By Genevieve Hawkins Boulton

A strong partnership with Māori is vital to restoring tikanga and reversing the impacts of colonisation. Health experts further recognise the restoration of tikanga of whānau to be integral to the well-being of Māori, therefore, reducing the likelihood of domestic violence and child abuse.

A recent inquiry investigating the overrepresentation of tamariki (children) Māori in state care reveals an ongoing postcolonial trauma plaguing Aotearoa New Zealand. In March 2020, the Waitangi Tribunal launched an inquiry investigating the disproportionate number of Māori children removed from whānau (family) by Oranga Tamariki (Ministry for Children, and formerly the Ministry for Vulnerable Children). The Waitangi tribunal accepted the claim that the policies and practices are in direct violation of the Treaty of Waitangi principles. Articles 2 and 3 of the Treaty, New Zealand’s fundamental governance document, enlist the responsibility of the Crown to actively protect Māori rights and interests. Enabling Oranga Tamariki’s intervention into Māori parenthood in ways that are considered by many to be arbitrary, unethically forced, and symptomatic of institutional racism exposes the Crown’s neglect to honour the Treaty.

Oranga Tamariki – Ministry for Children was established in 2017, monitoring the protection of tamariki under a government institution. The data released by the Waitangi tribunal reveals the number of children entering state care has dropped since 2000. The decreasing rate of children entering state care only appears to be positively impacting non-Māori children. The number of tamariki Māori admitted to state care has subsequently increased in comparison to their non-Māori peers. A 2020 report released by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner revealed that there is a “deep, persistent and increasing inequality in the removal of pēpē (babies) Māori into state custody.” The figures provide a sombre confirmation of the disproportionate uplifting of Māori newborns from their whānau. In 2019, Oranga Tamariki received 823 reports regarding concerns over unborn pēpē Māori, an 800% rise since the 2004 report released by Child, Youth and Family. The figures correlate with an increase in decisions to take Māori babies into custody immediately following their birth. The disproportionate number of tamariki Māori impacts all age groups, emphasising the imperative to find an effective solution. Data received on 31 December 2020 reveals 75% of children in the Youth Justice custody of the Chief Executive are of Māori descent. This compares to the comparatively low 9% who fall within the New Zealand European or other category.

The public awareness of the racial disparity within Oranga Tamariki has dramatically risen over the past two years. In June 2019, Newsroom released a documentary covering the Hawke’s Bay Case, where a 19-year-old mother streamed the attempts of Oranga Tamariki social workers to uplift her newborn on the social media platform Facebook. The case provided evidence of the seemingly unprofessional practices of the government establishment: isolating the mother, providing false information to the whānau and Family Court Judge, and overturning a court injunction. The New Zealand police have since opened an investigation into Newsroom for releasing information that allegedly enabled the children involved in the case to be identified.  However, whānau or individuals involved in the case made no complaints to Newsroom that the children were easily identifiable. Newsroom editor, Melanie Reid, refutes the claims of the High Court, viewing the investigation as “punishment of the media for revealing the state’s misuse of power.” A subsequent internal inquiry within Oranga Tamariki revealed there was an unethical dependence on historical data relating to the whānau and a lack of comprehensive exploration of alternative options available. The whānau involved have consistently found the system to be ‘culturally alienating’ and too complex to navigate.

The underlying causes of the overrepresentation of tamariki Māori in state care are complex in nature. However, understanding the roots of disparity requires an examination of the long-term impacts of colonisation on our welfare system. The impact of colonisation extends beyond the loss of the whenua (land). Colonisation has also stripped Māori of tikanga (Māori customs and values) of whānau being a fundamental principle in Māori communities. The loss of tikanga resulted in the lack of importance placed on resolving disputes in a harmonious nature. Therefore, this loss fostered an environment where abuse and neglect could thrive among whānau.

The Crown’s failure to successfully confront the widespread impacts of colonisation provides a fertile environment for structural racism to thrive within government institutions. However, the tribunal case optimistically reveals the lack of disagreement between the claimants, interested parties, and the Crown. Thus, creating a sense of hope for the future wellbeing of tamariki Māori. The Crown has further acknowledged the wider context of colonisation and structural racism to be a contributing factor to the disparity, alongside socioeconomic factors.

The newly released Wellbeing Budget 2021 reveals the Labour government’s efforts to rectify the racial disparity within state care. $23.4 million has been set aside to assist the wellbeing of Māori whānau and tamariki in dire need, in order to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. The budget also reveals the government’s initiative to form a partnership between Oranga Tamariki and Māori to find solutions to ensure tamariki Māori are being protected. Minister for Children, Kelvin Davis has stated,

“We have a lot of work still to do with Oranga Tamariki but this targeted funding will help move the organisation in the right direction by enabling us to devolve more power to the regions and to Māori, and ensuring tamariki stay with their whānau where possible.

A strong partnership with Māori is vital to restoring tikanga and reversing the impacts of colonisation. Health experts further recognise the restoration of tikanga of whānau to be integral to the well-being of Maori, therefore, reducing the likelihood of domestic violence and child abuse. The Māori resistance against colonialism is often experienced as ‘‘ka whawhai tonu mātou’(the struggle without end). However, the Crown’s acknowledgment of structural racism, increased government funding and public awareness creates space for productive negotiations to occur. The future of our tamariki Māori depends on the collective effort to heal our country’s colonial wounds.


Fitzmaurice, L. (2020). Whānau, tikanga and TINO Rangatiratanga: What is at stake in the debate over the Ministry for children? MAI Journal: A New Zealand Journal of Indigenous Scholarship, 9(2). doi:10.20507/maijournal.2020.9.2.7

Came, H. A., & McCreanor, T. (2015). Pathways to Transform Institutional (and Everyday) racism in New Zealand. Sites: A Journal of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies, 12(2), 24. doi:10.11157/sites-vol12iss2id290

Tatanata,L-A.(2020). Mana Mokopuna: the ongoing violations of Oranga Tamariki (Unpublished Master of Arts thesis), Massey University

Williams, T., Ruru, J., Irwin-Easthope, H., Quince, K., & Gifford, H. (2019). Care and protection of tamariki Māori in the family court system. Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga.

Keddell, E., Fitzmaurice, L. & Cleaver, K. (2021). The prevention project: Supporting whanau and reducing baby removals. University of Otago.

The Waitangi Tribunal Report (2021). Herito Whakakikinga Wharuarua Oranga Tamariki Urgent Inquiry. Pre-publication version.

Genevieve Hawkins Boulton is a postgraduate student in media and communications at the University of Auckland.

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.

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