The close attention now being paid to the practice of uplifting children by Oranga Tamariki (OT) is welcome. The release of the Newsroom video “New Zealand’s Own Taken Generation” highlighting the lived reality of the removal of children by the State brought a greater clarity and understanding of this everyday practice to the attention of New Zealanders. The New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services (NZCCSS) welcomes the four inquiries (OT internal, Children’s Commissioner, Ombudsman and Whānau Ora) and hope they bring strong drivers to change.
For NZCCSS members working with vulnerable families and whānau this video did not show anything new. The removal of babies and children is part of the lived experience of the mums, whānau and families NZCCSS members’ community-based social workers walk alongside of. Members have been increasingly reporting that the impacts of the 2017 Children, Young Persons and their Families (Oranga Tamariki) Act have resulted in an increased number of children, particularly tamariki Māori, being uplifted.
The Balance is Wrong
A group of NGO leaders working in the child protection field have been collecting a range of examples of this practice where, without seeming to get to know the individual mums and whānau concerned, Oranga Tamariki has come in and unilaterally uplifted children. If the OT social workers had been focussed on keeping the whānau together, rather than on the uplift process, they would have given weight to the wrap-around supports the whānau and community services had put in place, and the improvements in parenting skills and commitment to caring the mums and their whānau were demonstrating.
This does not deny the role of a child protection agency and the need to, from time to time, place children in the care of those who are not their biological parents, and that this should see them with improved opportunities for a good life. However, the balance is wrong. Oranga Tamariki has spent a great deal of time building of care practices and supports to provide high quality care for removed children. Given the incredibly sad statistics for the life outcomes for children in care this is necessary. Yet, surely the main approach of Oranga Tamariki should be ensuring our tamariki do not end up in care? The focus, the funds and the main thrust of the agency is on care. If this was turned around and community organisations that prevented children from going into care were as highly valued as the systems to uplift and place children in care, then we would see real change in child wellbeing.
More than two years ago, in February 2017, when making Select Committee submissions on the sections of the Children, Young Persons and Their Families (Oranga Tamariki) Act which focus on “considering and planning for the possibility for alternative care arrangements for the child”, NZCCSS and our strategic partners Te Kahui Atawhai o te Motu stated:
“Our agencies are concerned that provisions to enable early placements could create an unintended incentive to give such plans effect and remove children from their homes early.”
Further to this, when submitting on the removal at birth of the subsequent child provisions within this Act, namely, those provisions which enable OT to as of right remove any children from a mother who had previously had a child removed, NZCCSS and Te Kahui Atawhai o te Motu submitted:
“We acknowledge the need to ensure a subsequent child of a parent (to whom 18A applies) is safe in the care of their parents. However, the removal of a subsequent child should only be the very last resort and only after intensive support has not resulted in confidence that parents can safely parent their children.
Furthermore, the decision to remove a subsequent child must be accompanied by appropriate support and resources to address underlying issues … and by effective engagement with families struggling to care for their children. We believe mothers of a subsequent child need to have real hope that they might keep their child if they make agreed changes to their lives.”
Oranga Tamariki is a government agency, charged under the last government to take an approach grounded on the “Expert Panel Final Report Investing in New Zealand’s Children and Their Families” and to giving effect to the CYPF (Oranga Tamariki) Act which grew out of it. In the opinion of many both the Report and the Act are fatally flawed, supporting the further colonisation of tangata whenua.
Perhaps the best result from the four inquiries into the uplifting of children is a review and rewrite of the Act and the removal of the focus on the Expert Panel’s Final Report. While OT continues to be bound to faulty legislation, based on a “a paternalistic right-wing” report then there seems little hope of achieving the underpinning change. Change which will see the focus being on supporting families to be strong and the removal of children being an absolute last resort, not an everyday practice.