Oranga Tamariki to 'end uplifts as we have known them' in massive overhaul

Child welfare agency Oranga Tamariki is to be completely overhauled, with "uplifts as we have known them" scrapped, the Minister for Children has announced. 

Kelvin Davis on Wednesday said the Government has accepted every single recommendation made by an independent board set up earlier this year to advise on how the department - which has been heavily criticised over the past two years - can be salvaged, particularly when it comes to its treatment of tamariki Māori. 

"When I appointed the board, I asked it to get to the root of the problems with Oranga Tamariki and be completely honest with me about what it found. What they provided was a confronting yet powerful report and I am pleased to say the Government has accepted all their recommendations."

More than two-thirds of children seen by Oranga Tamariki are Māori. The department's failings were laid bare in 2019 when video of an uplift - the forced removal of a child from their caregiver - was published by Newsroom. Statistics showed the vast majority of children being uplifted were Māori or Pasifika.

Since then, the agency has frequently been in the headlines - including revelations children were being regularly strip-searched, kept in hospitals when they weren't sick and staying in state care longer than in previous years

In November 2020 the Children's Commissioner said Oranga Tamariki was beyond salvaging and needed a "total transformation", led by Māori since they were the most affected. CEO Grainne Moss resigned in January 2021 ahead of the establishment of the independent board, led by National Māori Authority head Matthew Tukaki. Davis said he told the board to be "completely honest". 

More than 70 hui were held over the following months, Tukaki said, meeting with hundreds of social workers as well as service providers, hapu, iwi and Government agencies. 

Its report - which Davis said was "confronting yet powerful" - concluded Oranga Tamariki's current systems aren't fit for purpose, prompting the minister to accept all of the board's recommendations - including decentralising decision-making to communities and making uplifts an absolute last resort.

The report notes Māori tamariki and whanau in particular "are not well served by the current system", and even brief contact with Oranga Tamariki "can reinforce and cause further damage to already vulnerable and hurt tamariki and their whānau".

"This report will end uplifts as we have known them. While there will always be a need for some children to be taken into care, this should only happen after all avenues with community and whanau have been exhausted," said Davis.

"Community-led prevention is the biggest thing for me from this report – our communities have the answers and Oranga Tamariki needs to work with them to stop children entering into care."

Kelvin Davis.
Kelvin Davis. Photo credit: Newshub.

A new independent board has been established to ensure the recommendations are enacted, Davis said. 

"There will always be a role for the state in the protection of our most vulnerable children, but the approach taken to date has placed the state at the centre. This has undermined the ability of communities to ensure the wellbeing of children and their whānau. Our people often know what’s best and need to be empowered to lead these decisions locally."

The new systems are to be introduced over the next 24 months, according to the report. 

"We must go further for the tamariki who, from time to time and irrespective of ethnicity, background, location, social or economic circumstances, need not just their parents and whānau, but the care and protection of others, including sometimes the state," said Tukaki. "When this is the case, the care and protection provided must be effective, safe, and empowering for tamariki and whānau."