The Government has created a Māori-led watchdog to oversee how the children’s ministry, Oranga Tamariki, deals with parents and Māori, and how it improves its social workers and culture.

The group, led by Maori Council chair Matthew Tukaki, will give independent advice “and assurance” on the troubled agency direct to the Minister for Children, Kelvin Davis.

It is the latest intervention by the Labour Government to transform Oranga Tamariki, after it manoeuvred the controversial chief executive Grainne Moss to quit and move to a one-year role elsewhere in the pubic service, and after Davis had ordered a stop to a practice known as ‘reverse uplifts’ while an internal inquiry was held. 

Already, Sir Wira Gardiner, a former soldier and head of Te Puni Kokiri, has been appointed acting chief executive of Oranga Tamariki until a new leader is found.

Tukaki will be joined by prominent iwi figures Dame Naida Glavish and Sir Mark Solomon and leading social worker Shannon Pakura to independently report to Davis on issues at the agency.

Davis made clear he wanted to know what was happening within Oranga Tamariki. 

“Outside of formal reporting and data, what is also needed is real time information about Oranga Tamariki and its progress, operations and performance, and certainty that its future direction is understood and becoming entrenched,” he said in announcing the appointments.

“Over time allegations, issues and concerns have been raised regarding Oranga Tamariki and its practice and culture; its lack of coordination with other NGOs; and its relationship with many Māori communities. These issues are having a negative impact on the ability of the ministry to fulfil its role and it is important that they are addressed.”

The advisory board starts next Monday, February 1, with an initial report to Davis due by June 30.

These changes follow almost two years of reporting by Newsroom journalist Melanie Reid on the agency’s abuse of its powers and unlawful deployment of a power to remove children without notice to their parents. Reid’s first major story, of an attempted uplift of a week-old boy at Hawkes Bay Hospital by social workers and police in the middle of the night, sparked five inquiries – four reporting damning conclusions and an urgent Waitangi Tribunal hearing still ongoing.

It became clear Māori children were being removed from their parents at rates far greater than other groups, and a broad representation of Māori leaders and groups called for the removal of Moss, the former minister New Zealand First’s Tracey Martin, and the replacement of the agency entirely by a Māori organisation.

Last month a second Newsroom video investigation of the ‘reverse uplift’ of children from foster parents (who they had been promised two years ago would be their permanent carers) to unfamiliar whānau at the other end of the country sparked a second outcry. The case was an example of a blunt policy introduced by Oranga Tamariki to help put right its wrongs of the past.

Davis expressed alarm at the video of the case, called a halt to the reverse uplifts and ordered the chief social worker to investigate. His concerns continued with answers he received over Christmas but the report into the reverse uplift said the children’s removal could be justified.

The Solicitor-General successfully applied to the High Court for an order to remove the video and two other stories from Newsroom’s site and a judge has extended that interim injunction. 

Dame Naida Glavish, Dame Tariana Turia, Dame Iritana Tāwhiwhirangi and Dame Areta Koopu with Sir Mark Solomon at the national hui on OT. Photo: Supplied

Most of the new advisory group members have spoken out about Oranga Tamariki and its practices. Former Ngai Tahu leader Solomon spoke strongly at a national hui on the taking of Maori babies and advised the foster parents who lost their children in the second Newsroom video story, calling Oranga Tamariki’s actions reverse racism. Glavish was a leader of a Māori-led inquiry and national hui to address the uplifts of Māori children. Tukaki has declared himself sick of more reports into the agency and instead wants the latest series of inquiries to be circuit-breakers and prompt real action.

Pakura is the former chief social worker for Oranga Tamariki’s predecessor, Child Youth and Family, and is chair of the Social Workers’ Registration Board.

In July 2020 after a separate Newsroom investigation revealed a culture within Oranga Tamariki that could be toxic and did not put the interest of children first, Dame Naida said: “I would like to see, in the first instance, the CEO dismissed on the spot, out of there… and then of course appoint a commissioner of Oranga Tamariki while we restructure it with iwi input into what it might look like from the lens of Māori given that there are so many Māori children [taken from families and placed in state care].”

The creation of the Ministerial Advisory Board can be seen as one step towards that. Davis said:

“The Board will provide independent advice and assurance to the Minister for Children across three key areas of Oranga Tamariki: relationships with families, whānau, and Māori; professional social work practices; and organisational culture.

“The Government is committed to fixing the child care and protection system and ensuring that Oranga Tamariki becomes an enabler; the organisation that people trust and go to for help. This group will help us achieve that,”  Davis said. 

“Given the nature of Oranga Tamariki’s work, public trust and confidence are crucial for it to meet its core responsibilities and serve those children, young people, whānau and communities it comes into contact with.”

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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