Oranga Tamariki 'beyond repair', tribunal hears

By Meriana Johnsen for RNZ

There is no other way to stop tamariki Māori being disproportionately taken into state care than to disestablish Oranga Tamariki, the Waitangi Tribunal has been told during closing submissions for the urgent inquiry into the child protection agency.

The inquiry started in July last year after Oranga Tamariki came under fire for the systemic removal of tamariki and pēpi Māori.

The purpose of the hearing has been to find out why there has been such a consistent disparity of tamariki Māori being removed from their families, whether legislative and practice changes had made any difference, and what further changes to legislation might be required to secure outcomes that uphold Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Social workers, former wards of the state, midwives, iwi and Māori healthcare providers and parents have spoken at the tribunal, many of whom have called for Oranga Tamariki to be replaced with an independent Māori authority.

Former chair of the Māori Council Tā Taihākurie Durie proposed in his closing submission that the new organisation draw on the Māori council model, as set out under the Māori Community Development Act 1962.

It is made up of 290 Māori committees intended to represent papakāinga (groups of whānau living together), 16 Māori Council Districts and the national executive.

"What we had ... was a Māori structure for Māori governance based on the opposite to the European structure where the power sits with the community and everything ascends up from the community," Durie said.

He said while some minor amendments to the legislation were needed to recognise, for example, that many whānau no longer lived in papakāinga, "the machine is still the same".

The "bottom-up" approach would see local Māori communities appoint their own community workers who had local whakapapa knowledge who would then place children.

The single, national Māori body would be "bound to the principle of hapū rangatiratanga" which they set out as meaning "whānau, hapū and marae are once again the primary social unit".

NL Lawyers counsel Hinerau Rāmeka, who is representing a number of whānau who've had dealings with Oranga Tamariki, referred to a whakatauki by the Ngāti Matakore chief Te Ōtapeehi to Waikato rangatira Te Wherowhero, who was being pursued by a heavily armed contingent of Ngāpuhi, and was seeking protection.

"Ka maru koe i tōku pūreke, he kahu pītongatonga!" (You shall be sheltered by my rain cape, an impervious garment!)

"We felt it was quite a fitting whakatauki to use ... our claimants feel that our Māori children at the moment - and whānau - are in a position currently under the regime that's provided by Oranga Tamariki that is not dissimilar to what the rangatira of Waikato, Te Wherowhero, faced in terms of being up against that's heavily armoured and there's nowhere for them hide at the moment," Rāmeka said.

She said Oranga Tamariki should be providing a cloak of protection, much like the one Te Ōtapeehi promised to Te Wherowhero and his people, but it was not.

Rāmeka said her claimants said Oranga Tamariki needed to be closed, and replaced with a Māori authority which focused on prevention.

"There are no amendments, fixing, changing of policy, practices that are going to make our claimants feel confident that Oranga Tamariki can continue to provide a care and protection service, not just for Māori children but for any child in New Zealand."

When asked by Judge Doogan how she thought Oranga Tamariki could be transitioned to a preventative model, Rāmeka said it should give more resourcing to iwi and Māori health providers.

National Urban Māori Authority chair Lady Tūreiti Moxon said the admission from Oranga Tamariki in its submission that structural racism was part of the agency, was evidence that Oranga Tamariki was "beyond repair".

Her counsel Erin James told the tribunal the Crown had relied heavily on data which showed there had been a reduction in Māori entering state care but she said this was largely because of a drop in s78 (Interim Custody) without notice uplifts as a result of pressure from Māori leaders, and not specific Māori policy changes it had made.

She also submitted the iwi partnerships which the Crown had put considerable weight on were simply perpetuating the "master-servant relationship" because decision-making power and resourcing lay with Oranga Tamariki still.

Lady Tūreiti has been advocating for the establishment of a mokopuna authority to replace Oranga Tamariki, and proposed a timeframe of a year for the legislation to be designed that would enable mana whenua, hapū, iwi or Māori providers to take care of children in their rohe (region).

This would allow those groups to take over the care and protection of tamariki at a local level, with 60 to 70 percent of Oranga Tamariki resources being diverted to them in line with the proportion of Māori in state care, Lady Tūreiti said.

Lawyer Annette Sykes, representing joint-claimants Dr Rawiri Waretini-Karena, Alison Green, Kerri Nuku, Donna Awatere Huata and Paora Moyle, said they were concerned about proposed alternatives to Oranga Tamariki, and urged the tribunal not to recommend a particular model.

She said adopting a Whānau Ora approach put hapū models of caring for children at risk, and also had the potential of commodifying Māori children.

Sykes' claimants were advocating for an interim Māori authority to take over the care and protection of tamariki Māori.

She said the legislative, policy and structural changes needed to do this would be developed by Māori, iwi and hapū leaders who formed the interim Māori authority.

Closing submissions will conclude on Tuesday.

RNZ