Oranga Tamariki Minister 'doesn't know what's going on' - Smale

From Checkpoint, 5:12 pm on 2 July 2021

A state care survivor says recently exposed abuse at an Oranga Tamariki facility has blown the board tasked with delivering a report into the under-fire agency 'completely out of the water'.

Aaron Smale, who is also a Ngāti Porou claimant named by the Waitangi Tribunal's inquiry into Oranga Tamariki, told Checkpoint revelations of  behaviour at the Christchurch youth facility showed the agency, the minister and his advisory board were oblivious to what was going on in their own backyard.

Video footage this week showed staff members restraining youths in various holds - actions that Minister for Children Kelvin Davis called 'unacceptable'.

The advisory board, made up of chairperson Matthew Tukaki, Dame Naida Glavish, Shannon Pakura and Sir Mark Solomon, was tasked with making recommendations on the future of Oranga Tamariki. Their report has now been delayed for two weeks, with the stated reason being sickness. 
However, Smale, who is also completing his PHD on Māori tamariki in state care, said both Davis and Oranga Tamariki chief executive Sir Wira Gardiner seemed surprised at the behaviour.

He said he had no confidence in the board's report and that the video, which led to the closure of the Christchurch facility, had "completely blown them out of the water".

What was happening at the facility in Christchurch was no surprise to him. He had heard many reports of similar incidents in the last 18 months to two years, he told Checkpoint.

Davis and his advisers had tried to make it look like they were consulting, but had failed to consult with survivors and those with lived experience, so had therefore failed to identify the problems, Smale added.

"You can't solve a problem until you know what the problem is. People who've been through the system, they know what the problem is. They've had to live with it their whole lives. They continue to live with it. The Crown continues to ignore them. And he thinks he can charge off and fix the problem."

Smale said Davis would join a long queue of people over the last 50 to 60 years who had ignored the needs of those most directly affected by abuse.

The minister had managed to get before a governance group of senior Māori leaders concerned about how Oranga Tamariki was functioning, but that was just "chit chat" with "no substance", he said.

"The advisory panel certainly hasn't spoken to me and I'm not sure that it's spoken to many of the other claimants," he added. Although Tukaki did attend a claimants' meeting, Smale conceded.

The lack of an appropriate approach by the advisory board was concerning because the Waitangi Tribunal had made it clear the Crown needed to talk to the claimants, Smale said.

Two weeks ago at the Royal Commission of Inquiry into abuse police apologised about not listening to former Lake Alice patients.

"They failed to listen to survivors; they were failing to listen to them as children. They have not listened to them as adults and now, they're not listening to them again," he said.

Smale also took aim at iwi leaders, saying many gang members had asked him where were iwi leaders when they were being beaten up and abused in state institutions. He accused the leaders of taking the media spotlight when it suited them.

"This has been going on for a long time - it hasn't suddenly dropped out of the sky in the last two years. It has been going on for decades."

Minister responds

Kelvin Davis said in a statement to Checkpoint that the advisory board had consulted widely across New Zealand and both Oranga Tamariki, the board and he had met with Smale.

"I would encourage anyone to wait until they have read the board's final report, and my decision around the future direction of Oranga Tamariki, before questioning their legitimacy."

Tukaki said in a statement that the advisory board had held more than 70 hui and engagements across Aotearoa in  the last 13 weeks.

This included a meeting with the claimant group and the board also handed over their boardroom for the group to hui amongst themselves.

In addition, the board had met with a number of the lead claimants as individuals and representing other groups, he said.

He added board members were in direct contact with many of those lead claimants and had also provided some of their leadership group with updates as recently as the last fortnight.

A process had also been established for whānau to have their cases monitored, Tukaki said.

"I would urge everyone to pause and allow us to get on with the job we have been tasked to do. My primary concern, and that of the board, is our children and whānau involved in the system now and to do all we can to improve their future while at the same time to reduce the number of children coming into the system.

"We can only do that by working together and not in silos."