A group of some of the biggest names in Māoridom will launch a fourth, Māori-led inquiry into the children’s ministry, Oranga Tamariki, prompted by revelations about its policies on ‘uplifting’ babies.

The North Island Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency says it has listened to calls from those affected – a “tide of unrest” –  and decided to act. It has called a hui for a fortnight’s time to discuss the need to change Oranga Tamariki’s practices. It will also inquire into the Family Court’s actions over child uplifts.

Chair Merepeka Raukawa-Tait, a former chief executive of Women’s Refuge, told Newsroom the group waited after Newsroom’s ‘groundbreaking’ video story two weeks ago revealed attempts by the ministry to take a newborn from his teenage mother in Hawkes Bay Hospital.

“We didn’t go in all guns blazing. And we’ve been talking with each other over the last few weeks. And the call has definitely come to us to, ‘don’t sit around – act’, and show some leadership on this so we’re certainly stepping up.”

The Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency said its decision to investigate is “driven by a powerhouse of Māori leadership. The call comes from the likes of Dame Tariana Turia, who recently called for the resignation of the Oranga Tamariki CEO. As well as Whānau Ora champion Emeritus Professor Sir Mason Durie, Te Kohanga Reo founder Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi, esteemed educator Sir Toby Curtis, founding director of the Waitangi Tribunal Sir Wira Gardiner, Iwi leader Dame Naida Glavish, and urban Māori advocate Dame June Mariu.”

Raukawa-Tait said: “I think it was all the information that was coming from right throughout the country. It was not only coming through my office – it was going very directly to Tariana [Turia], it was going to Sir Mason, it was going to the New Zealand Maori Council. It was very, very disturbing what we were hearing. Not only from Māori, midwives, but from families who have had their children uplifted and, particularly though, grandparents. You know, kuias and nannies around their mokopuna and the disconnect.

“It was just too stark for us you know, everyone of us in our various areas of work were trying to help. But this is too great an issue for us to overlook and for us to just let the process run its course. We couldn’t do that.”

While three official inquiries are underway – an internal Oranga Tamariki process assisted by a nominee from Hawkes Bay iwi Ngati Kahungunu, a review of Māori baby uplifts by the Children’s Commissioner and a broader inquiry by the Chief Ombudsman – Raukawa-Tait said that was not enough.

“And that’s all very fine, but it’s not by Māori for Māori – which is the difference between the hui we’re calling,” said Raukawa-Tait. “I can assure you that when we set our terms of reference, believe me the Family Court will not be something we are going to leave out. It’s vital. It really is a crucial part of uplifting and taking the children. So we’ll be looking at all areas to do with uplifting the children and that has to be one of them.”

She said Oranga Tamariki was fundamentally flawed. “If you were starting again, would you do it this way? Because all we ever do, is we decide to make the existing organisation better.

“No – kick out the organisation, disestablish the organisation and start afresh. But don’t put all of the government resources into a government organisation. Look to strengthen the providers who are out there who can actually do something and make a difference.

“This is the time, for New Zealanders to hold the mirror up and say: ‘are we happy with what we’re seeing?’ Because we can’t be – we absolutely can’t be.”

Raukawa-Tait believed the Newsroom video story was “groundbreaking. I thought it was extremely sad. I thought it just showed New Zealanders, this is your country in the year 2019. When we talk about things getting better, when we talk about wellbeing, well let’s get down to the bloody nitty gritty. You shone a spotlight on something that the average New Zealander doesn’t even want to know about.

“First of all, they don’t know about it, but they’re actually reluctant to even want to look and think, ‘my God, is this happening in our country?’ And so you did this country a service.”

She said the current system had not dealt with problems of risks of violence to young children. “We’ve had some horrific deaths of children, Māori children, over the past 20 years. We wanted things to change but we continued to do things in the same old way. We continue to invest after the event rather than strengthening families.

“Make families resilient. Use the Māori service providers who can get into the home, that can get a foot in the door Who are trusted, who are members of their own community, who have a vested interest in seeing the children thrive.”

That could involve, for example, putting half of the $1 billion-plus extra funding for Oranga Tamariki in the Wellbeing Budget into early intervention “to getting the support to those families that are easily identifiable and to help them to be better in parenting and to get them the support and help that they need?

“And it shouldn’t be delivered by a government agency. Absolutely not. I mean, they’re not only despised, but they are actually hated by whānau Māori.”

When an uplift occurred, “basically the whānau is cut loose – if I can put it that way. They are cut loose – see ya later alligator. And the child then goes into care. And of course the families have great difficulty trying to just find out what’s happened. Nobody is actually interested in the family after that. And that is most distressing.”

The Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency has called a national hui at Ngā Waatea Marae, Mangere for Saturday July 13 to launch the Māori-led inquiry into “the way this multi-billion dollar government agency operates against its statutory obligations to Māori.”

The agency’s statement said: “Catastrophic figures around the number of Māori children caught up in this increasingly failing system has fuelled the tide of unrest among Māori. An overloaded workforce on the ground working with these whānau every day and the evidenced systemic failures of this well-funded government agency adds to the tensions.”

In 2017, at least 45 babies were taken the day they were born, and more than half of the newborns were removed from young Māori mothers. On average three Māori babies per week are uplifted by Oranga Tamariki. Māori organisations say Oranga Tamariki prioritises the removal of children from the whānau unit without sufficient investigation, and also fails to form any meaningful partnership with whānau, hapū or iwi.

“Oranga Tamariki manages our most vulnerable and has failed 14 reviews in 22 years – and still not one iwi group has been statutorily accepted to look after our own tamariki. When this agency fails, it gets another budget boost,” Raukawa-Tait said.

“A Māori child is six times more likely to be uplifted than a non-Māori child. So as Māori, we are saying with definite deliberation that we need an approach that is for Māori, by Māori with Māori. There are systemic failures that are seeing tamariki taken from their whānau, from their whakapapa connections, from their whole sense of who they are. Their identity is left in tatters, this is the creation of a lost generation.”

Melanie Reid is Newsroom's lead investigations editor.

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