Should there be a moratorium on Oranga Tamariki's baby uplifts?

The AM Show 17/06/2019

An influential Māori leader is calling for a moratorium on Oranga Tamariki's removal of babies until a review into the practice is complete.

The Children's Commissioner has announced his office will be looking into the agency's care and protection of Māori children under three months old, after a video of an attempted uplift at Hawke's Bay Hospital was made public last week.

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft says over the last decade the number of Māori infants being taken from their families has increased by about 50 percent - from two a week to three - while rates for pākehā have been going in the other direction.

"This now is an issue that cannot be ignored. We've got to understand what are the policies, the processes, the practises behind the scenes," he told The AM Show on Monday.

I don't think I've heard anyone say that an uplift will never be justified.

"But what we do need to be sure is that the policies and the practises - and where it might be necessary, the processes - are carried out in a way that affirms dignity, reduces trauma and is genuinely necessary."

Call for moratorium

Matthew Tukaki, head of the Māori Council and chair of the National Māori Authority, says in the meantime no more children should be taken.

"A lot of people have been saying these sorts of things for a very long time," he told The AM Show.

He says a lot of cases of family violence and child removals come across his desk, all of which could have been prevented with earlier intervention.

There's always something that could have been done before it got to this point.

While believing Māori families are being unfairly targeted for interventions by the state, Tukaki called it the "default position" of a faulty model of care, rather that outright racism, adding that Māori had to take at least some responsibility for the shocking statistics.

"My message is simply this, and I've said it before - we've got to stop hitting our babies, kicking our babies and throwing our kids against walls... this is for all New Zealanders - 30 percent of that number are non-Maori kids."

Matthew Tukaki. Photo credit: The AM Show

A 'revolution' coming

New legislation that kicks in from July 1 aims to "better address the over-representation of Māori children and young persons in the care, protection, and youth justice system". It requires the Government to set targets on improving outcomes for young Māori and report on its progress publicly.

Becroft says it's a "revolution" that's come sadly too late for many, whose situations were dealt with under the old "broken" Child, Youth and Family agency which Oranga Tamariki replaced.

"It was a reactive, ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-a-cliff, almost last-minute go in, very risk-averse."

The challenge now is to build a new organisation that is proactive.

"[An organisation that is] constructive, gets in really early, works with families, provides support and assistance, particularly with iwi. That hasn't been happening in the past."

Andrew Becroft. Photo credit: The AM Show

Becroft said without a change in how Oranga Tamariki works, any justice sector reforms Justice Minister Andrew Little implements won't be as effective.

"When you look at the fact that 80 percent of those in the criminal justice system have a care and protection background... we've got to get it right now. We talk about reforming the justice system - actually, this is where it starts. It starts at birth or before birth."

That's why this new approach is so crucial.

Tukaki suggested a more radical course of action, slamming the many state "fiefdoms" that don't cooperate properly with each other.

"If it was up to me we'd have a complete review of the public service and throw a whole lot of idiots out. Let's start with the State Services Commission, or let's go with the head of the Treasury. I've got a whole list a mile long. I'll throw it all on Twitter."

He did single out Minister for Children Tracey Martin for praise however, saying she "gets what needs to happen".

Martin last week defended Oranga Tamariki's policies, saying there was "often than not there is a bigger backstory" to cases that end up in the media.

At the weekend she said both her and critics of the agency wanted the same outcome - and end to babies and children being harmed or killed.

The AM Show / Newshub reporter Dan Satherley