Oranga Tamariki has announced the findings of an internal inquiry into its controversial attempt to uplift a newborn baby from its mother (both pictured) in Hastings. Photo: Supplied

An internal investigation into Oranga Tamariki’s attempts to uplift a newborn from its mother in Hastings has found a litany of failures – and the chief executive has promised change

Oranga Tamariki is placing new restrictions on the uplifts of children after a damning report into its treatment of a young Māori mother found numerous shortcomings in considering what was best for the baby and its family.

The ministry’s head has pledged to make the changes needed to prevent a repeat – but family supporters say the plans do not go far enough and a new, tikanga Māori regime must now be created.

Oranga Tamariki launched the inquiry after a Newsroom investigation revealed the pressure placed on a young Māori mother in the maternity ward of Hawke’s Bay Hospital as she tried to keep her seven-day-old baby.

While there were legitimate concerns for the safety of the baby that warranted Oranga Tamariki’s involvement, social workers and other officials had been over-reliant on historical information about the family and “significant gaps in work to understand, weigh, and verify information about the current situation for the mother, father and wider whānau”.

There was also inadequate documentation of the rationale for, and information underpinning, some key decisions, while evidence provided by NGOs about the mother’s desire for change was not given enough consideration.

“This meant opportunities to identify how meeting those needs could have mitigated against the risks for the baby were missed.”

The report said Oranga Tamariki staff had failed to consider how a hui, or family group conference, could have helped to build the support the young parents needed. They also developed the plan to place the baby outside of its family without giving due consideration to whānau, hāpu or wider iwi.

Relationships not built

The likely impact of previous trauma on the parents’ behaviour was not well understood, which had compromised the decisions made, while opportunities to avoid re-traumatising them had been missed.

“The parents were both vulnerable young people with their own histories of trauma … Had this been better recognised, a more realistic approach could have been taken to understanding the support these parents would have needed in order for them to care for their new baby.”

There was little evidence of social workers building a relationship with the baby’s family on either its mother’s or its father’s side, and there was no pre-existing relationship between the baby’s whānau and the social workers who attempted to remove it from its mother’s care in hospital.

Neither a family group conference nor a hui with whānau had taken place before custody orders were sought and granted, and the basis for the without-notice custody application was “weak”, with little evidence to suggest the mother was a flight risk or that there was an immediate threat to the baby’s safety.

The social workers had failed to adequately communicate or plan with hospital staff, who as a result were forced to compromise their own duty of care with the mother and baby.

“The delay in acting on orders created uncertainty for the hospital staff, whānau and their supports and created a window in which tensions built considerably and then played out when the first attempt to remove the baby was made.”

Confusion had been created by a representative of the mother claiming she had been granted a legal stay on the baby’s removal – inaccurately, Oranga Tamariki said – while the presence of media in breach of hospital policy had exacerbated tensions.

Oranga Tamariki chief executive Grainne Moss and Ngāti Kahungunu representative Shayne Walker speak to media after the release of an internal review into its attempted uplift of a Hastings baby. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

The report recommended changes within Oranga Tamariki’s Hastings site to ensure “a culture of accountability, reflection, challenge and transparency”, as well as extra professional development and guidance across the country and a more consistent approach to the removal of newborn babies.

Oranga Tamariki chief executive Grainne Moss said she was deeply saddened by the review’s findings and had apologised to the family at the centre of it.

“Our job is to protect children, it’s to help families and to give them hope, but instead we have deeply hurt a family and the people close to them. For that, I am profoundly sorry.”

Moss said she had not offered her own resignation to the Government, but confirmed there had been “significant consequences” for some of the Oranga Tamariki staff involved in the specific incident.

Asked by Newsroom why she had initially described its video investigation as a “significant misrepresentation” of what had occurred during the uplift process, Moss did not directly answer, instead saying: “The report is very comprehensive, the emotions were running very high at the time.”

Moss said all interim custody order applications would now be made “on-notice” to ensure an affected family could have their say, unless there was a clear need to protect a child from immediate and imminent danger. Every “without-notice” application would have to be signed off by a regional legal manager, site manager and a practice leader.

A new regional supervisor would be appointed in Hastings, with more resources and training provided to staff there.

“There will be a number of Māori who, when they saw that video, they would go, ‘Hey my social worker’s a little bit like that, I’ve been treated a little bit like that’.”

She believed the changes would as a whole ensure that what happened in Newsroom’s video never happened again, and said Oranga Tamariki would arrange an independent assessment of any similar allegations made by families whose children had been uplifted.

New legislation that came into force on July 1 was “very far-reaching” and would make a difference to the ministry’s practices, which had already changed from when the attempted uplift took place.

“We’ve always said that we have work to do, and what this review says is that we continue to have work to do and we need to do that faster.”

Shayne Walker, a Ngāti Kahungunu representative who provided independent oversight of the internal review, said the report was “an honest piece of work” that showed how much had to be done to change the institutional and other biases within the ministry.

“Is it enough? I don’t think it’s ever enough, but for me, I think there are some things in here that could fulfil some of the obligations of Puao-te-ata-tu, because the hard questions we were asking 20, 30 years ago, they have come up heaps.

“There will be a number of Māori who, when they saw that video, they would go, ‘Hey my social worker’s a little bit like that, I’ve been treated a little bit like that’.”

Treating the removal of a child as a “backstop” from the start reduced the incentive for social workers to make more difficult, but better, decisions.

“If you speak to OT staff themselves, they need more time for relationship-building, they need more time for hui a whānau, so that they are building honest relations. Think about your own lives – you don’t listen to hard things from people unless they have built relationships with you. None of us do.”

Minister to ‘hold feet to fire’

Children’s Minister Tracey Martin said she was disappointed by the report’s findings, both for what they showed about the family’s experience, and because her ministry had not adhered to its own standards.

“I know Oranga Tamariki has been making progress to be the care and protection agency that they need to be, but what this review tells us is that we need to be pushing harder, faster at the frontline level to support our social workers.”

Now she had received the report, she could “hold Oranga Tamariki’s feet to the fire about the culture change and the way that we need to move forward”.

However, she did not want Moss to resign as she did not believe that would be constructive.

“I don’t need to stop the changes that Oranga Tamariki needs to make, I need us to keep going further, faster and forward.”

The changes the Government was attempting to implement to the care system had been decades in the making, and bringing them into full effect would take time, Martin said.

“Instead of looking at [the risk] and just thinking ‘How do we get the baby out of the risk?’, the first conversation we need to be having is with other professionals, with NGOs and with whānau and with iwi, ‘How can we manage this risk to keep baby safe but also keep baby with extended family, with whānau, with iwi?’.”

She had confidence in Moss and Oranga Tamariki as there had been no attempt to hide shortcomings in the Hastings case.

Family supporters react

The mother refused to participate in the inquiry, saying it was not independent and she didn’t trust the process.

The mother’s lawyer, Janet Mason, told Newsroom she had not read the report in detail, but said it was welcome news that Oranga Tamariki had recognised some of its shortcomings.

Mason’s law firm had been approached by numerous people since Newsroom’s documentary was first released who were suffering from the uplift of their children, with similar or worse circumstances to those depicted.

“The Hastings case was, by far, not an isolated case.”

“The problems with Oranga Tamariki and the state framework for ‘care’ of children are systemic and endemic … the implication that throwing more money into the current system will result in better outcomes is rejected outright.”

The state had no right to interfere with Māori whānau in ways that breached the Treaty of Waitangi and caused “a tremendous amount of human pain and misery amongst Māori peoples”, she said.

“The problems with Oranga Tamariki and the state framework for ‘care’ of children are systemic and endemic.

“The idea that the problems are somehow related to a lack of resources, and the implication that throwing more money into the current system will result in better outcomes is rejected outright.”

Mason said the Government needed to start a conversation with Māori about how the care of their tamariki would be moved to a new tikanga Māori regime, with their own “courts”, legislation and operational entities.

The baby’s grandmother said officials from Oranga Tamariki had visited her today and apologised for what had happened, noting that things had to change.

“I expressed to them that the taking of Māori babies has to stop.”

Iwi leader Des Ratima, who successfully intervened to stop the uplift taking place, said the report was a “brave” attempt to address the concerns raised at the time of the uplift, and clearly showed there was not sufficient cause to proceed or sufficient scrutiny before it took place.

‘A litany of failure’

There are still four separate, independent inquiries into Oranga Tamariki’s practices which are still underway.

Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft is conducting an independent investigation into the uplifts of Māori babies, aged up to three months, while Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier is carrying out a more wide-ranging inquiry into Oranga Tamariki’s practices.

Speaking about the Oranga Tamariki inquiry, Becroft said the review “describes a litany of failure at every step [and] is a damning indictment of inadequate social work practice”.

“We need urgent and transformative change. Oranga Tamariki and other agencies of the state must work with and empower Māori to act for their whānau. In particular, Oranga Tamariki must work more closely with whānau, hapu and iwi as it is required to do under law.”

A Māori-led inquiry started by the Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency is still under way, while last month the Waitangi Tribunal announced it was holding its own urgent inquiry into whether Oranga Tamariki’s practices and policies were consistent with the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi and the Crown’s Treaty duties to Māori.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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