Maori Party co-founder Dame Tariana Turia has blasted the Government for "institutional racism" in its proposed reform of child protection laws.
She said a proposal to abolish a principle requiring child protection staff to consider the effects of decisions on whanau and iwi, as well as on the child's well-being, was "a big step backwards".
"I am going to speak to MPs, and I am going to speak to various iwi around the country to get them to understand what institutional racism really is, which is what we are experiencing yet again," she said.
Cabinet papers released by Social Development Minister Anne Tolley last week revealed that the Government plans to axe a provision that gives priority to placing abused children with foster parents from the same extended family or tribe.
A new law, which will create a new Ministry for Vulnerable Children Oranga Tamakiri, would require that any child who was removed from its family and cannot be returned to immediate family "must be placed with a safe, stable and loving family at the earliest opportunity".
The change would remove a provision in the 1989 Children, Young Persons and their Families Act that gave priority to placing a child with "a person who is a member of the child's or young person's hapu or iwi [with preference being given to hapu members], or, if that is not possible, who has the same tribal, racial, ethnic, or cultural background as the child".
Instead, the first principle in the new arrangements for children removed from their parents is that "decisions should be centred around the child or young person's best interests and understanding the views and needs of the child".
Turia's target is another proposed change axing a principle in the 1989 law that "consideration must always be given to how a decision affecting a child or young person will affect (i) the welfare of that child or young person; and (ii) the stability of that child's or young person's family, whanau, hapu, iwi, and family group".
The Cabinet paper proposes replacing this with a single focus on the child's well-being, proposing a first principle that "a child or young person have a safe, stable and loving home".
Turia said a child's well-being depended on having a good relationship with its family.
"The principle is that the well-being of the child primarily lies within the whanau," she said.
If the parents were not coping, she said the law should continue to prioritise finding foster parents within the wider whanau and iwi.
"I'll use my own [Whanganui] iwi as an example," she said. "You can't tell me that within 8000 people connected by our river, you cannot find someone to care for a child."
Current Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox declined to comment on the proposed changes last week. But after Turia issued her statement today, the other co-leader, Te Ururoa Flavell, said children "should be placed with whanau".
"Cabinet has made no firm decision on this issue at this stage but I will be advocating strongly to ensure that a Maori world view is supported, because 60 per cent of children in care are Maori," he said.
Tolley said the "safety and best interests of children must always come first and the new principles will strengthen this in law".
"We have not ignored recommendations to work closely with Maori - this work is ongoing."
"I am also working closely with the Maori Party to ensure that the new system meets the needs of Maori children and young people."