The Waitangi Tribunal will be doing an urgent inquiry into Oranga Tamariki’s practices towards Māori children who are taken from their mothers, the fifth separate inquiry into the child protection agency.
Chief Judge Wilson Issac announced the inquiry today because there was “sufficient grounds” for an inquiry into issues of prejudice towards Māori, rather than the issue being investigated in the existing internal Oranga Tamariki inquiry or the Children's Commissioner and Chief Ombudsman inquiries.
Whānau Ora is heading another Māori-led inquiry, the fourth.
The inquiries followed a May uplift in Hawke’s Bay when Oranga Tamariki tried to take a baby from her mother. It was the subject of a Newsroom investigation which prompted protests and two national hui.
There were seven applications to the Tribunal seeking the urgent inquiry because of what they said was continued prejudice towards Māori because of Oranga Tamariki's processes.
They submitted Oranga Tamariki’s processes were not appropriate for Māori as no prior engagement with Māori was undertaken before it was established, it lacked independence, transparency and openness, lacked consideration for tikanga, whānau and hapū, does not allow for a full healing of the matters and “there is no public admission of liability by the Crown”.
Judge Isaac said: "I conclude there are sufficient grounds for an urgent inquiry into a specific contemporary issue concerning a risk of significant and irreversible prejudice to Māori arising from current Oranga Tamariki policy and practice."
He said the Tribunal’s inquiry would investigate the disproportionately high number of Māori in care.
“Is Crown legislation, policy and practice inconsistent with the principles of the Treaty and the Crown's Treaty duties to Māori?
"If so, what changes to Crown legislation, policy and practice are required to ensure Treaty compliance," he said.
The urgent inquiry would not cover the methods of uplifting children, abuse in state care or standards of care of historical grievances.
He said this was being addressed in the other inquiries.
The Crown objected to the inquiry being urgent. It said the claimants could go through other avenues, like Oranga Tamariki’s complaint process.
But, Judge Isaac said: "I consider that the issue is of sufficient seriousness and urgency that a separate Treaty-focused inquiry is warranted."
"Although the factors influencing the circumstances in which decisions are made to remove children from their caregivers are undoubtedly complex, the question of whether the Crown's policies, practices and procedures surrounding the taking of Māori children into the care of the state are consistent with the Treaty is a relatively narrow one."
Māori Land Court Judge Michael Doogan will lead the tribunal panel.
As of June 30 this year, 6450 children were in Oranga Tamariki’s care. Māori represent about 59 per cent. In some areas, it is almost 70 per cent.
In July, Oranga Tamariki CEO Gráinne Moss told TVNZ1’s Breakfast the uplift practices at Hawke’s Bay Hospital on May 6 was “disturbing”.
Moss said her staff had serious concerns for the baby's wellbeing, which led to the attempted uplift.
When asked about accusations of Oranga Tamariki being systemically racist, she said there were structural disadvantages towards Māori that dated back to colonisation.
In a statement, an Oranga Tamariki spokesperson said: "We are aware of the claims lodged with the Waitangi Tribunal and the decision released today to hold an urgent inquiry.
"As with all inquiries, we intend to fully co-operate with the Tribunal."