Ombudsman report – significant breaches by Oranga Tamariki ‘uplifting’ babies

Following revelations by Newsroom in June 2019 the Ombudsman investigated the Oranga Tamariki (Ministry for Children), and in a report to Parliament “the ministry used its most extreme powers as a routine way to remove babies” from mothers.

Newsroom: An orchestrated litany of uplifts

The inquiry, by the Office of the Ombudsman, is the fourth following Newsroom’s revelations in June last year of an attempted ‘uplift’ by Oranga Tamariki of a newborn boy at Hawke’s Bay Hospital.

It looked back two years before that June 2019 case and in 74 of the 74 cases of baby removals it inspected, the ministry had applied to the Family Court for the draconian ‘without notice’ orders to take babies from parents. 

All 74 cases.

The ‘without notice’ provision is supposed to be the final option in cases of urgency where a baby is at serious risk and all other options have been tried.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier’s report presents a litany of failure by Oranga Tamariki, saying in three quarters of the cases the ministry had more than 60 days to prepare for the baby’s arrival, hold meetings with whānau and iwi, seek ministry legal officer input, consult with hospitals and hold Family Group Conferences but did not do so.

He accepts applications were made because ministry staff had serious concerns for pēpi (babies), but it was essential staff understood and followed the law. Instead, OT failed its obligations under New Zealand and international law.

Boshier flatly declares the Oranga Tamariki decision making practices in the two years covered by his inquiry to be “unreasonable”.

“The evidence I have considered did not demonstrate that the ministry consistently met the objects and principles of the Act and the obligations under international law.”

From the report Foreword:

In May 2019, approximately halfway through the Ministry’s five-year transformation programme, Newsroom published a story about an attempt by the Ministry to remove a newborn pēpi from their young mother. The video documentary that later accompanied the original written article gave rise to public dismay and a questioning of the Ministry’s policies and practices.

The Government expressed confidence in the actions of the Ministry, yet media reports of further examples continued.

That confidence appears to have been misplaced.

My investigation found that the Ministry was usually aware of the pregnancy and reported concerns for a significant period before the birth of pēpi. In 77 percent of the cases I examined, the Ministry had 60 working days or more to assess and explore options, and to develop plans to ensure the safety of pēpi. However, the Ministry did not consistently utilise the available tools and mechanisms, such as hui ā-whānau and FGCs, to engage early with parents and whānau.

The Ministry also did not use that window of opportunity to plan early with professionals and external parties. In most of the cases, the Ministry did not meet the formal timeframe for completing its assessments. I also found variable use of the key checks and balances, such as referrals to Care and Protection Resource Panels, use of the Child and Family Consult, professionals meetings, completion of the Ministry’s assessment tool (Tuituia) and professional supervision.

The outcome is that in many cases decisions were being made late and without expert advice or independent scrutiny, and, most concerningly, without whānau involvement.

Key findings:

  • I found that urgency was created through the Ministry’s inaction and lack of capacity to follow processes in a timely and effective way. As a consequence, parents were disadvantaged—first, by not having an opportunity to respond to the allegations or challenge the information relied upon by the Ministry before their pēpi were removed, and second, by having to challenge orders after they were made, and when the parents were vulnerable because they were either heavily pregnant or had just given birth.
  • I found that the rights of disabled parents were not visible in either policy or practice. All the cases I reviewed required a disability rights-based response from the Ministry but this did not occur. That is a significant breach of the Disability Convention.
  • In terms of the Ministry’s practices relating to the physical removal of newborn pēpi, my investigation also found there was late or limited planning and engagement with parents and whānau and other external professionals.
  • I also found limited support was offered to mothers who wished to breastfeed.
  • Finally, I am not satisfied that, when the removal was executed by the Ministry, it provided parents and whānau with the opportunity for ngākau maharatanga me te ngākau aroha; a period of ‘quality time’ that reflects consideration, empathy, sympathy and love.
  • In addition, the Ministry did not ensure that the parents and whānau had their support people present. Nor did it provide them with clear information on next steps. There was also no support offered to parents and whānau to deal with the trauma and grief of child removal, or to help their healing.

This is strong criticism of Oranga Tamariki – Newsroom says the report is ‘scathing’ and is a ‘damning inquiry’.

In a Beehive media release Minister for Children – Subsequent children legislation to change – Tracey Martin downplayed the problems.

“There are times when children need to go into care for their safety – the safety and care of children must always be paramount,” Minister Martin said. “But we all know that the best thing for children is that they are safe and loved at home. Interpretation of the current law has meant that some children may have been unnecessarily traumatised and kept apart from their parents.”

Minister Martin said the Government will remove the provisions covering cases where a parent had a previous child permanently taken into care but will retain those for subsequent children where a parent has a conviction for the murder, manslaughter or infanticide of a child in their care.

Martin didn’t specifically mention the Ombudsman report, which I think is a remarkable avoidance, but did refer to “a review of the provisions this year found that they are not always effective, and can have a negative impact on children, parents and whānau.”

“The review showed that change to the law is needed,” the Minister said.

Amended operational policy and guidance will ensure robust assessments of safety and wellbeing when younger siblings come to the notice of Oranga Tamariki. New monitoring and reporting for subsequent children will also support better oversight of social work practice and monitor changes over time. Interim guidance will also be developed to support social work practice between now and when the partial repeal takes effect.

“Oranga Tamariki will also do further work on developing supports for parents and whānau who have had a child permanently removed from their care,” Minister Martin said.

This will be focused on reducing the risk of possible future children requiring care or protection, maintaining the best possible relationship with their children in care and supporting them with the associated grief, loss and trauma.

The timing of changes to operational policy and practice, monitoring and reporting, and potential changes to support for parents and whānau, will be aligned with the passing of an Amendment Bill to partially repeal the subsequent children provisions. The work to support this is being done now so that the Amendment Bill can be introduced to the House next year, and once passed, the changes can be implemented together.

This from Stuff seems to have pre-empted the report, in part making excuses and downplaying the problems – Tracey Martin on uplift controversy: Oranga Tamariki ‘believed the child was in danger’:

Oranga Tamariki minister Tracey Martin is to scrap Children’s Teams, small task forces set up to stop at-risk children from falling into state care.

The move comes as the Government tries to wrestle back control of the narrative in an explosive debate over the number of Māori children taken into care.

Hundreds of protesters rallied at Parliament on Tuesday, calling for a halt to Government uplifts of Māori babies. Protests were also held in other cities.

Martin said the “emotive” language used by organisers Hands off our Tamariki wasn’t helpful.

I hope she finds the report from the Ombudsman a lot more helpful.

The full report from the Ombudsman:

A Matter of Urgency:

Investigation Report into policies, practices and procedures for the removal of newborn pēpi by Oranga Tamariki, Ministry for Children

Oranga Tamariki a scapegoat for serious societal problems – our problems

As a number of people have said, Oranga Tamariki is damned if they do  take babies from mothers, but they are also damned if babies are left in the care of at risk families and are seriously harmed or killed.

It may be found that Oranga Tamariki can improve procedures around the ‘uplifting’ of babies – taking a baby from a mother should only be done if there are no other safe options for the baby, a last resort.

The ‘uplifting baby’ issue is an unfortunate symptom of serious societal problems.

A family lawyer writes:  The other side of the Oranga Tamariki baby uplift story

It’s hard watching, but it didn’t leave me wondering how Oranga Tamariki could be so cruel, or how the social worker could have made such an error of judgment, or why the family wasn’t given a chance to try, or how our legal system could allow such an injustice to happen.

I didn’t wonder, because I’m a family lawyer. Everyday I spend my 8.30 till 5  – but usually longer – dealing with the effects that drugs and alcohol, child abuse, domestic violence, neglect and poor choices have on our tamariki. I knew there’d be another side to that story, one the public won’t hear because everyone who could tell it is bound by court confidentiality.

New Zealand has the highest rates of reported domestic violence in the OECD, and Hawke’s Bay has the highest rates in New Zealand. Our rates of child abuse also leave us as an outlier among our OECD friends.

Domestic violence impacts either directly or indirectly on babies and children, and is a far bigger problem than uplifting babies (which is done to try to prevent harm).

Protection orders and domestic violence are the family lawyer’s bread and butter. There are few cases in which methamphetamine or violence isn’t an issue. We attempt to get parents to engage, and address the issues placing their children at risk. We fight every day for the children who do not get a say in their own welfare. Oranga Tamariki does this too.

The decision to uplift is never made by one person acting alone, or without professional consultation. It’s never made without genuine care and protection concerns.

Social workers and Oranga Tamariki almost certainly almost always have genuine care and protection concerns when mking decisions on the safety of babies.

Children must first come to the attention of Oranga Tamariki via a report of concern – schools, doctors, or people within the community are making these reports, which social workers are tasked with investigating. Attempts are made to engage with families. But if families refuse to engage, and concerns are substantiated, little choice is left for Oranga Tamariki.

In serious cases, a “without notice” application is made to the Family Court, for a decision on an uplift before the parents have a chance to be heard by the judge. An order without notice has to reach a very high threshold, so many things have to happen before that point.

I’d rather open the newspaper and read an article slamming Oranga Tamariki for getting it wrong than read yet again about a child being killed at the hands of the person tasked with keeping them safe. They’re the decisions Oranga Tamariki has to make on a daily basis – and they’re damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

The current focus is on the procedures used by Oranga Tamariki in uplifting some babies, but…

The blame sits on all of our shoulders.

Oranga Tamariki has the job no-one else wants.

We should be asking ourselves what we can do to help address domestic violence, drugs and alcohol, and child abuse – regardless of a child’s bloodlines. If you are lucky enough to not be faced with these issues, you are privileged and you have a duty to use that privilege to help those without.

Drug reform? More supportive live-in facilities for new parents? More stopping violence education? Further Māori education? I don’t know the magic answer, but I urge you: instead of jumping on the  “Oranga Tamariki is wrong” bandwagon, have a think about how you can become an ally to improve our culture for the sake of our children.

A culture is created on the actions and intentions of a society. A society creates a culture, and a society can therefore recreate it.

It’s easy to sit back and criticise others, and too think that domestic violence, all violence in society, isn’t our problem, it’s something we can blame on others.

But uplifting babies, and babies being hurt and killed, is just one of the worst aspects of a sick society that we are all a part of.

Domestic violence can be physical, and it can also be verbal (thee two are usually associated).

Online violence is ‘just’ verbal – but there is a lot of verbal abuse on online forums, there are frequent personal attacks. There is a lot of vile and violent behaviour online. This can normalise abuse and violence, that can affect the use of violence in the physical world.

Confronting online abuse and violence must play a part in confronting societal abuse and violence – but it can be bloody difficult. Online abusers tend to react badly to having their behaviour challenged and criticised. They tend to attack anyone who questions their behaviour – I know this from ten years of experience confronting online abuse.

And when other people see this happening I’m sure it deters them from doing likewise and challenging abusive behaviour.

This also happens in the offline world.

It’s easier to lash out and blame social workers and Oranga Tamariki.

Uplifting babies and interfering in families can be a very emotional issue – but so is domestic abuse and violence, for many more babies and children.

Drug abuse, alcohol abuse, violence – these are the core problems that lead to many other societal problems.

Societal problems need society solutions. Blaming others is not a solution. We all have to take some responsibility. Society is made up of many attitudes and actions, which we all contribute to.

I’m not a violent person, but I feel a responsibility to do something about violent and abusive behaviour.  I think we should all be thinking about how we can make our society safer for babies, for children, for all of us.

The famaiy lawyer says:

I don’t know the magic answer, but I urge you: instead of jumping on the  “Oranga Tamariki is wrong” bandwagon, have a think about how you can become an ally to improve our culture for the sake of our children.