Taken By The State

Oranga Tamariki boss: ‘We have created harm’

Oranga Tamariki's Chief Executive appeared before the Waitangi Tribunal a day after a report from the Chief Ombudsman found the agency had used its draconian powers to uplift babies too readily in many cases

A Waitangi Tribunal hearing has seen Oranga Tamariki chief executive Gráinne Moss concede her organisation harmed families during some of its child uplifts.

Moss admitted errors had been made, but said many issues were improving thanks to a new strategy, extra funding, a recent law change, and new processes that were being put in place.

"What a number of the reports have outlined - and also the testimony of people has outlined - is there's been times in the past when that hasn't gone well and we have created harm." Moss said.

She appeared before the tribunal on Friday afternoon as part of a contextual hearing investigating the risk that Oranga Tamariki's policies and practices had been prejudiced against Māori.

Her deputy Hoani Lambert, also appeared before the tribunal and denied an allegation from one of the tribunal's members that Oranga Tamariki had only started to fix things after a child uplift case in the Hawkes Bay came to light during a Newsroom investigation.

"I absolutely do not agree with that proposition."

Both Moss and Lambert said the number of child uplifts of Māori children had declined over the past three years and peaked during the year ended 2017 at 1587 uplifts.

Judge Michael Doogan told Moss it was clear from evidence given to the tribunal, and a recently released Ombudsman's report, that Oranga Tamariki's exercise of its power to uplift children caused a lot of damage.

"For some time there's been active harm caused by your agency's intervention in whānau."

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier looked at 74 cases of baby uplifts and found babies had been taken from families using extreme 'without notice' order powers in every case.

The 'without notice' provisions were supposed to be used as a last resort, but Boshier found Oranga Tamariki had used them despite having at least 60 days to prepare for a baby's arrival in three quarters of the cases he examined.

During her opening remarks to the tribunal Moss signalled she accepted many of the criticisms.

"I think there's a real opportunity to address any areas that we haven't gotten right and I'm sure there are many,

"I also want to acknowledge the incredibly powerful testimony from last week's hearings..for far too many there are real experiences every day that, I'm sorry, they're not academic and they need to be changed."

Moss said she was the only public CEO bound by a set of statutory obligations that required Treaty of Waitangi compliance after a change to Oranga Tamariki's governing legislation last year. 

This was questioned by one of the tribunal's members, Kim Ngarimu, who asked Moss if she accepted all CEOs in the public sector were bound by these obligations whether they were written into statute or not. 

"Don't you think these kinds of responsibilities as they relate to any chief executive ... are the kinds of responsibilities that every chief executive should be discharging basically as good business? As the conduct of good government business?"

Section 7AA of the Oranga Tamariki Act spells out a set of obligations the Oranga Tamariki CEO is bound to meet in order to be seen as complying with the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

They include an obligation to respond to any invitation from iwi to enter into a strategic partnership, a requirement that  the CEO set measurable outcomes for reducing disparities between Māori children and others, and a duty for Oranga Tamariki to report to the public once a year on measures taken to improve outcomes for Māori children and young persons. 

Moss said she believed they did apply to other CEOs in the public sector, but didn't think they had been spelled out in such "specific" detail for those managing other government departments.

"It was put into place understanding the failures of the past in this particular area of care and protection and that's why it adds, I think, to my specific obligations as a chief executive that wouldn't be necessarily so specific for [a public sector CEO involved in] housing,

"Do I believe in the intent that all Chief Executives should have very clear obligations spelled out in their legislation? I do."

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