Oranga Tamariki has accused the Children's Commissioner of ignoring the interests of babies in a report which was critical of the ministry.
In a rebuke to the commissioner's report released this morning, chief executive Grainne Moss said Oranga Tamariki had not been given a chance to provide input to the investigation or support the mothers whose stories were published.
The Office of the Children's Commissioner, which is an independent Crown entity, based its report on the personal accounts of 13 families of babies which were either at risk of removal or had been removed into state custody.
Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft said their stories highlighted "deep systemic issues" in the state care and protection system.
It included an account from a woman who first discovered her baby would be uplifted while she was giving birth. Another woman said her baby was removed before she had a chance to meet it, and despite a midwife urging authorities to allow it to be breast-fed first.
Moss said all cases that Oranga Tamariki - also known as the Ministry for Children - dealt with were highly emotive, challenging and complex.
The personal accounts in the commissioner's report represented only a fraction of the 61,300 children the ministry worked with last year, she said.
"Although the role of the Children's Commissioner is to support and advocate for the welfare of children, the report has focused on the experience of their mothers and remained silent on the interest of their babies," Moss added.
"New Zealand has one of the worst child abuse rates in the world and Oranga Tamariki is the only organisation that has the statutory responsibility for keeping children safe."
Moss said Oranga Tamariki was unable to "provide balance" on the mother's stories because the commissioner's office did not share their identities. That also meant it could not offer them support - an issue which was raised by several mothers as a major gap in the ministry's approach following an uplift.
She also criticised the methodology and approach of the report, saying it had a small sample size and no recommendations.
"We are continually trying to improve on how we protect the wellbeing and lives of children but ... it is difficult to see how it contributes to our efforts and may even discourage people from contacting us with concerns about a child."
In response, Becroft said today that the best interests of the child were "always the paramount consideration" and were inextricably linked to their mothers' interest and wellbeing.
"It is vital we hear the voices of mothers within the system," he said.
"The cries of the Māori mothers in this report, irrespective of whether a child was removed or not, is that the right kind of early support be provided to them.
"They want to be treated with humanity, and to have the long-term wellbeing of their babies put first, by respecting and acknowledging their place within whānau, hapū and iwi rather than a system that strengthens the chains of inter-generational state care."
In an introduction to the report, he said the personal accounts were backed by statistic analysis in an earlier report produced in January. Among the earlier report's findings were that Māori children aged between 0 and 3 months were five times more likely to be uplifted than non-Māori.
Becroft also said any recommendations for change would be produced in a later report.
"I have chosen to share this report without recommendations at this stage so the voices can speak powerfully and stand by themselves.
"It will allow time to reflect on and absorb them. The voices themselves suggest areas where change could be considered and, indeed, could begin to take place without the need for specific recommendations now."
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The report released today identified six broad areas for change, such as treating mothers and their pēpi (babies) with more humanity, and addressing unprofessional social work practices.
Oranga Tamariki has been under pressure over its approach to uplifting children from families with a risk of - or broader association with - child abuse. The Children's Commissioner's review was one of four separate inquiries into the uplifts, including an internal inquiry by the ministry.
"One of the things we learned from our own review into the events into Hawke's Bay a year ago is that families want to be more involved in decision making for their children. If that's not happening - I want to know about it," Moss said.
Following the release of the internal report, which found failings in the uplift of a 6-day-old baby from his 19- year-old mother at Hawke's Bay Hospital, Māori leaders like Dame Tariana Turia called for Moss to resign.
Children's Minister Tracey Martin said at the time that Moss had not offered her resignation, and she had not sought it.
One of the main criticisms of Oranga Tamariki's uplifts policy is the failure to re-house Māori children within the broader whanau or iwi.
Oranga Tamariki said today it had made some progress in this area, with more than 80 per cent of Māori children and young people now placed within their own whanau or Māori caregivers.