The right of Māori to live as Māori has been affirmed by a report finding the state’s uplift of Māori children has profoundly breached the Treaty of Waitangi, according to a children’s advocate

A scathing Waitangi Tribunal report into the Crown’s removal of Māori children into state care is an opportunity to end New Zealand’s “horrible addiction to assimilation”, the country’s advocate for children says.

The tribunal’s much-anticipated report has finally been released, recommending a new Māori authority to oversee the care and protection of tamariki and “eliminate the state sector care of tamariki Māori”.

Responding to the report’s release, Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft said it was “the latest evidence that the state care and protection system is not working for Māori and must be completely transformed”.

“The tribunal’s findings are an historic acknowledgment of the harmful impact of structural and systemic racism and of the consistent calls from whānau for change since 1925,” Becroft said.

“This is a once in a generation opportunity to get it right for mokopuna and whānau Māori. We urge the Government to take it.”

“The call for the Crown to ‘step back from further intrusion and allow Māori to reclaim their space’ and take responsibility to lead the transformation is, in itself, transformational.”

Becroft’s Assistant Māori Commissioner, Glenis Philip-Barbara, said the findings affirmed the right of Māori to live as Māori and “must signal an end to New Zealand’s horrible addiction to assimilation”. 

“The call for the Crown to ‘step back from further intrusion and allow Māori to reclaim their space’ and take responsibility to lead the transformation is, in itself, transformational,” Philip-Barbara said.

Becroft said Oranga Tamariki’s ‘child rescue’ model had failed to work for Māori children over decades and never would, as it had too often “severed the links between mokopuna and their whānau, hapū and iwi, damaging their lifelong connections, identity, and wellbeing”.

The tribunal’s report echoed the findings of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s own inquiry into uplifts of Māori babies, which recommended the Government commit to transferring power and resources to enable “by Māori for Māori approaches”.

“After decades of calls for change from Māori, and years of tinkering around the edges, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to finally get it right for mokopuna Māori,” Becroft said.

National Urban Māori Authority chairwoman Lady Tureiti Moxon said the tribunal report validated Māori leaders’ calls for mana motuhake (Māori self-determination) and the establishment of an independent Māori authority.

“In the end the minister has to be prepared to pass over power to others – to share that power and the resources with Māori. While there is a lot of work yet to be done, it gives us a clear mandate just like the Māori Health Authority, so this is a good way forward for all of us,” Moxon said.

The tribunal had also recognised the resilience of Māori families in maintaining their culture and connections despite systemic racism and material deprivation, she said.

“People who are poor living in poverty because of the colonised history of this country have just as much an equal right to meet their children’s needs as do all of those people who are better-off in society.”

Children’s Minister Kelvin Davis says nothing is off the table when it comes to the Waitangi Tribunal report and its recommendations. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said she stood by her prior call for a complete overhaul of Oranga Tamariki, with the Waitangi Tribunal’s findings proof the ministry had “fundamentally failed to uphold its obligations to Te Tiriti o Waitangi and must be completely overhauled from the ground up”.

“The Crown does not have the right under Te Tiriti to remove mokopuna Māori from their whānau, and yet between 2000 and 2018 the incidence of Māori aged under 16 entering state care rose from one in 125 Māori children to one in 64 Māori children.”

Ngarewa-Packer said the greatest challenge for the Government and new Oranga Tamariki chief executive Sir Wira Gardiner would be returning power and resources to whānau, hapū and iwi and implementing Te Tiriti o Waitangi throughout the ministry.

“The Crown must not get this wrong again, too much intergenerational harm has already been done. Our people have the tikanga and solutions to ensure our babies are looked after – its time Oranga Tamariki recognised that.”

Children’s Minister Kelvin Davis told Newsroom he welcomed the release of the report and its findings, and paid tribute to the claimants who shared their traumatic experiences with the inquiry.

Davis said he needed time to consider the report and its recommendations before responding in great detail, with the conclusions likely to complement the work of a ministerial advisory board due to report back to him in late June.

“The changes that are needed are overdue and they’re significant but also, I have said from the outset there needs to be the devolution of resources and decision making to Māori, and I think that direction that I’ve given Oranga Tamariki aligns well with the tribunal report.”

“Nothing [was] off the table” when it came to implementing the tribunal’s recommendations, he said, including the proposal for a transitional Māori authority.

The Government was “well down the track” of implementing by Māori, for Māori approaches, with Davis citing work in the education and Corrections systems as well as his initial requests of Oranga Tamariki.

The tribunal launched the urgent inquiry following Newsroom’s documentary detailing an attempt by Oranga Tamariki to remove a baby from his mother at Hawkes Bay Hospital.

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

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