Wellington protesters at a rally in July last year against Oranga Tamariki's removal of Māori children from whānau (Photo: RNZ/Ana Tovey)

After CEO exit, the big question for Oranga Tamariki: reform it or scrap it and start again?

The chief executive of Oranga Tamariki is quitting, leaving behind an agency she’s admitted suffers from structural racism. Justin Giovannetti looks at the future of Oranga Tamariki.

Grainne Moss’s tenure as head of Oranga Tamariki has been untenable since November when the government’s senior Māori minister wouldn’t express any confidence in her. Today she bowed to months of pressure and resigned.

After four years as chief executive of Oranga Tamariki, Moss leaves behind an organisation that the government says is more efficient and better funded. However, after damning reports and mounting criticism, Oranga Tamariki now faces the real possibility of being disbanded.

What happened to Grainne Moss?

In early May 2019, Newsroom reporting on the attempted removal of a newborn Māori baby from a mother’s care in Hastings sparked a furore that has yet to die down. The event became a rallying point against a government agency that removes the children and infants of Māori and Pasifika mothers in vastly disproportionate numbers.

The agency has been under intense scrutiny since the incident, including undergoing at least five reviews of what it euphemistically calls “uplifts”. A review of the Hastings incident, highly redacted when it was released to the public, underscored an agency that often failed at showing understanding or compassion when dealing with Māori mothers.

During one inquiry, Moss admitted to structural racism in her agency’s basic approach to protecting children.

Moss lost the confidence of many in parliament, including a number of Māori MPs. As an alienated Māori community demanded her dismissal and reform, Moss refused to leave. When Kelvin Davis, now the children’s minister, wouldn’t say whether he had confidence in her, Moss said she’d stay on.

Where is Moss headed now?

Public service commissioner Peter Hughes called her decision to resign “selfless” and has given Moss a soft landing. When she leaves the chief executive’s office at Oranga Tamariki on February 28, she’ll move to another government office as the new chief executive for pay equity in the public service.

Sir Wira Gardiner will take over as acting chief executive while a permanent replacement is found. With whakapapa including Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Pikiao, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui and Te Whakatōhea, he has also been involved in negotiating Crown and iwi treaty settlements.

What happens now to Oranga Tamariki?

The government faces two options for Oranga Tamariki: Massive reform or blowing it up and starting anew.

The children’s commissioner, responding to Moss’ resignation today, said “the issues facing Oranga Tamariki are beyond individual people or personalities and are structural. State decision about and for Māori families can’t continue in its present form.”

In a recent report, the commissioner’s office said there needs to be a change to a by Māori for Māori approach. The commissioner said that could happen with new leadership at Oranga Tamariki. “This resignation needs to be seen as the opportunity for that reset,” the commissioner added.

What’s the political reaction?

Very positive.

The Green Party has said this is an opportunity for Māori leadership at the agency and a way to transfer power to Māori. 

The Māori Party said the resignation comes after strong pressure. However, after the agency’s acknowledgement that it suffers from structural racism, Māori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said it’s time to start fresh.

“We must shut down Oranga Tamariki and start again with an independent Mokopuna Māori agency,” she said in a statement. “The government must now implement that policy, and follow the advice of the children’s commissioner, begin the process to disband Oranga Tamariki and shift the powers and responsibility to an independent by Māori, for Māori agency.”

What’s the government likely to do?

As one of the most powerful members of the Labour Party, Kelvin Davis asked for the job of children’s minister to fix a system that was broken and racist. This resignation makes it easier for him to do that.

Speaking with reporters today, Davis said he spoke with the leadership of Oranga Tamariki before Christmas and told them what he wants to do. He said he didn’t ask Moss to resign. A revamped Oranga Tamariki has to be more regional and put Māori ideas first, he added.

Asked before Christmas whether the next chief executive of Oranga Tamariki should be Māori, prime minister Jacinda Ardern said: “I think whatever we do in Oranga Tamariki has to be responsive and meet the needs of those most deeply affected by the organisation. So you’ll see that we have a member of our Māori caucus [Kelvin Davis] now the minister for Oranga Tamariki. That is a reflection of us knowing that we have to make sure this system is working for those that it currently most deeply affects.”




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