Taken By The State

What will it take for OT to listen to Māori

Oranga Tamariki goes into PR overdrive with the release of a report into its successes as a Waitangi Tribunal hearing begins. Is now really the right time to release such a report? asks Bonnie Sumner.

Cynical. That is what’s being said about the timing of a new Oranga Tamariki report, released on the same day urgent hearings began at the Waitangi Tribunal into the harm being done to Māori by the child protection agency.

A raft of distinguished leaders spoke on Thursday and Friday, including the chair of the National Urban Māori Authority, Lady Tureiti Moxon, Helen Leahy, CEO of the South Island Whānau Ora commissioning agency, and Dame Iritana Tāwhiwhirangi.

But as the hearings began, Oranga Tamariki issued its own good news story by releasing a major report, press release and interviews with deputy chief executive Hoani Lambert on its progress in working with Māori.

Leonie Pihama, Professor at Ngā Wai a Te Tūī and spokesperson for Hands Of our Tamariki, says this kind of distraction attempt by Oranga Tamariki doesn’t surprise her.

“The release of the report at the beginning of the tribunal clearly is another indication of the inability of the CEO [Grainne Moss] to actually make space and listen to Māori and enable us to have the space to have a voice without attempting to somehow distract it or to move any focus away from the ministry [for children].”

“It was incredibly inappropriate for her to do that, and the ongoing sense of arrogance that comes out of the CEO consistently in terms of Māori voices, of denial of Māori voices, and the distraction from issues being raised has been consistent throughout her time, so sadly I’m not surprised they released it on the first day of the tribunal.”

Pihama says that was a strategic play on the part of the child protection agency to interrupt the opening day – as was the choice of Lambert as spokesperson.

“It was very clearly a strategy on behalf of the CEO to have a Māori director front it, and I think that that’s incredibly arrogant and dismissive of our need to have a clear voice ourselves as Māori.”

The report, which was released in time for the midday news cycle on Thursday, is called ‘Improving outcomes for tamariki Māori, their whānau, hapū and iwi’ and looks at progress made as a result of 7AA, a new legislative requirement that prioritises whanaungatanga for tamariki Māori.

The law came into effect a year ago, after Newsroom’s documentary about the attempted uplift of a newborn baby in Hastings that saw protests around the country and calls for the Minister for Children, Tracey Martin, and Moss to resign.

When Newsroom asked Oranga Tamariki why it chose the first day of the tribunal hearing to publish the report, it replied: “In order to meet our legal obligations under 7AA we were required to report on our work by July this year and work through final consents. We published the day after.”

Seeking clarification, Newsroom asked whether it was a mistake or a coincidence that the report came out on such an important day. The agency replied, “Neither.”

When asked whether OT did not know or forgot about the Tribunal hearing date, an OT spokesperson said: “Neither.”

Questioning the statistics

Oranga Tamariki’s accompanying press release about the 7AA report highlights its recent successes over the past year, including ‘a reduction of Māori children in care’.

Māori leaders aren’t buying it.

“The ministry has consistently been flawed in the way it provides stats, they fudge their figures and put up statistics that don’t align to the critical issues. So there may have been a decrease in the number of Māori children entering the system, but there has not been a [rise] in Māori exiting state care,” says Pihama.

“The number of Māori children in state care continues to rise. Again, we see the ministry providing these numbers as if they give validation of their journey being successful and they’re not. They really need to stop putting out numbers in ways that tell the story they want to tell which is not actually the story.”

Lady Tureiti Moxon agrees, and says not only was  timing of the release of the report a ‘power play’ by the agency, but there are flaws in the reporting.

“While it may appear that the numbers in the report of Oranga Tamariki may have reduced, what we don’t know how is many tamariki Māori have been taken under the section 396.”

This was backed up by former government statistician, Len Cook, who also gave evidence on Thursday that called into question the current data collection practices of Oranga Tamariki, which he said fell well short of the accepted standards for data quality.

“The current statistical and analytical oversight of the state’s childcare and protection system are not sufficient to provide accountability and legitimacy to Māori,” he said.

“The authority of state care and the potential disempowerment of whānau is not balanced by the forms of accountability established by Parliament for the oversight of the executive. Political and community legitimacy needs to be demonstrated alongside comprehensive regular reporting and research which provides transparency in how the child welfare system as a whole operates. Currently there is a paucity of regular reporting and research. This creates a situation where there is a lack of accountability and transparency and consequent concern with legitimacy.”

Cook explained that by 2019 the proportion of tamariki Māori entering state care may have halved compared to 2001, however the proportion of tamariki Māori actually in state care increased 2.5 times over that same time.

“These two diverse trends have occurred as the rate of exiting state care has not fallen in the same way that the rate of entry has,” said Cook.

The 7AA report also does not address the marked increase in the taking of Māori babies (up to three months old) since 2018 and whether there has been any change in the past year.

One of the key outcomes section 7AA seeks to improve is to develop strategic partnerships with iwi and Māori organisations.

However Pihama says this kind of talk flies in the face of evidence when OT is simultaneously shutting Māori voices down.

“We see OT operating their plan, staying on that journey even when it’s shown not to work for Māori, and actually to be abusive to Māori, when Māori ourselves have been offering a plan that’s shown to be successful for many years. So there’s no movement from the CEO to entertain any notion that we may know what is right for our children.

“For the CEO to be saying in her press releases ‘this is a long journey, we’re just at the beginning’ shows how flawed her thinking is – it’s not about a long journey, our people could turn this around tomorrow if we were treated as a Treaty partner and given the resources we require,” says Pihama.

It’s simple, says Lady Tureiti. “In section 7AA the power still rests with the CEO of Oranga Tamariki. They talk about a strategic partnership, the power remains the same.”

Lady Tureiti Moxon giving evidence at the tribunal. Photo: Screenshot, Newshub

‘Oranga Tamariki beyond repair’

Lady Tureiti was the first witness to present before Judge Doogan and the presiding panel on Thursday with her brief of evidence.

She opened the inquiry by asking the tribunal to “be brave enough to recognise Māori capacity and capability to determine what’s best to empower and support Māori whānau, and not to try to fix Oranga Tamariki which is beyond repair.

“Oranga Tamariki cannot be healed. It is damaging our babies and our whānau. The solution is for us to be able to heal ourselves.”

She told the tribunal it would hear ‘a lot of evidence in this inquiry about the inequitable, discriminatory and punitive approach of Oranga Tamariki to the removal of Māori children.’

“For example, when Oranga Tamariki removes Māori children from Māori families and puts them in the care of foster families, those families often get twice/thrice as much money as Māori parents for looking after those children, including allowances for clothing, education and entertainment for the children.

“However, the equivalent is not provided to Māori families when they need support. Any support that is offered to Māori parents by the Crown is protracted and impractical and requires further funds which Māori parents often do not have.

“For example, access to benefits from WINZ is often met with requests for marriage certificates and birth certificates. However obtaining these requires the spending of funds when funds are already limited. Māori parents who are suffering are prevented from accessing proper support to provide for their children. It is no wonder that when their children are taken from them those children look better off with a foster family - because the Crown generously funds that foster family.”

She also spoke about the far-reaching effects of colonisation. “Removing tamariki from the breasts of their mothers is not only inhumane, Oranga Tamariki is doing to Māori what the Tohunga Suppression Act 1907 and the Native Schools Act 1867 did, which was to exert the dominance of Pākehā culture and language in Aotearoa New Zealand in order to colonise and assimilate Māori. For many whānau the intergenerational trauma that they have suffered at the hands of the state has caused irreversible damage and mental health issues over generations.”

She was adamant there was already a highly effective alternative to Oranga Tamariki in ‘by Māori, for Māori, with Māori’ approaches as a Treaty partner with the Crown.

“I ask that the tribunal keep in mind that the solution already lies with Māori, in recognition of our Mana Motuhake and Tino Rangatiratanga,” said Lady Tureiti, who provided numerous examples of positive outcomes, including through Whānau Ora and Primary Health Organisations (PHOs).

Newsroom has published numerous investigations into the agency, with concerns raised again and again that OT is an organisation with a culture of bullying, top heavy management, a box-ticking approach to its commitments to Māori and numerous failures detailed in the four official inquiries so far.

The Waitangi Tribunal hearing is the fifth inquiry launched since Newsroom’s 2019 documentary ‘NZ’s own ‘taken generation’.’

Two further official reviews are due out soon - from the Ombudsman and a final report from the Children’s Commissioner.

But leaders like Pihama are still asking: how many reports will it take for OT to listen? “Every single one of these reports say the same thing. Every single one. When you start seeing Judge Henwood, and (chief ombudsman) Peter Boshier, and the Children’s Commissioner and Pākehā family court judges saying ‘actually across the board there are issues’, then it’s not just Māori saying it.”

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