Oranga Tamariki: Reform or Abolish?

The question of whether the Aotearoa statutory social work agency Oranga Tamaraki can be reformed or whether it should be abolished and replaced with something radically different is an issue that has drifted into the fog in recent times. In this post, I’d like to blow away some of the smoke and refocus on this fundamental question.

The following narrative is very familiar to those who have tracked the politics of child protection and state care over the last decade. In the wake of the now infamous Hawkes Bay Hospital uplift a raft of reports examined the failings of the OT system. The Hastings trigger point was not an isolated incident. It was symptomatic of the ‘child-centred’ detect and rescue focus that grew out of the Expert Panel process and the Social Investment strategy of preventing social harm by ‘ensuring that children have the earliest opportunity for a loving and stable family’ (Expert Panel, 2015, p.7). Suffice to say that this prescription generated predictably racist outcomes.

The report and review process that followed was a damning indictment of state social work. The two-part report from the Office of the Commissioner for Children – Te Kuku o te Manawa – concluded as follows: “Our call, and the key recommendation in the report, is for a total transformation of the statutory care and protection system. By that I mean nothing short of a ‘by Māori, for Māori’ approach and a transfer of responibility, resources and power from the state to appropriate Māori entities, as determined by Māori.” (OCC, Part 2, 2020, p.6).

Similarly the Wai 2915 report of the Waitangi Tribunal found that, in breach of the Crown’s te Tiriti obligations, the policy and practice of the state child protection agency has resulted in significant harm to Māori. Wai 2915 called for the establishment of a “transition authority with a clear mandate to design and reform the care and protection system for tamariki Māori, coupled with authority to work in genuine partnership with the Crown to ensure a modified system is properly implemented. (Wai  2915 , 2021: xiv).

Now, this hasn’t happened and is not likely to happen any time soon. What has happened is that the state has invested significant resource in reclaiming the narrative in the aftermath of this crisis of legitimacy (Keddell, Fitzmaurice, Cleaver & Exeter, 2022). Rather than a transition authority we got what seems to a have been the pre-emptive appointment of a Māori Advisory Group to influence internal reform.

This is not to say that the current impetus to design, trial and introduce a more holistic understanding of Māori concepts and knowledges into supervision practice – and into Oranga Tamariki practice processes more generally – is not a positive thing. Such initiatives provide tools and principles for those who wish to practice well at the interface of statutory bureaucracy and whānau in need. However, they do not constitute the radical transformation envisaged above. Similarly current efforts to develop understandings and partnering initiatives with Iwi are potentially progressive and empowering, but the Crown remains in the driving seat.

In my experience policy and practice change in state social work is often accompanied by an ‘on or off the waka’ mentality where criticism is somehow akin to heresy. The boundaries of debate are narrowed by this process and I think it useful to cut through some of the silencing mechanisms and recognise the wider issues at stake. The current practice shift is consistent with the change of focus urged by Puao te Ata Tu all those years ago. Recommendation 1(b) of that report proposed “Incorporating the values, cultures and beliefs of the Māori people in all practice developed for the future of New Zealand” (Ministeral Advisory Commitee, 1988, p.9).

As it transpired there were some fundamental flaws in the way that this recommendation was applied. It was adopted, at least nominally, by the then Department of Social Welfare, rather than by the Government at large. There is also the deeper question of whether the promise of te tino rangatiratanga envisaged by te Tiriti o Waitangi can be realised within the current framework of government. Activist Māori scholars have long argued that constitutional reform along the lines advocated by Matike Mai Aotearoa is needed if the required authority and resource allocation is to be effectively afforded to hapū and iwi.

One of the challenges in applying mātauranga Māori concepts and values in child protection work is that such holistic understandings sit uncomfortably with a notify and investigate child protection model. It must also be remembered that the inequalities that characterise this system are tied to economic structure as well as to colonial history and contemporary racism. This is clearly recognised in the Wai 2915 report as follows:

Active protection means recognising that Māori parents struggling in poverty have an equal right as citizens to meet their children’s needs as do the better-off  in society. Active protection means recognising that the vast majority of whānau in contact with Oranga Tamariki are  not  out  to  harm  their  tamariki,  but  they  may  have  ongoing needs that place stress on the whānau. These include factors such as poverty, poor housing, poor mental health, substance abuse, intimate partner violence, or children with high needs. Growing inequality and the disparities in child protection, education, justice, and health that result are not the inevitable outcomes of individual choice. They are  substantially  the  outcomes  of  legislation,  policy,  and  economic settings about which a society has choices. Active protection requires substantive changes designed to address these structural conditions. (Wai  2915 , 2021: 20)

I don’t pretend to have all the answers but I think we need to unpack the simplified constructions that currently dominate the landscape of child protection policy and practice development. We are only beginning to imagine what the alternatives to the current state social work system might look like. Is it enough to say that serious abuse will always require an authoritative response and that therefore a state-mandated child protection system will always be needed? What possibilities does a position like this foreclose?

It is also enlightening to link some of our recent history with anti-racist movements internationally. There is significant US scholarship connecting the functioning of the child protection system (CPS) with the deeply racist, carceral / oppressive political state – in the past and in the now (Briggs, 2020; Roberts, 2023). In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement there are calls to defund and abolish the CPS. In Aotearoa we have the state talking about devolution to community and to Iwi but what this means presently and what realising this intention might ‘really’ require are by no means clear. The question of who controls the narrative / who holds the power of definition is, as ever, of key importance. Battles come and go but bigger struggles continue.

Image Credit – Sue


Briggs, L. (2020). Taking Children: A History of American Terror. University of California Press.

Expert Panel (Modernising Child Youth and Family) (2015) ‘Final Report’, Wellington.

Keddell, E., Fitzmaurice, L., Cleaver, K., and Exeter, D. (2022). A fight for legitimacy: reflections on child protection reform, the reduction of baby removals, and child protection decision-making in Aotearoa New Zealand, Kōtuitui: New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences Online, 17:3, 378-404, DOI: 10.1080/1177083x.2012490

Ministerial Advisory Committee (1988) ‘Puao te Ata Tu (day break): The report of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Māori Perspective for the Department of Social Welfare.

Office of the Commissioner for Children (2020) ‘Te Kuku o te Manawa’ – Moe ararā! Haumanutia ngā moemoeā a ngā tūpuna mō te orange ngā tamariki’ (Part 2).

Roberts, D. (2023). Why Abolition. 61 Family Court Review, 229-241.

6 replies on “Oranga Tamariki: Reform or Abolish?”

Kia ora Ian,
I value your speaking into the current state our OT system. As you say, we need open dialogue to translate policy statements into practical sound practice. You and I (and Cindy Kiro) shared on a panel at the Labour Party conference just prior to their being elected into government. Jacinda wanted to discuss how a Labour led government would respond to the new OT approach and agency that the National govt had just established. My advice / thoughts haven’t really changed since then (probably strengthened). I believe a corporate managerial state agency can not ‘deliver’ a care system. This is a colonising assumption. However the political economy is such that Cabinet Ministers demand ‘solutions’ that are easy to communicate and digest by middle NZ. This political reality drives the system towards risk averse centralised approaches. Nothing has changed.

Kia Ora David – Yes I remember that well and it seems like an age ago. I think the abolition argument that Dorothy Roberts makes in the US context makes a lot of sense here in Aotearoa too. Struggling families need tangible support they can trust and relate to, but what they get is notified, investigated and assessed. The family pathology framing still dominates and the state child protection system, as it is, does not address the inequality that generates the suffering of children and whānau in need. Accordingly it is a poor substitute for state policies and community initiatives that do aim to address poverty and marginalization. In that sense the current system can be seen as oppressive and counterproductive. We do need a wider lens and a vision for fundamental change which means that it is not as simple as being for or against the current practice shift I am afraid. Best wishes – Ian

Tena koe Ian
Enjoyed your piece.
Am a fan of transformation – not of reform.
I find the idea and practices of reform paradoxical. If the aim of reform is ‘making changes in order to improve something’, then has the last 40+ years of reforms in child welfare created the large societal change and benefits hoped for?
I think the problem is that a broken system is endeavoring fix itself, without taking into account its own contribution to its own state of disrepair. Our governmental-led editing over the past 40+ years has produced little substantiative change and instead has contributed too and maintained a myriad of inequities and oppressions.
Where might transformation start?
How might things look if we were brave enough to start with an ‘article’s [Te Tiriti] approach’ to social work? A new starting point for transformation could ask; ‘what would a Rangatiratanga centric child and family system look like’?
The ‘principles’ rather than the ‘articles’ of the Treaty have become embedded in government discourse, and has unfortunately become an end point in itself – rather than a focus on the ‘realisation of the articles’ of Te Triti.
Systemic transformation via a focus on the realisation of Te Triti articles – why not!
Nga mihi
Jimi McKay

Kia Ora Jimi – Thanks very much for your input here. ‘Why not?’ is always a good question. As David points out the provision of short-term politically motivated fixes that are seen as acceptable to a mythical ‘middle New Zealand’ is always a barrier to more fundamental change. The old welfare state safety net protection from economically generated inequality has been long rolled back. And, of course, the interventions in the name of welfare from the 1960s here and in other comparable societies have been exposed as punitive and damaging and, for many, eugenic. So where (and how) to next is the question. The American writers referenced in this blog talk about abolition of racist family policing. The argument is that the children of the poor, particularly Black children, would be safer as a result and that it would help to rebuild community trust and cohesion in the face of the unforgiving US model of corporate capitalism. Now, this thinking does not neatly translate to our context but it is not without merit either. What would really be needed to change the social conditions that generate child abuse and how does this relate to applying the concept of rangatiratanga (in terms of both prevention and intervention)? I ask these questions because the answers are not simple and dialogue is needed. The issues are complex but I don’t think that progress is beyond us either. Mauri ora – Ian

Great discussion, Ian. Much more of it is needed if transformation is to be achieved. While it will require an all of Government and all of Aotearoa change of attitude and practice, I, for one, particularly admire the approach of Mana Whanau of Lifewise Social Services, in which families in difficulty are supported in identifying the stressors that make parenting and managing in general so very difficult. Work and support in allieviating and managing these stressors, be they financial, social, marital, emotional, trauma-related and/or whatever, can then lead to empathetic, culturally appropriate and hands-on support with parenting. This constructive approach has been in the too-hard-basket for far too long and could form the basis of a new system, managed at a cultural level and funded generously by the Government. Failure on their part to do so can only lead to further heartbreak and stalemate.

Hi Deborah – Nice to hear from you here / a lot of water under the bridge since the Mick Brown report, yes? – and a lot of things have not changed a lot. You right of course that once you get to the point of assisting whānau to meet support needs and aspirations that they have identified themselves, some real progress can be made – which, I guess is the Whānau Ora philosophy in theory. A lot of socio-economic barriers get in the way and the state is more than a little confused about its role. Very tough times for a lot of families and there is, of course, a political shift in the air which may well swing us away from a focus on the needs of those at the bottom of the heap (except for the ideology of self-responsibility). But yes, dialogue / hard talk needed and we all do what we can – Ian

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