Taken By The State

Urgent Waitangi Tribunal inquiry into Māori child uplifts

The Waitangi Tribunal has decided to hold an urgent inquiry into Oranga Tamariki's practices in taking Māori children from their mothers.

Chief Judge Wilson Isaac rejected Crown arguments that the issues should be examined in the current internal Oranga Tamariki inquiry or two others by the Children's Commissioner and Chief Ombudsman.

He said: "I conclude there are sufficient grounds for an urgent inquiry into a specific contemporary issue concerning a risk of significant and irreversible prejudice to Māori arising from current Oranga Tamariki policy and practice."

The tribunal hearing will be the fifth separate inquiry to arise from the case of an attempted 'uplift' of a week-old baby from its mother at Hawke's Bay Hospital in May, captured in a video documentary by Newsroom investigations editor Melanie Reid. The 'uplift' was abandoned after iwi leaders persuaded police it would be wrong to go through with it. 

The baby has been allowed to stay with his teenage mother ever since, with help from whānau and iwi.

On top of the Oranga Tamariki, Children's Commissioner, and Ombudsman inquiries, is a Māori-led inquiry started by the Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency after a huge groundswell of concern and two national hui among Māori after the video was published.  The Whānau Ora inquiry organisers supported the application for an urgent Tribunal inquiry.

Judge Isaac said the Tribunal would focus on two things:

"Having regard to the rising and disproportionately high number of tamariki Māori taken into state care under the auspices of Oranga Tamariki, is Crown legislation, policy and practice inconsistent with the principles of the Treaty and the Crown's Treaty duties to Māori? "


"If so, what changes to Crown legislation, policy and practice are required to ensure Treaty compliance."

He said the taking of tamariki Māori into state care was "a pressing national issue for many Māori and there is a risk of significant and irreversible prejudice to whānau, hapū and iwi".

The 'targeted urgent inquiry' would not extend to the methods of uplifting children, abuse in care, standards of care of historical grievances "all of which are being addressed in other independent inquiries".

To Crown objections that a Tribunal hearing should not be urgent, but issues could be picked up under kaupapa or thematic inquiries, Judge Isaac said: "I consider that an inquiry targeted on the issue of prejudice to whānau, hapū and iwi as a result of the disproportionately high and rising number of Māori children in state care is capable of being conducted under urgency.

"Although the factors influencing the circumstances in which decisions are made to remove children from their caregivers are undoubtedly complex, the question of whether the Crown's policies, practices and procedures surrounding the taking of Māori children into the care of the state are consistent with the Treaty is a relatively narrow one."

He said: "I consider that the issue is of sufficient seriousness and urgency that a separate Treaty-focused inquiry is warranted."

In the same decision the judge declined multiple applications for a Tribunal hearing into the settlement of grievances of those historically abused in the state's care. Those claims would still be heard, but as part of a kaupapa inquiry and not under urgency.

A tribunal panel led by Māori Land Court Judge Michael Doogan would begin work on the case.

Wellington lawyer Janet Mason, who acted for the mother in the Hawkes Bay Hospital uplift case, said: 

"Our Māori clients are delighted at this news.

"The state’s interference in Māori families is a significant breach of the Treaty of Waitangi. The State has no right to interfere in Māori families in the manner that they have become accustomed to doing. They have, in breach of the Treaty, interfered in the social organisation of Māori families for almost two centuries now, with disastrous consequences. A large proportion of those Māori in prison and in gangs were, and are, the result of state interferences in Māori families. Violence and brutality will always beget more violence and brutality.

"The recent amendments to the Oranga Tamariki Act do not in any way alleviate the concerns of our clients, nor will they alleviate the significant and egregious breaches of the Treaty. Our clients want the state to remove themselves from this space, and for Māori to devise their own legislation and to have their own 'courts' to deal with issues that may arise in their families. They will be seeking recommendations from the Tribunal which give effect to this."

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