Oranga Tamariki
Where to from here?

In April 2017, the statutory care and protection agency for Aotearoa (formerly Child, Youth and Family – CYF) re-established themselves as Oranga Tamariki, committing to a five-year transformational plan to overhaul the culture and practice of the entire organisation. In November last year, Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu and Oranga Tamariki entered into a Strategic Partnership, in keeping with the government agency’s intention to work more closely with iwi to improve outcomes for Māori. Kaituhi Anna Brankin reports.

Above: Representatives from Oranga Tamariki and Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu at the signing of the Strategic Partnership in November 2018. Left to right: Grant Bennett, Peter Whitcombe, Ana Beaton, Helen Leahy, Eru Tarena, Amber Clarke, Kiri Williams, Gráinne Moss, Arihia Bennett, Hana O’Regan, Michelle Turrall, Donna Matahaere-Atariki.

In July 2015 an Expert Advisory Panel determined unequivocally that CYF (Child, Youth and Family) was failing to meet the needs of the children they dealt with – in particular, the disproportionate number of Māori who constituted more than half of all children in care. These findings came as no surprise to most of the families and caregivers who had been involved with the organisation throughout its 28 years of operation. CYF had become notorious for its high rates of state care, poor early intervention services, and refusal to work in partnership with Māori.

Oranga Tamariki is now two years into a five-year plan to address these shortcomings, but the organisation is struggling to earn back the trust of the communities it serves. This lack of trust is due not only to past failings, but to ongoing situations in which Oranga Tamariki has reportedly come up short.

Many readers will be familiar with recent cases that have gained widespread attention in the media – including a TradeMe advert last year for a caregiver that included personal information about the child, and the recent high profile investigation by Newsroom into the uplifting of Māori babies.

Unsurprisingly, there has been a public outcry. An online petition to change the name of Oranga Tamariki has been widely circulated, arguing that the organisation is not upholding the mana of the kupu they have chosen as their identity. An open letter from a group of Māori lawyers, midwives, social workers, and academics called “Hands Off Our Tamariki” is calling on the government to put an immediate stop to the uplifting of Māori children. Well-known Māori figures have called for Oranga Tamariki CEO Gráinne Moss to resign.

In light of these issues, how should Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu approach a relationship with an organisation that seems unable – or unwilling – to escape its bad reputation? “At the end of the day, we have to remember that this is about improving outcomes for Māori children and their whānau. We don’t have the luxury of waiting until ‘the right time’ to act,” says Donna Matahaere-Atariki (Ngāi Tahu – Ōtākou).

“Iwi need to acknowledge that these are our children, and that we need to take responsibility for them. That doesn’t mean that we won’t hold Oranga Tamariki to account if we have to, but we need to look for the opportunities and create solutions together.”

Donna has worked closely with Oranga Tamariki for several years, originally as Consulting GM, Māori; and more recently as a member of the Māori Design Group that provides advice directly to the CEO and senior leadership team. She is also the chair of Te Rūnanga o Ōtākou, the chair and co-founder of Te Kāika health hub, and a well-known advocate for disadvantaged Māori in the education, health, and social welfare systems.

Donna’s experience with Oranga Tamariki has left her critically optimistic about the future, provided that Oranga Tamariki are honest about the need to focus on practise and get this consistent. Donna has seen first-hand the genuine goodwill to embed the necessary changes into their organisational culture – a process that she says will take time.

“There is an absolute readiness and preparedness at a national level from Oranga Tamariki. But it’s not something where you can say, ‘As of 5 o’clock today we will be a new organisation,’” she says.

The next step in the transformational plan took place on 1 July this year, when new National Care Standards came into effect under the Oranga Tamariki Act 1989. These regulations set out the standard of care every child and young person in care needs to improve their wellbeing and outcomes, as well as what caregivers can expect from their role.

The National Care Standards also require Oranga Tamariki to demonstrate true partnership with iwi and Māori health and social service providers. Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu CEO Arihia Bennett says this offers a real opportunity for both parties to give real effect to the Strategic Partnership signed in November last year.

“When I look back there’s been a myriad of mad, bad, and sad things going on; with children and their families being further victimised by the cumbersome and difficult aspects of the organisation,” she says, drawing on her own experience in social work.

“The point of difference that I see now is an honest, well-intended direction from the national and regional leadership teams. Through that, our Oranga team at Te Rūnanga has been able to work with Oranga Tamariki to identify the tangible outcomes we can create together.”

The aspirations of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu are simple: to decrease the number of our tamariki in care, while continuing to ensure that those in care have access to the support available to all Ngāi Tahu members.

“It’s important to be clear that we are not looking to replace Oranga Tamariki, because they actually have a statutory responsibility to provide care and protection for our tamariki and we intend to hold them to that,” Arihia explains.

“What we can do is add to their services and use our resources to support the 270 or so Ngāi Tahu tamariki that are within the system, and at the other end, work closely with whānau to prevent others from entering it.”

“If I can help [tamariki Māori] reconnect with their whakapapa with their hapū, iwi and marae, then it will help open new doorways for them. The mana and role for guiding tamariki Māori on this awesome journey of rediscovery resides with their whānau, hapū and iwi.”
Joe Wakefield Ngāi Tahu – Ōraka Aparima

Other avenues the iwi is exploring include working with Oranga Tamariki staff to build their knowledge and understanding of te ao Māori and Ngāi Tahu, as well as providing training and support for Ngāi Tahu whānau who are interested in becoming caregivers. Like Donna, Arihia is realistic about the time it will take to develop and implement these solutions.

“One of the things that I experienced over years of working in child protection is that nothing happens overnight,” she says. “There needs to be short, medium, and long-term approaches to keep Ngāi Tahu tamariki and rangatahi out of care.”

This far-sighted approach is what makes Oranga Tamariki CEO Gráinne Moss excited to work with Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu.

“Iwi, and in this case Ngāi Tahu, are the mana whenua – they’re here for the long haul,” she says. “The commitment they have to their whānau is a commitment like no other. That really does change the nature of the conversation, because the time frame that they’re talking about is indefinite, really.”

To date, Oranga Tamariki has signed Strategic Partnerships with Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, Waikato-Tainui, and Te Rūnanga-ā-Iwi o Ngāpuhi. Gráinne says the organisation has welcomed the opportunity to learn from these relationships.

“Every time that we work with iwi, every time that we hear new ideas, every time that we’re challenged and every time that we’re complimented – that’s a learning for the entire organisation,” she says.

Gráinne doesn’t shy away from difficult questions about Oranga Tamariki, and readily acknowledges that there is always room for improvement.

“But there are also wonderful success stories, and for me it is important to look at the whole. Children don’t come into care unless there has been some stress or trauma in their life, and that is why social workers need to be highly skilled,” she says. She explains that in the coming months, staff at Oranga Tamariki will be required to demonstrate an increased level of cultural competency and knowledge of te ao Māori.

The organisation has also created the role of Kairaranga-ā-Whānau, a specialist Māori role that builds trusting relationships that help heal, restore mana, establish connections and support decision-making for tamariki Māori and their whānau. The Kairaranga-ā-Whānau bring specific cultural skills, knowledge and experience to help them establish strong, trusting and culturally responsive relationships. They also look into the whakapapa of tamariki Māori, searching for suitable caregivers in the event that they are required, in keeping with the desire to keep tamariki within their whānau.

“The iwi preference for whānau care fits in brilliantly with the aspirations of Oranga Tamariki,” says Gráinne. “The vast majority of research tells us that it’s the best outcome for the children. The number of tamariki in whānau care here in Aotearoa – just under 65 per cent – far outweighs any other jurisdiction in the world.”

Above: Kairaranga-ā-Whānau Joe Wakefield says that his passion for Ngāi Tahutanga is one of the reasons he has chosen to work at Oranga Tamariki.

Joe Wakefield (Ngāi Tahu – Ōraka Aparima) has been working as the Kairaranga-ā-Whānau for the Southland region since April 2018. “With all the changes going on within Oranga Tamariki, and because this is a new role, the challenge for me right now is to ensure that my role and functions are firmly embedded in as normal practice in going forward so that we can work more effectively with tamariki Māori and their whānau, hapū and iwi, as well as with our local Maori Health and Social Service providers and NGOs.”

Joe’s well-known passion for whakapapa serves as his motivation, and he loves being able to help tamariki and their whānau reconnect. “I come across a lot of tamariki Māori who have no knowledge of their identity. This can easily lead them down the wrong pathway and hence into trouble,” he says, “because they don’t know who they are or where they’re from – they’re not grounded. If I can help them reconnect with their whakapapa with their hapū, iwi and marae, then it will help open new doorways for them. The mana and role for guiding tamariki Māori on this awesome journey of rediscovery resides with their whānau, hapū and iwi.”

Sonia Rahiti (Ngāi Tahu – Ōraka Aparima) is a caregiver based in Riverton. She has seen first-hand how that connection to whakapapa has benefited the two young boys who have been in her care since April last year.

“When Oranga Tamariki asked me to take the boys I wasn’t sure if I was up for it, but then they told me that they were Ngāi Tahu. Once I knew that, I couldn’t say no,” she laughs.

“They’ve now reconnected with our marae, they’re in the rūnaka kapa haka group that I run, they’ve had a helicopter ride to Rarotoka, and this season we took them down to our muttonbird island.

“It’s given them that sense of, ‘This is my place, this is where I belong,’” she continues. “I honestly believe that makes such a difference. They knew none of that before. I don’t even think they knew they were Ngāi Tahu.”

The boys have flourished in the care of Sonia and her husband Emil, a fact that she puts down to a stable and loving environment and – much to her surprise – the support of their social worker.

“I’ve been dealing with Oranga Tamariki or CYF for over 30 years now, and most of those experiences haven’t been great, if I’m being honest,” she says. “I wasn’t expecting much of a difference, but the boys were assigned this particular social worker who has been fantastic – she went over and above to make sure they got the proper care.”

Thanks to that care and support, Sonia says that the boys are totally different people to the dysfunctional tamariki she first met over a year ago. “It has also helped that I knew the system a lot better, and
I knew what to ask for,” she says.

Marg Henry (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Ngāi Tahu, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Porou) says that having prior experience with Oranga Tamariki would have made a big difference to her expectations when she became a first-time caregiver last year. She and husband Eugene made the decision to open their home after seeing media coverage about tamariki Māori who had been abused in care.

“Before we had even been approved as carers we had a few phone calls from Oranga Tamariki asking if we could take a baby, and every time it came to nothing,” she recollects. “Finally we got a phone call asking if we would take two Ngāi Tahu tamariki – a brother and sister in an urgent situation.”

The couple immediately wanted to know more about the children’s background, and were left disappointed by the lack of wraparound services for the young mother. “We got into this because we’re interested in helping the whānau getting well, and getting to a position where they can have their tamariki back,” Marg says.

Donna says this is a complaint she has heard time and again in her years of working in this space. “To be fair to the social workers, their responsibility is to manage risk, and it’s a lot easier to do that by placing a child in care,” she says philosophically. “It’s very hard to keep them with their whānau when there is a history of risk involved. That’s where iwi come in – that’s the hard work we have to do, making sure our whānau are equipped to care for themselves. Iwi should be a korowai of care around not just the tamariki, but the entire whānau.”

In the coming months, Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu will continue to weave that korowai, and will work closely with Oranga Tamariki as they implement the next steps in their five-year plan. As Joe puts it, the proof will be in the pudding.

“If you’ve got goodwill and staff who are open-minded enough to embrace the changes, then we should start to see some really different results. We should see a decrease in the number of Māori children going into care. We should see better engagement with Māori health and social service providers. And we should see it in our whānau and the way they interact with us, as they learn to trust Oranga Tamariki again.”