Oranga Tamariki baby uplifts are 'racialised, regionalised, antenatal and coercive' - academic

Babies taken from their parents through Oranga Tamariki are overwhelmingly Māori and removed by court order before they're even born, according to new data analysis. 

Dr Emily Keddell from the University of Otago's Social and Community Work Programme analysed uplift statistics from between 2008 and 2018, and says her findings paint a "grim picture". 

From 2015 to 2018, the number of babies removed from their families before three months of age rose 33 percent. While the non-Māori removal rate stayed static over the 10-year period, the Māori rate increased from 67 to 103 babies removed per 10,000.

Some Māori leaders have accused Oranga Tamariki of disproportionately targeting Māori babies, three of which are uplifted every week. 

Another "disturbing" finding was that the child uplift rate decreased in all regions in New Zealand except four: Northland, Wellington, East Coast and Waikato. Those regions, all in the North Island, had a total of 175 babies removed in the year 2017 - 2018, a huge increase from 111 in 2008 - 2009. 

Dr Keddell also discovered a whopping 320 percent increase in court orders for the removal of unborn children. There were 34 pre-birth uplifts in 2008 - 2009, and 112 in 2017 - 2018.

Mandated removals by Section 78 order (or 'urgency') also increased by more than double, up from 158 in 2008 - 2009 to 380 in 2017 - 2018. Removals that have been agreed upon by whānau, which are still legally enforceable, declined from 168 to just 60.

"Overall, these patterns show that the increase in babies entering care is entirely accounted for by an increase in removals of Māori babies in four regions," Dr Keddell says. "A much greater proportion are removed by legal order as opposed to by agreement, and they are unborn rather than older babies.

"In short, the increase in baby removals is racialised, regionalised, antenatal and coercive."

She says Oranga Tamariki's 2015 reforms focused on early intervention, leading to an increase in early removal rather than providing supportive services for families. 

"Without the channelling of resources into supports and social protections needed for families, the 'early intervention' idea was bound to result in more, not fewer baby removals."

Dame Tariana Turia says removing a child from their environment should be a last resort, and the Government should first look to the child's family.

"Taking children, ripping children away from the essence of who they are is not the answer," she told Magic Talk in June.

"I think these are whakapapa issues, they should know how to work with whānau, hapu and iwi, they should be calling them together if they are concerned about children."

The vast regional differences in the number of uplifts are more difficult to understand, says Dr Keddell. "External stress factors" like poverty and inadequate housing may be more common in the four regions, and children from the poorest neighbourhoods are 9.4 times more likely to be removed than children from the wealthiest.

Amendments to the Oranga Tamariki Act included expending the definition of child abuse to include emotional abuse and exposure to intimate partner violence, which Dr Keddell believes could be a factor. 

"While useful to understand harm to children more generally, these definitions can lead to a wider set of family circumstances caught in the headlights of the statutory child protection remit.

"Without also changing the nature of the response to those definitions - by funding services able to address the causes of those issues, for example - the effect can be removal simply because there is no other intervention option available.

"If you are a hammer, every problem is a nail."

She says Oranga Tamariki managers should visit the four regions with the most uplifts to examine current practices and implement preventive services outside of the statutory system.

Oranga Tamariki was forced to defend its removal policy after Newsroom published alarming footage of a newborn baby being taken from its young mother. The video prompted public outcry, with 

CEO Gráinne Moss says bringing a child into state care is always traumatic, but Oranga Tamariki is always focused on keeping children safe. 

Dr Keddell admits it's not always possible to avoid child uplifts.

"There really are situations where babies need to be removed. But when the practice of doing so has seen such a significant increase in rates, when that increase reinforces rather than reduces inequalities, when they are only in some regions and not others, when the removals are with less agreement and have such immense ramifications for the usual rights of families, then questions must be asked as to why."