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Chief Ombudsman slams 'routine' baby uplifts by Oranga Tamariki as 'absolute use of coercive power'

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier has slammed "routine" baby uplifts by Oranga Tamariki as "absolute use of coercive power".

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Following his investigation, Peter Boshier says it was "a great shame" that baby uplifts were routinely carried out instead of a last resort. Source: Breakfast

Following his investigation, Mr Boshier told TVNZ1's Breakfast this morning it was "a great shame" that baby uplifts were routinely carried out instead of as a last resort.

Five inquiries were launched last year after Newsroom released footage of a Hawke’s Bay incident on May 6, 2019, where Oranga Tamariki social workers repeatedly tried to uplift a baby from hospital to the objection of the mother, her family and the midwife involved.

Mr Boshier examined 74 case files of pēpi, or babies, from nine Ministry sites, who were aged up to 30 days old and were subject to a section 78 custody application by the Ministry over a two-year period, ending 30 June, 2019.

Of the 74 cases, 56 were uplifted, however Mr Boshier told TVNZ1's Breakfast this morning he couldn't say which were justified.

"If the process had been done correctly we just don't know how many might have been able to be reunited with parents or whānau in a way which did not require a section 78 order," he said.

"So Oranga Tamariki has its work cut out in looking at those cases to see now on reflection how it might have done it differently and might have done it better."

In his findings, Mr Boshier noted that high caseloads and limited numbers of Māori specialist staff appeared to be contributing factors in the uplifts.

He also found that all the cases he reviewed required a disability rights-based response from the Ministry. Over 20 per cent involved parents with intellectual disability.

However, the investigation found that the parents did not get the assistance or advocacy they required.

Mr Boshier also found that there was no support offered to parents and whānau to deal with the trauma and grief of their pēpi being removed, while mothers who wished to breastfeed got only limited support.

Mr Boshier told Breakfast this morning the Children, Young Persons, and Their Families (Oranga Tamariki) Legislation Act was meant to require a relationship between the parents and Organa Tamariki so that when issues arose there was a process of working things through.

"In fact what was happening was largely inaction during a period, and then at the last minute an uplift with the section 78 order without notice because they'd run out of time," he said.

"This should only have happened as a last resort. There's nothing much more traumatic than having a child removed without you having input and without you knowing that the order is going to be made.

"So to the extent that this was, the most absolute use, if you like, of coercive power. I think it's a great shame that it happened routinely instead of as an absolute last resort when other options had already been explored."

The Chief Ombudsman made 32 comprehensive recommendations, including improvements to the Ministry’s guidance and practices; the use of all tools available in a timely way; establishing effective reporting frameworks and quality assurance; prioritising engagement with whānau, hapū, and iwi; and enhancing cultural competency of staff.

"There is going to be the need for a quantum shift in cultural attitude, particularly the ability of Oranga Tamariki to work with Māori," Mr Boshier said, adding that the act was always intended to be a shift away from the state and judges, to whānau, hapū and iwi.

In response to the report, Oranga Tamariki CEO Gráinne Moss said, "while we accept there have been historical issues with our section 78 practice, we are pleased to be able to provide evidence of real progress since the Ombudsman’s investigation concluded".

Oranga Tamariki introduced system and practice changes in November 2019 following its own Hawke’s Bay Practice Review which addressed a number of the issues identified in the Ombudsman’s Report.

“Change is hard, and it takes time,” Ms Moss said. “We are committed to continuing to improve the way we work with whānau, hapū and iwi so we can better support the babies, children and young people who need it."