Reviewing 'Oranga Tamariki': June 17, 2019
The practice of uplifting newborn children from their mothers by Oranga Tamariki has come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks following a number of exposés into the practice. Māori mothers are disproportionately affected by this practice with two to three children being taken away from their mothers each week. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner is launching a review into the practice as well as into Oranga Tamariki more widely.
Lachlan Balfour of the Monday Wire spoke to Children’s Commissioner, Andrew Becroft about the review, what it will involve, future legislation, and the Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s role.
You can find the full interview here and the written transcript below. What follows is a write up from Angus Coker Grant.
The uplifting of infants by Oranga Tamariki has come under fire, particularly for the high number of Māori babies being seized. Minister for Children Tracey Martin has announced there will be an independent inquiry into the cases. Meanwhile, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, will launch their own review into Oranga Tamariki as a whole. Children’s Commissioner, Andrew Becroft notes the recent uplifts as what initiated the call for a review. “fundamentally what sparked it was a series of concerns about baby uplifts.”
Becroft describes the upcoming model as a system equipped for events, rather than a reactive one.
“It really is changing what was a model of reaction, S.O.S, ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, to a model of proactive, preventative intervention. And I don’t think many of the public know that’s coming.”
Currently, the OCC is aware of the disproportionate number of Māori infants being seized, and want to get to the root of this issue, Becroft adds.
“In the last three to four years or so uplifts of Māori infants have gone from two per week to three per week. That’s only become clear pretty recently. What our review I hope will establish is how widespread this sort of practice is.”
The impact an uplifted infant can have on a mother is something Becroft is well aware of.
“I speak to psychologists who say they’re still counselling mothers years later after their child’s been uplifted at birth. I mean it’s one of the most traumatic and coercive acts the state can undertake.”
In a perfect world, the uplifting of infants would only occur when absolutely necessary due to the baby being in high-risk scenarios, Becroft says. To make the uplifting a smoother, and more amicable process, Becroft suggests the involvement of local community figures.
“when it has to happen, you’d want trusted community people to have been involved for a long time in advance. So that it might be well-known, it might be accepted, there might be good plans put in place, people may know exactly what’s happening. That’s what I'd look forward to.
But what exactly will this review entail? Becroft has a list of people to interview, as well as examining the pre-existing structures.
“It’ll be looking at cases from those sites, interviewing whānau...people involved...also detailed interviews with Oranga Tamariki staff. We want to look at the underlying policies. We want to look at the practices, and we want to look at the processes that were involved in each case.”
The Children’s Commissioner believes the government will listen to the OCC, judging by the success of their previous recommendations. “In practice, we are listened to, it is taken account of, and there has been significant change. I mean a kumara doesn’t tell of its own sweetness, but I wouldn’t be in this job as a watchdog if we were just barking for no effect.”
By Angus Coker Grant
Lachlan Balfour: What first sparked the review?
Andrew Becroft: Well, what sparked it actually was a series of concerns that had been raised with us regarding the removal of babies, really at birth, from their mothers. And we had been concerned for a couple of weeks. Then the Hastings matter hit the headlines as well. So, fundamentally what sparked it was a series of concerns about baby uplifts. Against what will be a whole new backdrop for Oranga Tamariki from 1 July this year. Legislations changes, too. So it’s a way of saying are we being true to the legislative vision.
What legislation changes are these?
They take effect 1 July. They are in the Oranga Tamariki Act. It really is changing what was a model of reaction, S.O.S, ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, to a model of proactive, preventative intervention. And I don’t think many of the public know that’s coming. That is the new, I guess, paradigm for Oranga Tamariki. It rose out of the report 1:35, which has already been two years in the planning. But as at 1 July, it kicks into force. And to use language that a judge doesn’t often use, it is a revolution. And nothing short of a revolution is required.
So this sort of change - has this been in the works for a while?
Yeah, the legislation was passed about eighteen months to two years ago. It rose out of the expert advisory groups of the old Child, Youth and Family Service commissioned by the then-minister [Anne] Tolley. Passed into legislation, with an effect from 1 July, in two weeks time.
Up until the recent events that have occurred and being in the media, was your office aware of just exactly how this practice of uplifting was being carried out?
To be honest, we weren’t aware of some of the details and in fact the stats would show that in the last three to four years or so uplifts of Māori infants have gone from two per week to three per week. That’s only become clear pretty recently. What our review I hope will establish is how widespread this sort of practice is. What planning is going in beforehand? Are iwi being involved upfront? Are NGOs and trusted community groups being enlisted for early intervention and help? And for instance, do applications to the family court need to be made ex-parte, that is, without notice, without a chance for it to be argued on behalf of the mother? So these are all issues that have recently come to the fore that we want to get to the bottom of.
And just on the face of it, before you’ve actually carried out the review, do you have quite serious concerns about the number of Māori children that are being uplifted?
Yeah, I think it would be foolish to pretend otherwise and there’s significant government and community concern about the issue. I think all of us share an anxiety to ensure that the process is being done appropriately when it needs to be done, and the process really respects dignity and mana of those involved. I speak to psychologists who say they’re still counselling mothers years later after their child’s been uplifted at birth. I mean it’s one of the most traumatic and coercive acts the state can undertake. And it’s gotta be done well. And it’s gotta be done when it’s really necessary only. When there are significant risks, serious risks to the harm of the baby. And it’s gotta be preceded by the best preventative work we can manage.
And what exactly will the review involve?
Well it will involve going to probably half a dozen Oranga Tamariki sites. It’ll be looking at cases from those sites, interviewing whānau, family, wider family, where Māori hapu and iwi [live]. Interviewing some of those involved, maybe midwives and the like to get a sense of what happened. And also detailed interviews with Oranga Tamariki staff. We want to look at the underlying policies. We want to look at the practices, and we want to look at the processes that were involved in each case. It may take four to six months, max. Maybe shorter. But we want to have a very in-depth, what might be called deep-dive into what is going on, and to make some clear findings and where necessary recommendations, which will be public.
Do you feel there might be a bit of a gap in the legislation here, that maybe too much discretion has been given to the department on how they carry these out?
Yeah, that is a good question. Don’t forget they can only carry them out if a family court orders it. So the question is: was the right decision made in the first place to go to the family court? And then there’s a question about HOW those orders are enforced and how they’re carried out. And you can ask legitimate questions about where’s the best place to do that, at what time. I mean ideally, when it has to happen, sadly, when it has to happen, you’d want trusted community people to have been involved for a long time in advance. So that it might be well-known, it might be accepted, there might be good plans put in place, people may know exactly what’s happening. That’s what I'd look forward to.
Do you have any power to actually say to Oranga Tamariki or the government that this needs to change, ‘you have to change this’, or are you only coming in from the review, and then they can choose whether or not to take on any recommendations you give?
To be honest, the latter. We have a statutory function to monitor and assess the policies and practices of Oranga Tamariki. That’s what we're doing. We’re a statutory function to keep aspects of the entire act under review and make suggestions or recommendations to change. But further than that, we cannot go. Then it’s up to the government of the day, to make the decision. But it’s an important role and we are to that extent, a statutory watchdog. And that’s our duty.
And the legislation that comes into effect on the 1st of July, do you think this will have any effect on the practice?
I think it will. Because the whole thrust of the new model is a preventive, early-intervention model. See the old sooks were somewhat hamstrung with legislation that restricted their involvement until there was an actual need, or serious risk of removal due to serious risk to the baby and child involved. Now, it’s very clear that when that might happen, when there’s a risk of that happening, when Oranga Tamariki knows down the track it could happen they’ve gotta get involved to provide early support assistance and wrap-around service - that’s a complete change. I don’t think, as I’ve said, New Zealand knows how big [of] a change that is. Or, that they knew it was coming into force on 1 July. But really it’s turning the whole model from I guess, a rescue model to a much more, ‘stop it happening in the first place model’. That’s a significant change.
And are you hopeful that because of the level of public outcry and the media interest that your recommendations, when they do come, will be seriously considered by the government more so than maybe other things you’ve said?
Yeah I think given that it’s a hot topic, that it’s excited a lot of understandable anxiety, controversy and interest. I hope that we can provide recommendations that are constructive and sensible, and can be adopted.
Looking back at other recommendations you’ve given, does the government have a good record of taking on board what you say?
Yeah, I’ve been reasonably encouraged, y'know. We were strong that 17-year-olds should be included in the Youth Justice system. We weren’t the only voice on that by any means. But we were certainly strong on that point. That happened. We issued a report that the Care and Protection lockup big institutional residences should be closed. They should be subject to phased closure. That has happened. And we’ve made a number of recommendations regarding treatment within Youth Justice residences. That has happened. While we don’t have any power to bring our recommendations into action, much less even power to, I guess, insist they’re listened to. In practice, we are listened to, it is taken account of, and there has been significant change. I mean a kumara doesn’t tell of its own sweetness, but I wouldn’t be in this job as a watchdog if we were just barking for no effect. I mean, our barking, I hope it’s constructive, and it has brought about change.
And finally, do you think there’s a chance that the government might bring in some changes before your review is done?
Oh, if they found issues that needed to be addressed and did, all power to them. I mean I know there’s an internal review being carried out of a particular case, which the minister [Tracey Martin] announced yesterday. I see hours of complementary looking at the system as a whole and what the practices and policies are of Oranga Tamariki. But if constructive and positive improvements are brought in, well all power to the government. We’ll do our best to assist.