Oranga Tamariki: Jacinda Ardern acknowledges 'failings' in state care as ACT pushes back on Māori-led overhaul

Jacinda Ardern has acknowledged "failings" in Oranga Tamariki state care while ACT is pushing back on a proposed independent Māori-led overhaul of the system. 

The Prime Minister made the admission on Friday after the Waitangi Tribunal released the findings of an inquiry launched in October 2019 over concerns Māori children were significantly overrepresented in state care. 

The Waitangi Tribunal has told the Crown to step back and let Māori establish an independent Māori authority to overhaul Oranga Tamariki, the Government department that came under the spotlight after distressing child uplifts were caught on camera

"I have seen uplifts before. I know how traumatic they are to watch solely as a witness and I cannot imagine what it would be like to be a family member in the moment in time that a child is removed," Ardern said. 

"Whilst I haven't always seen individual clips, I have generally seen uplifts, and I think the joint goal of all of us is to try and reduce and remove the need to uplift children altogether, but at the same time make sure that our children are safe."

Ardern said she had only just received the report and wanted to "give it the time that it deserves" by looking over the findings to decide how best to "rebuild" Oranga Tamariki. 

Seven of every 10 children seen by Oranga Tamariki are Māori, despite tangata whenua making up just 16.5 percent of our total population.

A report from the Children's Commissioner in November found Oranga Tamariki was beyond salvaging, and should be rebuilt. It also recommended the authority of the organisation be handed over to Māori.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

"The fact that we have such significant overrepresentation of Māori children within state care, that is an acknowledgement that there are failings - things that we need to work on," Ardern said. 

"We want to put much more focus on preventative work. No one wants to see children uplifted, no one wants to see children removed, so working with whānau much earlier to try and prevent the situations where we've seen that happen in the past."

While Ardern has not yet decided if an independent Māori Transition Authority is the way to go, ACT's children spokesperson Karen Chhour is strongly against the proposal. 

"Oranga Tamariki is broken for all children, not just Māori. If we can't get the current system right, how will creating an independent Māori Transition Authority fix anything?" Chhour said. 

"I was a Māori child in state care and I can tell you that Māori children aren't that different, they just need to be loved, fed, educated and not abused by the people who claim to care for them.

"We need to do what's in the best interest of a child regardless of the colour of their skin."

ACT's children spokesperson Karen Chhour.
ACT's children spokesperson Karen Chhour. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

Māori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer just wants the Government to get on with overhauling Oranga Tamariki once and for all. 

"The Waitangi Tribunal findings prove that Oranga Tamariki has fundamentally failed to uphold its obligations to Te Tiriti o Waitangi and must be completely overhauled from the ground up," she said. 

"The Crown does not have the right under Te Tiriti to remove mokopuna Māori from their whānau, and yet between 2000 and 2018 the incidence of Māori aged under 16 entering state care rose from one in 125 Māori children to one in 64 Māori children.

"The Crown must not get this wrong again. Too much intergenerational harm has already been done. Our people have the tikanga and solutions to ensure our babies are looked after - its time Oranga Tamariki recognised that."

Māori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer.
Māori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

It comes as the Government forges ahead with plans to create a new Māori Health Authority as part of a major health overhaul, after a review found the "system overall has not delivered Māori health and wellbeing outcomes that are fair". 

Judith Collins has promised to scrap the restructure if National wins in 2023, likening the Māori Health Authority to "segregation" of last century

"What does the Government hope to achieve by separating our healthcare along racial lines and then placing the power of veto in the hands of one race-based institution?"

Ngarewa-Packer said Collins used the term segregation to "race-bait", telling Newshub it was "probably the lowest of lows I've seen Judith go".