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Oranga Tamariki sees increasing number of child removals over 'systemic racism' - researcher

When Oranga Tamariki was created, it came with the promise it would be a vast improvement on Child, Youth and Family, the agency it replaced.

However, two years on, critics are calling for an overhaul over claims the issues are getting worse.

University of Waikato associate professor Leonie Pihama says recent situations such as the attempted removal of a newborn baby from her mother with insufficient evidence in Hawke's Bay and the removal of children from Ngati Kahungunu on their land "was a very clear example of the kinds of things that many whanau are experiencing in terms of the Ministry [for Children] having a very punitive, and often uninformed, approach."

She said while Oranga Tamariki undergo a strenuous process before deciding to have a child removed from their family, Ms Pihama told TVNZ1's Breakfast this morning that "the issue at hand here is the fact that Oranga Tamariki, as a ministry, has seen an increase in the number of child removals at a time where there’s meant to be transformative change."

"When the legislation that was put through a couple of years ago was meant to provide for whanau, hapu and iwi engagement – active engagement in terms of the wellbeing of the tamariki – that really is the crux of the issue.

"There are a whole lot of systemic internal issues, I think, in terms of the Ministry and how they operate. I think that they are very punitive; I think that they are culturally incompetent in terms of working with whanau Māori, and I think that really showed this weekend, but there are a number of other cases that I’m very aware of where whanau have made the changes requested by the Ministry, and yet they are still threatened for removal of their children."

She said a piece of legislation which had gone through government several years ago that which was meant to to create "a more Treaty-based relationship; was meant to be empowering for whanau, hapu and iwi in Māori organisations like Whanau Ora; to enable whanau to be more self-determining in terms of the wellbeing of our children" but last year’s findings by Michelle Duff found that there was an “increase in the general removal of Māori children” and an "increase in the predictive removal of Māori children at birth."

Ms Pihama said she believes we are seeing an increase in child removals "because of systemic racism, because of an institutional inability to make change; [and] because of a lack of commitment within the organisation."

"So the call for the CEO [Gráinne Moss] to be removed is a direct call to hold accountability in terms of the lack of change. When Ann Tolley pushed through the bill, one of the things she said then was, 'This is about transformative change, it's about structural change' but in actual fact, we haven’t seen any of that change happen."

Oranga Tamariki CEO Gráinne Moss joined TVNZ1's Breakfast this morning to respond to Ms Pihama's claims, saying, "The previous government indicated that it would be a five-year transformation journey of the agency and we're two years in."

"I'm incredibly pleased with our progress, but is there an awful lot of work to do? Of course there is. We all want children in New Zealand to be thriving, to be well, to be the best that they can be, and actually, we as a society need to work together to get the terrible statistics that we want changed." 

She added that the overrepresented number of Māori children enter their care are "potentially not safe", but that 98.5 per cent of Māori children "never, ever come into our care." 

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University of Waikato associate professor Leonie Pihama joined Breakfast this morning to explain why she believes issues at the agency are getting worse. Source: Breakfast