Low confidence new Oranga Tamariki laws will help Māori

11:55 am on 19 June 2019

Support workers remain unconvinced that new Oranga Tamariki laws will deliver immediate improvements for Māori in the system.

Unrecognizable mother holding her newborn baby son in her arms, close up of legs and hands.

Photo: 123rf

The agency's new legislation will be introduced on 1 July and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said better care standards would improve outcomes for tamariki.

It comes as public scrutiny grows over the treatment of Māori in state care.

Wesley Community Action director David Hanna said his organisation in Porirua works with 200 families, and staff had seen appalling practices within Oranga Tamariki.

He is not confident that Māori will be treated any better in the system when the new laws come into force in less than a fortnight.

"I don't sense a high degree of optimism like suddenly there is going to be a bright new future," he said.

"There is also a sense that legislation feels very remote for people working in very challenging situations."

For many Māori, the most promising feature of the new legislation is Section 7aa, which binds Oranga Tamariki to Te Tiriti o Waitangi, meaning it must work more closely with Māori and iwi and devolve its resources.

Community social worker Joy Bullen said they had to hold onto hope that it would change best practices within the agency, but she warned that social workers must become more culturally competent.

"This is an opportunity for Māori to sit beside Oranga Tamariki and co-design good outcomes because we sure as hell have not got them at the moment," Ms Bullen said.

"And no amount of telling me that every social worker wants to do the best thing will convince me that that's true."

The Oranga Tamariki Act 1989 compels the agency to take the child's mana, connections and family into account when making decisions about them.

But Mr Hanna said it also has parts which can be interpreted as uplifting children early and getting them into permanent care.

"There are some contradictory parts of the legislation which is going to be challenging for the Family Courts to interpret.

"It is up to all of us to be really proactive and to use the Māori dimensions and the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Children aspects of that legislation."

'Māori in danger of losing another generation'

Lawyer Tania Williams Blyth has been training community workers all over the country about the rights whānau have under the new Act.

She said Section 7aa and the inclusion of mana tamaiti, whakapapa and whanaungatanga provide the strongest platform for change for Māori, but there were clear tensions in the legislation.

For example, the subsequent child law, which is already in place, means that if a mother has a child uplifted by the state then any future babies can automatically be taken at birth.

And Ms Williams Blyth said that worked against mana tamaiti, whakapapa and whanaungatanga.

"That means that Māori are in danger of losing another generation of children, and we can see that being played out in what happened in the Hawkes' Bay and what is reflected in the latest statistic in the increase in the number of Māori babies being removed from whānau."

The recent Hawke's Bay incident involved the controversial attempt to remove a baby from its Māori mother at the hospital, sparking public outrage. Two inquiries will look into what happened.

Ms Williams Blyth said the role of the Family Court needed to be brought into the discussion, and she was not confident that it was ready to get on board with the new approach.

"For the legislation to work, because the Family Court will be the ultimate decision maker, it is important that the judges are culturally competent, and that is not the current position."

She said the original child welfare laws 30 years ago also provided for strong partnerships with Māori but that didn't eventuate because managers and staff were not on board with it.

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