whānau; minimisation of Māori identity and tikanga; and false assurances about requirements expected of whānau wanting tamariki back – all have contributed to Māori mistrust of Oranga Tamariki, the inquiry found.
While it acknowledged progress in legislation had been made, the overwhelmingly negative feedback from participants on Oranga Tamariki and other state agencies meant little was likely to change while Pākehā organisations dominated New Zealand’s care and protection space.
“[Many Māori whānau] emphasised that Oranga Tamariki cannot possibly provide genuine care and protection for their tamariki when social workers with the wrong mentality were allowed to continue with their inappropriate practices without consequences,” the report said.
“The overwhelming conclusion from the inquiry is that the state care of tamariki and pēpi Māori, and in particular the uplift practices used by the state, are never appropriate for the long-term wellbeing of Māori.
“What is needed from Oranga Tamariki or any other state agency to ensure the wellbeing of young Māori is the re-allocation of resources to be available for high quality whānau centred kaupapa Māori services,” the report said.
Additionally, the inquiry recommended without-notice uplift orders be abolished because of the disproportionate number of Māori, particularly babies, impacted. It also recommended a structural review of Oranga Tamariki practices and systems so there is clear accountability of its actions regarding Māori.
Speaking again to RNZ, Glavish summarised the sentiment of the inquiry. “What should be considered is Māori do have the ability to look after Māori. There is a Māori intelligence that’s being ignored,” she said.
“We know who we should be dealing with in amongst our own whānau, hapū, iwi. We don’t have to send anyone else but ourselves in there. We don’t need to talk to anyone else but ourselves in there, and Māori have never been trusted to look after Māori – not by anybody, and here’s the result that we’re talking about now.”
Government response: It validates what we’re doing
Minister for children Tracey Martin told RNZ the inquiry report proved Oranga Tamariki was on the right track.
“It [the report] validates, actually, the actions that I’ve taken,” she said on Monday. “It validates the conversations I’ve been having with my colleagues and the operating model that we put into place on July 1 last year. I’m really, really pleased to get the report and the perspective and I’m really grateful for it.”
When questioned about shifting funding from Oranga Tamariki to iwi and other local services, she “absolutely” agreed and referred to the department’s new operating model and the partnerships with iwi like Tūhoe and Ngāpuhi.
Martin also commended the report for noting that Oranga Tamariki is just one part of a long line of problematic interactions between the state and Māori.
“Oranga Tamariki is often at the end of a process of neglect or abuse by the state – that’s police, that’s DHBs, that’s education. Those inequalities exists across all of these government departments. So, Oranga Tamariki cannot change all of this on its own.”
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