Oranga Tamariki – A Tipping Point?

Like many of us recently, I have watched the ‘baby uplift’ footage story featured in Newsroom and read some of the avalanche of concerned and outraged commentary that has followed. I found the story disturbing on many levels – extremely disturbing but, sadly, not surprising. I think that the practice on display and the media responses from the Oranga Tamariki hierarchy illustrate deep-seated systemic problems within the state child protection system in Aotearoa New Zealand.

It is easy to blame individual practitioners for poor social work. We need to beware of simplifications and we need to think critically about the wider system which produces this sort of apparently abysmal practice. It is also easy (and completely inaccurate) to suggest that OT workers are incompetent and uncaring child snatchers or to argue that social workers are hopelessly misunderstood as they battle to save the nation’s children from monstrous parents. The current furore pushes people into these polarised positions.

Child protection is always emotive. We have long known that policy can be driven by moral panic – over-determined by either the death and abuse of children at home or in care. In this blog-space we have been suggesting for several years now that the reforms set in train by the Expert Advisory Panel process were likely to result in more children entering the care system – the safe, stable and loving milk and honey homes we continue to hear so much bullshit about. On one level the proposed policy shift was naïve. On another it was eugenic.

Where do these children allegedly in need of saving come from? They come from young disproportionately Maori mothers with a history of struggle – women who are coping with stressful economic and social circumstances and challenging relationships against a background of poverty. We are talking about clearly racist practice outcomes. The figures collated by Emily Keddell and others tell a very clear story. But we are not generally talking about the children of middle-class Maori. We are talking about people without power and all people with a sense of justice should be concerned to change this practice reality and change it quickly.

In acute risk situations child removal sometimes needs to happen, although it should seldom have to happen for long. However, it is generally not children on the brink of being battered to death who are removed. Babies are more likely to be removed in chronic situations where concerns are added up and seen (subjectively) to be too high. We are often told that Custody Orders are issued by the Family Court, but in practice this is a poor accountability check. It is a very brave Judge who will refuse to grant a without notice Order when a risk averse affidavit is filed. Such narratives are not difficult to construct and they are constructed by social workers.

The current organisational context of Oranga Tamariki does not adequately support competent social work on the ground with high needs whanau. The reform process has seen resources syphoned off to fund endless bureaucratic National Office think-tank type exercises, speculative co-design initiatives, a plethora of highly paid planning and development jobs (many with very silly names) – over-paid managerial positions filled with people who for the most part have little or no knowledge of what quality social work practice requires. At the site level social workers are stretched, often under-supported and sadly, at times, with a poor understanding of their roles and responsibilities.

National and Regional structures are risk-averse and social workers who are on the ground with families in need are not empowered to exercise their professional discretion. To return briefly to the chaotic Hawkes Bay debacle; when things change, when you are confronted with new information – with responsive family and supporters, with a shifting context, you need to be empowered to change your position, re-calibrate, be reflective and creative – play what is in front of you!   This does not happen when social workers are slaves to a risk-driven hierarchy and are simply unable to deviate from predetermined decisions made by others.

It is sad to see this. Social workers need to be empowered to understand the law, their roles and resourced to do their jobs rather than be treated as puppets. It is infuriating to hear the OT Chief Executive telling us that all is well because her Agency has good intentions, and the work is difficult, you know, or that it is okay because most tamariki Maori aren’t in care. Give me strength!

As I have argued young parents who are struggling need help, not the hammer of the state. That is what social work is for. Sometimes drastic action needs to be taken but most of the time there is another way. Many, perhaps most, OT social workers aspire to this but they lack the tools, resources and the consistent support that is required.

The left arm of the state needs to be directed to keeping children out of care – working with the reality of stressed whanau – re-weaving the plaited mat – not fixing kids with de-traumatising love once they are removed. This juggernaut needs to be turned – maybe we now have the catalyst.

Image Credit: Lawrence Whittemore

27 replies on “Oranga Tamariki – A Tipping Point?”

This is very helpful for those of us not in the system but puzzled by the extremes of what is said. Thank you Ian. Like so many aspects of the welfare state things seem broken. Overwhelming failures where ever you look, especially at the poverty picture. We should be having a national debate about poverty, but instead, the $ 2 million Whakamana Tangata report has been inexplicably buried. The government’s budget highlighted the cost of removing the sanction that affects sole parents who for good reasons do not want to name the father. It is like been told to be grateful to the abuser when the abuse stops. That is the main policy that has been announced so far…..

Thanks for your input Susan – yep all the policy design initiatives and talk about well-being doesn’t put kai on the table, clothes on your kids and a decent roof over your head. Same way that big picture consultative co-design exercises don’t help over-loaded social workers do a decent job when working with whanau to make tough decisions. I do fear that OT will scramble to co-opt the current back-lash into the corporate business case problem solving circus – that is the only script they seem to have and no doubt the cogs are turning in the machine bureaucracy as we speak.

And I agree – A bit of good old fashioned wealth and power redistribution is needed and we are mostly still waiting for this Government to step up the plate.

well, there is to be an inquiry…..or was that an offer to light the gas…..not holding my breath

It is heartbreaking that Maori babies are disproportionately uplifted in comparison to most other babies. Maori are over represented in a number of areas which indicate social deprivation, poorer health outcomes, lessor educational achievement and lower incomes (in comparison to pakeha) to name a few. These are indicators of societial wide racism and prejudice toward Maori, we’re we to address this in the first instance then without doubt we would also be addressing the number of Maori babies uplifted. To lay it at the feet of one organisation, OT, ignores the societial context which these uplifts takes place in.

Thanks for your thoughts Hitendra – yes, this is about much more than OT. The wider context of systemic racism and inequality – in the sense of a dominant liberal capitalist individualised model of social and economic life imposed through the process of colonisation – is the background to whanau distress.

The state care process has also been donkey deep in generating social suffering. And of course child maltreatment is a real, dangerous and complex fact that needs to be worked with effectively. Child maltreatment is found across all social classes and ethnic groups. So — the issues and answers are not simple but we do need to seriously question whether the current OT model of service development has got it right. Many of us don’t think so.

Thanks Ian, my concern abut the current commentary is the emotive rhetoric that takes place off the back of one highly publicised situation, where few if any of the commentators know the specific context or background to the situation and it has become a cattle cry of racist practice aimed at Oranga Tamariki. This invariably takes aim at individual social workers in effect identifying them as racist, and not helped by reporter Melanie Reid’s lack of remorse in showing the faces of the social workers. I doubt that any social worker in OT deliberately uplifts babies on the basis of ethnicity. Perturbing are some of the inaccuracies in the documentary, particularly around what is described as a ‘family meeting’ and then later called an FGC , if this becomes the public understanding of OT processes then this interpretation is a poor one.

Backtracking slightly, I do not doubt for a moment that there are problems with the disproportionate number of Maori babies uplifted by OT and I as suggested in my earlier comment that this is reflective of wider structural concerns which discriminate against Maori. When I look at the structure of University departments and the leadership within there are similar or even greater levels of prejudice, without dramatic music or babies involved. Within OT there is an awareness of the disparity between Maori and non-Maori addressed in forthcoming legislative changes, again, my concerns with the current debate is the emotive rhetoric running alongside the current news cycle of this particular story. I do hope that there is an informed, evidenced and constructive discussion that takes place once the dust settles, at present, I don’t yet see one.

Thanks Hitendra – As said, people easily get pushed into righteous and polarised positions in situations like this. I agree that the context is complex but I also think that there is a serious problem with the support for (and vision of) child and family-centred practice within the current OT set up – and that the present organisational / social work development plan does not adequately address front line practice realities. I am hoping that we get a really serious re-think of service delivery priorities. As many people are pointing out this needs to be done in real open partnership with Maori.

In many ways I wish the current abuse in state care Royal Commission had happened before the reform of OT because this would likely have produced a more far-sighted and durable outcome. I don’t have a problem with the fact that sometimes children need to come out of immediate family care. I worked in this system for twenty years after all and I know it will never be perfect – but I also believe that skilled, careful and creative practice with whanau can prevent the need for removal when there is risk in most situations – and I think social workers at the front end of practice need to be equipped to do the challenging work. I also think we need to recognise that front-line state social work will only ever be part of the solution.

Lastly – as far as the ivory tower goes, yes tertiary institutions are caught up in the same inequalities as we see across our society. Inequality and racist processes and outcomes are about more than attitudes – they are related to power structures and institutions. Unequal outcomes are connected with our colonial history and prejudices but also with our economic system which reproduces class based disparities of wealth, education and opportunity. We need to build a less stratified society and a more humane and integrated child protection system is a part of the puzzle. At least, that is what I think – and the wider aim this re-imagining social work site is to encourage others to join this conversation.

I totally agree with both Ian and Susan. Thank you.
This is a systemic failure!!!
Poverty combined with a total lack of support to young Maori mothers perpetuates this cycle. Puao-te-ata-tu told us what was needed and the CYPF Act showed us how to actively ‘support whanau’ to keep their children cared for and protected.
Unfortunately successive governments have thwarted these aims by systematically reducing and then stopping any funding to support our tamariki to stay within their families and for those families to be ‘enabled’ with therapeutic support to provide the care and protection these children need.
FGC’s became the cheap option to move children without providing whanau with the real intensive support they needed when caring for traumatised children. We now are aware that supposedly state cared for children were moved countless times from caregiver to caregiver where they were often either further abused or inadequately supported. These traumatised children then became parents themselves who didn’t know how to care for others as no-one had cared for them and the cycle is perpetuated.
With neuroscience we know how taking children from their mothers is harmful yet we continue to do it. Mothers need to be mothered in those early days to be able to bond and attach to their babies. That is the first building block of life.
Lets support these young mothers and stop traumatising yet another generation.
Social workers need to reflect on the system they are working within and as change agents consider how they can support a more caring, skilled and compassionate response to these complex situations.
Standing up against this systemic failure is not easy and some Social Workers will take such criticism personally. We are bigger than this. Kia kaha

Sudanese mothers taught me how the village community would provide a supportive space for 40 days for mother and baby to be together while the rest of the family and community cared for her and her family. Mother and baby nests within the Maori community could be one way to change this perpetuating cycle. Lets ask Maori what they need to ‘heal their own soul wounds’.

Thanks very much for this Anne – I agree social workers need to be bigger than this – critical analysis of the organisational and social context you are working in and what the implications of that critique might be – should go with the territory – in OT or anywhere. You are right about the path that has been traveled away for the substance of Puao Te ata Tu. Neuroscience can also be used to justify a multitude of sins including child rescue zeal so I am wary of it but you also right that keeping babies with high needs parents is basically about the amount of time and resources we are prepared to commit to it.

And finally – yes, for Maori by Maori – but we need to do this right – perhaps a pan Iwi kaumatua-led task force to report on a Maori perspective for OT – Now, there’s a bright idea …

Some of us have been calling this out for years and forewarned of what was to come. Increased and unprecedented uplift. Some of us were also villanised for calling out institutional racism within social work and within ANZASW, Which, just this week came out defending uplift practice rather than intelligently articulating the need for the stealing of our mokopuna to STOP. Thanks again Ian for another good peice. Remember to also quote tangata whenua writers researchers and not just keep referring to the same familiar pool of the RSWers. It adds more credibility to what you are saying. #HandaOffOurTamariki

Tena Koe Paora – Thanks – yep, fair enough. Plenty others, tangata whenua and tau iwi involved in this struggle for a more enlightened and holistic system for a long time now – and we each play the cards we can.

Maybe we will get some movement but it a long walk and I not holding my breath for the fall of Babylon just yet. However there must be pressure mounting on the OT and political establishment so we will see what unfolds.


Thanks for the crucial points you make in this post Ian. It helps greatly to slow down and take time to think broadly and critically about what we hear in the media, and about what we know is happening (and has been happening for a long time) in OT – your words helped me to gather my thoughts. Like many of our colleagues, including those who have already responded to your post, I’m thinking deeply and emotionally about what’s being reported, and let’s be honest, for most child protection social workers and for many families in Aotearoa and around the world, these scenarios are not new (hence the emotion). Today I listened to a lecture via podcast by former UK judge Jonathan Sumption – just by chance as often happens with social media. He talks about the relationship between politics and the law and points out as you do, that in today’s world we collectively seek greater security, reduced risk – and more legal rules. He (fittingly for me today) gives this example:

“Every time that we criticize social workers for failing to stop some terrible instance of child abuse we are in effect inviting them to intervene more readily in the lives of innocent parents in case their children too may be at risk” (Sumption, 2019, 30:18).

I think all of us as citizens need to take responsibility for this state of affairs.

Sumption, J. (2019). Law’s expanding empire [audio podcast]. BBC Reith Lectures. London, UK. Retrieved from

Hi Deb

Thanks very much for this perspective. Yes, risk saturated child protection becomes a run away train very easily and the idea that the state can engineer population change through various means of direct and indirect surveillance and control is increasingly problematic in a context of inequality. As you say, social workers know about this stuff – the messy lose/lose confrontations that state child protection can degenerate into if you take the relational communication and trust away. And I guess part of the uproar around this is because the raw reality has been revealed. Watch as the state agency scrambles to screw the lid back on. And that is part of the problem – the defensive bunkered mentality. How about they say, “yes there are deep systemic issues here and maybe applying the old formula wont fix them”. And … “maybe, just maybe, we have been going about this the wrong way”. But I not holding my breath e hoa.

It is uncontested that CYFS targets young maori mums. Although I find the judgement or the author paternalistic that all these mums are “struggling” – given what I have seen it is entirely possible at least some if not many are simply targeted/profiled. It is important to understand that any child in any family can suddenly become a target of CYFS and be subjected to a without notice “uplift” (abduction & incarceration) order. These children, even if returned to their families relatively quickly are highly traumatised by being forcibly removed from their homes and the treatment they are subjected to whilst in state custody. The actions of CYFS and the family court causes long term poor outcomes for these children. Any social work qualification should but does not have an in depth study of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) research and social workers need to be mandated to use trauma informed practise with meaningful independent oversight and accountability mechanisms.

There’s a very solid critique of the uncritical (mis) use of ACEs. We teach social work students to interrogate the ideological underpinnings of every new fad like ACEs and trauma-informed practice. If you’re interested in why we are critical here’s a blog and a link to a recent article which is free for the rest of June. It’s part of a special issue of the excellent journal Social Policy and Society.

I’d be very worried to have ACEs rolled out like you are mentioning without an equally robust critique. It is absolutely essential that social workers (and anyone working with ACEs) understands that they are not designed to be a clinical tool. They were designed to study populations. They are not a tool to be used to screen – however I am well aware that they are being used in precisely that way in NZ right now and that worries me. That’s why Liz and I wrote the piece she has linked to.

And that is aside from the fact that ACEs researchers all tend to use different measurements to measure the ‘ACEs’ – hardly robust research wise. We may as well ask which ACEs. The research is far from clear at all. See this blog for more info on why the ACEs are a ‘chaotic concept’

What is needed are robust social work assessments, we do not need numbers and cheat sheets to tell us things that social work as a whole already knows.

Crikey ACEs research is hardly a new fad but robust longitudinal research. It is critical that social workers understand the long term effects when they are causing ACEs as in forcibly removing children and putting them into unsafe state custody. Currently there appears to be no understanding in the social work industry of the harm being caused and what that means for long term outcomes for those children.

Jack you’re right that ACEs is not new, but applying it to individuals in social work is new. Neither Liz nor I were disputing that adverse childhood experiences (as a descriptor) have a long term and potentially devastating impact on children. This is well covered in almost every social work program anywhere. In fact I am in the early stages of my research into an aspect of this and I can confirm that every single social worker I have interviewed (from NZ) has confirmed this to be true.

The ‘newness’ is in taking a tool that was specifically designed to study populations and applying it to individuals. This is something even the initial researchers said should *not* happen. Once you take population measures and apply them to individuals they lose their breadth. It’s like using a paint roller to draw a picture on an A4 sheet of paper, the perspective is lost.

In the chaotic concepts piece I linked (which I highly recommend), it details how the parameters of the research change in each iteration of ACEs research, and this is even at the population level. That hardly makes it ‘robust’ as a pool of research. Each individual study might be robust, but as a group, it lacks the vigour of good replication necessary in research to call it robust as a corpus.

Coming back to Liz’s and my piece, which she linked, we draw attention to how the tool inadvertently perpetuates racism. Given the current circumstances don’t you think it would be wise to avoid using any tool that could accurately be described as supporting institutional racism? Taking that one step further it would be downright unethical to do so.

You and Liz seem to be talking at odds and neither of you make much sense. Liz says she is teaching students that ACE research and trauma informed practise are fads and ideological. As to ACE research being used as a “tool” – that is an oxymoron. Research is research, tools are tools. Tools should be informed, tested and evaluated by quality research (evidence-based) but they are not the same thing. Trauma informed practise is not a “tool” either, it is a way of working that primarily protects the safety of the person and understands that past trauma will influence current health, perceptions, circumstances, opportunities, choices etc. Trauma-informed practise at the very least will prevent revictimisation and can start to resolve and heal past trauma. Trauma-informed practise does appear to be lacking sadly in the social work industry and should be mandated with meaningful independent oversight and accountability mechanisms.

Jack- we have provided links to blogs written for a reputable social policy journal published by Cambridge University Press. The special issue the related peer-reviewed articles appear in is edited by some of the leading scholars in the field based on their extensive knowledge of the research on ACEs. The articles are briefly open access so you can see the literature that supports what we (and they) have argued. Eileen has explained how the utilisation of a tool that was specifically designed to study populations is not an appropriate in application to individuals. The original ACEs initial researchers cautioned against this. I stand by my view that the current ACEs ‘movement’ is a fad. I teach my students to critically evaluate what is ‘rolled out’ in agencies as the new best thing. I wouldn’t be doing my job properly as an academic if I didn’t. I’m critical of much that passes for ‘training’ in busy social work agencies – it is often intellectually weak and superficial. And of course all social policy is underpinned by ideology. And perhaps nowhere more ideologically driven than in child and family policy. Finally I don’t work in an ‘industry’, I educate for a profession: the IFSW definition- “Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work. Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing”.

Thanks for your comment Jack. Okay, maybe struggling not the perfect work here – I was aiming to point out that it isn’t people with plenty money who end up with this kind of experience. The profiling / targeting stuff could have come with the predictive risk modelling / intensive intervention model and they have apparently pulled back from for now – but that is another long story. Let’s hope the powers that be don’t find a way to sweep this wave of protest under the carpet and we get some serious systemic change. The work of child protection is complicated but it could be set up much better – it has been hellish watching policy develop the way it has. Not all practice is bad and there is a way forward I think – need a bit of political courage but, and that will be tricky.

Tena koutou katoa
Thank you for the insights shared. The interesting thing is how the review of the justice system chaired by Chester Burrows named racism at all levels . The Te Korowai Ture ā Whānau suggests integrated services. I wonder how the ministerial review will address Te Tiriti and racial targeting.
In our family my partner was removed from his teenage mother because she was a teenager. I know that the hurts run deep and relationships do not get rebuilt.
As an early childhood educator, I know that there has been a long history of seeking easy options, such as enrolling the children of the poor in ECE centres.
The long history of removal, racism and belief in neoliberal mantras needs to be addressed.
Kia kaha tonu

I have seen a family threatened with the removal of their child over the most circumstantial evidence of risk to a child, in a situation where extended whānau were willing and able to step in and provide whatever support was necessary to ensure the child was indeed safe. The threat of removal constantly used as an intimidation tactic, to force the whānau to conform to arbitrary rules and procedures. Elders of the whānau patronized and disrespected. The whole situation a Kafka-eque nightmare, in which the accused are guilty until proven innocent; social workers act as judge, jury, and executioner; frontline social workers and invisible overseers issue constantly changing and often contradictory decisions and rationalizations; and the process is exhausting and indefinite for the whānau.

Perhaps the most unequal and unjust aspect of the whole debacle is that well paid social workers and other professionals can demand many hours of voluntary participation from whānau who are, more often than not, on much lower incomes. Reimbursing whānau members for the hours involved in meetings with social workers, Family Group Conferences and so on, would be a good step towards addressing this inequality and injustice. Having state-funded family court lawyers available to act for families as soon as OT becomes involved in their lives would also help tremendously, for similar reasons.

See you all at our #HandsOffOurTamariki protest on 30th July 1pm at Parliament. Then we will really see who and what matters. 🙂

[…] Māori commentators have been trying to get wider awareness for a long time. Why weren’t you listening when Māori have been talking about this for years? (Parahi, 2019).  When Māori have been so vocal about the ongoing nature of abuse in state care?  (Cleaver, 2019) Why weren’t you listening when so many people with expertise were warning about the direction of Anne Tolley’s (non) expert panel in 2015? Many social workers also think what took you all so long to notice? Why weren’t all the journalists, with the award-winning horror shows and stories, noticing then that child protection was being redesigned  over 2015-16 to fit a right wing child rescue agenda? […]

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