An Oranga Tamariki social worker has had to apologise to a mother for claiming “we get bonuses for children we take into care”.

The worker, who is a supervisor in the troubled ministry, later claimed the statement was a joke. Her manager told the mother in a formal letter seen by Newsroom that “this sort of conversation, even with the intention of being a joke, is inappropriate and unacceptable”, and also apologised.

The mother, whose child was subsequently ‘uplifted’ by the ministry after it claimed there was drug use in her household, was unimpressed by the comment or the apology.

Conceding she has been years ‘dry’ from alcoholism, she disputes Oranga Tamariki’s claims of drug use, saying she and her husband and child moved into a commercial premises that must have had meth contamination.

The five year-old girl was taken from them a year ago after they left that home and went to a Hauraki Gulf island home to get away from the possible drug risk. The ministry claimed they had attempted to evade supervision and uplifted the child.

As they seek legal help to challenge the uplift, the mother remains aggrieved that a ministry supervisor made the comment that “we get bonuses for every child we uplift” and “then had a giggle about it”.

The two apologies from the supervisor and her manager came a month after she complained.

The manager says: “Thank you for bringing this to my attention … I would like to offer my apologies for this incident.”

The woman who made the comment writes to apologise “for the comment that I made during a meeting held at the [local] Oranga Tamariki site.

“It is not a comment that I would normally make and it was amiss of me to continue with the flow of conversation that led to me repeating the comment that ‘we get bonuses for children taken into care’.

“I hope you can accept my sincerest apology and I want to reassure you that it is definitely not the case at all. Once again, please accept my apologies.”

The mother said the “supposed apology” came late and left her “far from impressed”.

The apology letter sent by the Oranga Tamariki worker who joked that staff got bonuses for uplifting children from their families. 

She and her husband had real concerns about Oranga Tamariki’s handling of their case – including conflicting stories, poor communication and process, and sluggish responses to requests for information, including the fact it took seven months for the ministry to send them their file.

Since Newsroom published a video story on Tuesday revealing repeated attempts by Oranga Tamariki to remove a newborn baby from its mother at Hawke’s Bay Hospital, numerous parents have made contact raising concerns about the ministry’s process and attitudes towards parents and children.

Oranga Tamariki has defended itself against criticism over its ‘uplift’ practices and the high number of Māori and Pasifika children taken from parents by saying its paramount concern is safety of the children and sometimes it must act. 

The Newsroom video can be watched here 

Meanwhile, politicians seemed to duck for cover when asked about calls for an independent inquiry.

Whānau Ora Minister Peeni Henare and Māori Development Minister Nanaia Mahuta both referred queries to Children’s Minister Tracey Martin, while a spokeswoman for Martin said she was unavailable to discuss the issue. Labour Māori caucus co-chair Willie Jackson was at a tangi and unable to speak to Newsroom.

However, Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson has backed an inquiry into Oranga Tamariki, saying it was clear the systems in place “have been very, very broken for quite some time”.

“We need a thorough look at it – I think that even just people coming forward, a place for people to come forward and share their stories but something that is very solutions-focused.”

Davidson also said she was uncomfortable with the Māori name for the ministry, as its actions “do not represent the name Oranga Tamariki at all”.

“I keep trying to think of what I can call it instead, because for me as a Māori woman it feels very wrong to be calling an organisation by that name knowing they are also creating trauma for families and children.”

The Government needed to ensure Oranga Tamariki operated within a Māori kaupapa framework, while the priority needed to be keeping babies safe with their mothers and families.

“The time for defending state practices is gone – we have to now look at the solutions that can fix this and ensure we are not going to traumatise one more baby and family.”

Davidson hoped the issue could become New Zealand’s next foreshore and seabed moment, saying politicians needed to have “open ears and open minds to receive the absolute urgency that iwi and Māori families are feeling right now for protecting our mokopuna”.

“I hope that we can continue to be strong and loud and galvanise together, and people are offering up the solutions and I hope this is something that will galvanise not just Māori but New Zealanders across the country.”

Labour’s Ikaroa-Rāwhiti MP Meka Whaitiri said too many uplifts were taking place, while she referred to Oranga Tamariki as the Ministry of Children rather than using its Māori name.

Acting as an advocate for the young mother whose experience was documented in Newsroom‘s investigation, Whaitiri had asked Oranga Tamariki for an independent investigation into what had happened – only for the ministry to reject the idea.

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