Ombudsman to investigate Oranga Tamariki uplifts

From Checkpoint, 5:15 pm on 19 June 2019

Ombudsman Peter Boshier says he will bring a completely open mind to his investigation of Oranga Tamariki's processes for taking newborn babies.

"My investigation will provide a broader overview aimed at identifying best practice. It is important my investigation looks into the circumstances faced by all newborns and their whānau," Mr Boshier said.

Today's announcement of a third inquiry follows backlash after Hawke's Bay hospital was put into lockdown last month, when Oranga Tamariki attempted to remove a week-old baby from its 19-year-old mother.

Mr Boshier told Checkpoint with Lisa Owen that one of the reasons he has prompted this investigation was because there have been calls for a royal commission of inquiry, or an independent inquiry.

"We've [the Ombudsman's office] been given much more authority by Cabinet to conduct a complaints oversight of Oranga Tamariki and that will result in legislation next year. 

"I want to get in now to be part of a process of seeing what might have been done better here, why complaints have given rise to so much discontent and what might be done better for the future."

While the courts were out of Mr Boshier's jurisdiction, he said he does want to inquire about the information that's being given to courts when an order for an uplift of a child is requested.

"In as much as courts act on information, if the information being given to courts isn't up to scratch and isn't of the standard that everyone would want it to be, then that's an interest of mine. 

"I don't see my looking at that as interfering in anyway with the judicial process

"The reason I say that is if Oranga Tamariki has decided it needs to get a court order, I have an interest in knowing why it's reached that stage. Look, everyone knows that a court order should be one of last resorts, and I sense the public concern here is was this really necessary? Wasn't there another way? 

"I'd like to have a good close look at that."

However, he refused to express any views on the agency or its practices, stating it would be detrimental to the inquiry.

"The reason is that I don't think it's helpful in an investigation, for someone like me, to say we're going to investigate and at the beginning express views. I want to do it in reverse, Lisa, this is why my office is so respected.

"I want to start knowing what the concern is, I don't want to comment on aspects of it, I want everyone to feel this will be fair to all, I'll form views and announce those at the end of the process.

"I've got a completely open mind as to whether Oranga Tamariki is operating properly, efficiently, appropriately, culturally.

"Everything's on the table, and I want everyone who has a concern to feel they'll be listened to, I want to give you that reassurance."

However, Mr Boshier said while there was a great deal of public concern about the Hawke's Bay case, his investigation would not focus on the actions of individuals involved in it.

"This particular case has grabbed the headlines, and I understand that. But with a cool head and in an objective way, I want to see to what extent the problem exists and what needs to be done to change this particular aspect of care, and there are a lot of others that I also want to look at and they may or may not be operating as well as they should.

"This will be a six-month investigation, it won't be just a quick in and out, and it will be one that doesn't dissect what happened every minute of every hour, of every day in the Hasting's case, others will do that. But I want to feed it into a systematic look into where is New Zealand at on this social issue."

One of those inquiries which will delve into that case is the internal inquiry by Oranga Tamariki, while another inquiry by the Children's Commissioner's is set to look into the removal process for Māori babies aged up to three months.

Mr Boshier said he hoped the commissioner's inquiry would unravel what was occurring "and see whether the process of remedying what's said to be a problem is the correct one".

In his previous role as a family court judge, Mr Boshier said he had "enormous concern" at the implications of what he was doing when signing court orders allowing children to be taken.

"Every judge is looking at that long and hard and checking their judgment and checking whether what they're doing was the right thing. It's a very very tough decision to make.

"I do want you to know that in relation to any decision like that ... depending on whether you make an order or you don't, the consequences can be horrendous. So I think judges are conscious that if you don't make an order in a certain situation and the result of that is that a baby is injured or dies, you've got to wear that."

Mr Boshier said he had assigned a team of specialist investigators in his review of agency practices and processes.

"My aim will be to complete my investigation by the end of the year, and I will then report back to Parliament.

"I intend publishing my findings and any recommendations I make. I want to give the public confidence that this issue will be looked at fairly and robustly."