The embattled chief executive of Oranga Tamariki has stepped down, saying the focus of the story has become about her, rather than the well-being of New Zealand’s most vulnerable children.
Gráinne Moss’s resignation follows growing concern about the uplift of Māori babies, and the high number of Māori children in care – they account for 65% of kids in state care though Māori comprise just 16.5% of the country’s population.
A two-part investigation by the office of the children’s commissioner into Oranga Tamariki released at the end of last year found that Māori infants were five times more likely to be taken into state custody than non-Māori, often in traumatic circumstances and including from maternity wards.
Meng Foon, the human rights commissioner, noted that the report highlighted persistent inequities that affect Māori, including intergenerational harm being done to Māori children and whānau (family), and how this collides with entrenched disadvantage, colonisation and systemic bias.
“Such systemic bias needs to go,” Foon said.
The children’s commissioner, Andrew Beecroft, said Moss’s resignation was “principled” but that the child welfare agency needed a “total transformation of the statutory care and protection system to a by Māori for Māori approach”.
“This resignation needs to be seen as the opportunity for that reset,” he added.
“I am proud of all that we have achieved over the last four years,” Moss said in a statement.
“However, I believe it is the right time for the agency for me to step down and make way for new leadership. I feel the focus has been on me rather than how we work together to improve the well-being of children.”
According to Oranga Tamariki, during Moss’s tenure fewer children and young people entered care, social worker caseloads were reduced, and investment in iwi/Māori services has doubled.
However her detractors say Moss’s departure is the first step in tackling entrenched, institutional racism within the agency.
Maori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said: “Given that she has acknowledged the continued failings and systemic racism on her watch, Gráinne Moss tendering her resignation was the only right thing to do.”
The operations of Oranga Tamariki have long drawn the wrath of Māori elders, with large public demonstrations held in 2019 calling for an end to baby uplifts.
“There’s been unprecedented breaches of human rights,” Naida Glavish, the head of a Māori-led inquiry into the practices of Oranga Tamariki, told the Guardian last year.
Glavish said there have been cases of women’s babies being taken into custody over the cleanliness of the mother’s home, or their past records, even though they had changed their behaviour, and the gang affiliations of former partners.
Glavish also accused the agency of not allowing extended Māori families to care for children – an established cultural practice – when relatives thought that was the best option.
“For us here there is no way that we are actually going to allow it to continue,” Glavish said. “We’ve reached a stage where enough is enough.”
A recruitment process is now underway and Wira Gardiner has been appointed as acting chief executive.
Gardiner has has whakapapa links to Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Pikiao, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui and te Whakatōhea, and has been involved in significant interactions between the Crown and Māori iwi on treaty settlements and other complex negotiations.