The attempted 'uplift' of a newborn baby from his mother, who had had a child taken into care earlier, brought Oranga Tamariki's 'subsequent child' provisions under scrutiny. Photo: Supplied

A legal provision blamed for contributing to a spike in the removal of babies into state care is finally being repealed, with the Children’s Minister saying families should not be made to feel “just always at the bottom” without a chance for redemption

The Government is finally repealing a controversial Oranga Tamariki law provision which critics have said needs “to be consigned to the dustbin of history”.

Children’s Minister Kelvin Davis, who will introduce the repeal legislation to Parliament on Thursday, says families should be given the chance to show improvements in their life before having another child taken from them.

The “subsequent child” provisions of the Oranga Tamariki Act, which mean a parent who has had a child removed permanently from their care in the past must effectively prove they are fit to keep a new baby, came in for heavy criticism in the wake of Newsroom’s reporting on the attempted uplift of a Hastings newborn in 2019.

The Government announced last year it would repeal parts of the legislation, after an Oranga Tamariki review had found the rules were confusing, could encourage decisions based on historical circumstances, and shifted the onus of proof to parents.

Former Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft had pushed for the full rather than partial repeal of the “subsequent child” provision, saying the law was “was a pernicious, misguided and entirely counterproductive provision that should be consigned to the dustbin of history forthwith”.

A report produced by his office found that while only a small number of removals had been made specifically under the law, it appeared to have “significantly influenced Oranga Tamariki practice” – a claim supported by a significant increase in the removals of babies immediately after its introduction.

Nearly 18 months after Cabinet first agreed to a partial repeal of the subsequent child provisions, legislation is finally being put before the House.

‘You’re just always at the bottom’

Speaking to Newsroom, Davis said the Covid-19 pandemic had been partly responsible for the delay but the repeal was the right thing to do.

“There was an assumption because a person had a child taken off them once, that they were never ever going to be good parents ever again, and I think that’s really unfair – the [Waitangi] Tribunal, the Children’s Commissioner, they all said that the right thing to do was to repeal it.”

However, the Government had ruled out removing the provisions as they applied to parents with a conviction relating to the murder, manslaughter or infanticide of a child in their care, with Davis saying such a move would have been a step too far.

While there had not been a huge number of uplifts that took place directly due to the legislation, it had been only human for social workers to take the law into account without considering the wider circumstances when considering whether to leave another child with the family.

The law had damaged families who were made to feel like “any improvements you made in your life … weren’t going to be taken into account”, Davis said. 

“You’re just always at the bottom, you’re always at the lowest level and the state was always going to be there to take your kids off you – what’s really important about the future direction of Oranga Tamariki is that we need to empower communities to help their own, the parents that live in their communities.

“We need to empower iwi and Māori to support them so that they can … be those kind, loving, caring parents that every child deserves.”

After a ministerial advisory board established by Davis to review Oranga Tamariki concluded the ministry was “self-centred” with weak systems and a propensity for being blown off course, work is now underway to deliver on its recommendations of giving greater decision-making powers to Māori.

Children’s Minister Kelvin Davis says Oranga Tamariki social workers can gain the trust of families by being seen to work more closely with officials from other government agencies providing support to children. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Davis said he would attend the first in a series of community hui starting next week, and had already visited some Oranga Tamariki offices to talk to staff about how they were feeling.

Some were keen to flesh out the details of what the organisational reform would mean in practice, while others were reserving judgment on whether the Crown would follow through on its pledge to transfer decision-making and resources.

“There’s probably been other promises before where communities [were meant to] get to make decisions, but you know, I’m determined to drive things right in that direction – to me, it’s just logical.”

While the ministry needed to change its internal practices, it would also benefit from working more closely with other government agencies who provided support for children in a family.

“When the OT social worker is then engaging with education or health on behalf of the family, I think that’s when we’ll start to see trust come back: when the family go, ‘Oh, crikey, that OT worker was in that office there and helped me get a house, wow’.

“Before, it was just seen to be the agency that comes along and tells you that you’re not a good parent, and when they see that social worker’s actually going out and batting for them and getting results, that’s when we’ll start to see the the attitude towards it change.”

Davis said the Government was still working on the issue of funding for the Oranga Tamariki changes, with the amount of money needed dependant on what communities told it they wanted in place.

“If we were just to go out and say we’re just going to dish out contracts, you could say, ‘Okay, well, we need 50 contracts, they are going to be this much’ and give you a figure, but if communities come back and say ‘Well, actually, these are our needs’, then we actually have to have to look at a different way of working.”

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

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