An exasperated and emotionally-charged Act MP Karen Chhour pleaded with fellow MPs to focus on the needs of children after at least five young people had allegedly been abused by staff at Oranga Tamariki residences - herself having grown up in the state child protection system.
It came amid a fiery exchange in the House in which Children’s Minister Kelvin Davis, who is responsible for the agency, was criticised by the Opposition for failing to take responsibility and attacking National after he was consistently interrupted.
Davis has since acknowledged this, telling the Herald: “Parts of my speech may not have reflected how seriously I am taking this incident as Minister for Children.”
The Parliamentary debate came after Oranga Tamariki chief executive Chappie Te Kani this morning revealed over the past week he had been informed of two serious allegations involving staff acting inappropriately towards young people in two separate residences.
The staff had been removed from residences and police were investigating, while Oranga Tamariki conducted its own investigations. The allegations covered sexual behaviour between Oranga Tamariki staff and at least five young people.
Davis said the first incident was reported to him on June 8, and he became aware of the second on Friday.
The second incident only came to light after an unannounced visit by the office of Children’s Commissioner Judge Frances Eivers to a residence, who said she was relieved to see immediate action but repeated calls for such residences to be shut down and replaced with a system “that’s fit for purpose”.
It also follows years of controversy at the agency for vulnerable children and young people, established in 2017, around uplifts of children from families, abuse, and the disproportionate impact on Māori - all of which Davis has pledged to address since taking on the portfolio in 2020.
Chhour, who is Act’s spokesperson for children, said despite major talk of reform the system was still failing to protect young people and Oranga Tamariki was not fit to run the facilities.
“I am so angry on behalf of these kids. We cannot take that harm back.
“They’ve been put in a facility where we’re meant to take care of them and provide them with the services and what they need, and we’re traumatising them all over again.”
Chhour also pointed to concerns over the Oranga Tamariki Oversight Act, which came into force this year despite opposition from all political parties aside from Labour.
Labour pitched it as creating extra safeguards for children living in state care but critics were concerned it removed the Children’s Commissioner as Oranga Tamariki’s independent monitor.
The watchdog role now sits within the Education Review Office, a government department, and the Ombudsman now has the power to investigate and make recommendations. The Children’s Commissioner, however, continues to conduct monitoring visits.
Critics of the law, including Chhour, were concerned about a lack of independence and direct lines for young people to be able to make complaints.
She said her suggestion to allow independent monitors into residences if a child felt they were not safe and needed a representative was shut down.
“We said children would fall between these cracks, young people would fall between these cracks, and we’re seeing it happen already.
“Where were the people that were supposed to protect these young people?”
She said the system risked repeating issues raised in the Abuse in Care inquiry,
Davis responded by acknowledging the “very concerning” allegations while also defending the agency and work under way to transform it.
He said he had found out about the first instance on June 8 and the second on Friday.
Davis said there were long-term issues with such residences and they were already working towards community-based care. He also noted the huge amount of wider positive changes at Oranga Tamariki, including dramatic reductions in children coming into state care and uplifts, and devolution to Māori organisations.
During his speech, Davis referenced how National and Act had established the agency and complaints that arose during their time in Government - drawing howls of objection from Opposition MPs including National leader Christopher Luxon.
“Going political on a day like today? No, not good enough,” said Luxon.
Davis responded by calling Luxon “Mr Tesla” - a reference to recent controversies, but for which Davis had to apologise for breaching House rules.
National Party spokesperson Louise Upston responded in her speech criticising Davis for not taking responsibility.
“Not once did he apologise or show any inclination of the care and protection and the duty he has to every single child in a youth justice facility or in State care.
“Instead, what we should have is humanity for those five children, and I am deeply concerned that there are others to come.”
Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi said Oranga Tamariki was “rotten to the core” and repeated calls for it to be scrapped and replaced with “by Māori, for Māori” solutions, with an overwhelming majority in its care being Māori.
Former Police Commissioner Mike Bush has been brought into Oranga Tamariki to run all Youth Justice and Care and Protection residences and to lead a rapid review across all the residences including Oranga Tamariki community-based homes.