Maori groups in New Zealand are taking to the streets to protest family separations carried out by the child welfare agency and a planned development on their ancestral lands.
The protests have strained relations between Maori and the Labour coalition government led by Jacinda Ardern, who has been in the remote Pacific territory of Tokelau at a time of rising tension at home.
Hundreds of protesters marched Tuesday in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, and other cities around the country, according to Reuters.
Taking infants into state care – known as “uplifting” – has been making headlines in the country since mid-June when an investigation by local media outlet Newsroom showed authorities attempting to take a seven-day-old baby from its 19-year-old Maori mother while she was still in the maternity ward.
Some have raised concerns that Maori and Pacific Island babies are disproportionately affected by “uplifts” due to institutional racism. Over 15,000 people have signed an open letter online urging the government to “stop stealing Maori children.”
Last year, judges ordered 281 babies to be taken into care and 71% were of Maori or Pacific Island heritage, the government said in a statement.
In New Zealand’s most recent census in 2013, 14.9% of the then population of 4.2 million people identified as Maori, while 7.4% identified as of Pacific Island heritage.
Judge Andrew Becroft, the New Zealand Children’s Commissioner, announced his office’s own inquiry on June 16, citing long-running concerns.
“Consequently we have decided to exercise our specific statutory power under the Children’s Commissioner Act to monitor and assess the policies of Oranga Tamariki,” tweeted Becroft.
And on June 19, New Zealand’s Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier announced a wide-ranging, independent investigation into the Ministry for Children’s uplifting process.
The controversy is reminiscent of the “stolen generation” of Aboriginal children in Australia.
New Zealand has one of the worst rates of child abuse in the developed world. According to Unicef, the children’s ministry receives over 150,000 reports of concern relating to the country’s 1.1 million children each year.
In 2017, the government created Oranga Tamariki after finding that the system under the former ministry, was “ineffective” and had poor long-term outcomes for children in care.
However, the newly-formed Oranga Tamariki has also come under fire. In March, it announced that in the second half of 2018, there were over 300 instances of neglect, emotional, sexual or physical abuse of children in its care.
Protests over Oranga Tamariki’s treatment of Maori children came at the same time as Maoris in Auckland mobilized against a proposed housing project on land they consider to be sacred, Reuters reported.
The disputes put Ardern’s government in a tough spot, as Maori votes are important to the prime minister’s Labour party, said Bryce Edwards, a political commentator at Wellington’s Victoria University, according to the news agency.
CNN’s Julia Hollingsworth contributed to this report