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Oranga Tamariki may intervene in cases where families resist child’s gender transition to protect “emotional wellbeing”

In brief

  • Oranga Tamariki may intervene over children’s “emotional wellbeing” concerns, not just physical safety, amid parental resistance to gender transition.
  • They say “emotional harm” may result from broadly defined “serious differences” within families leading to disagreements over a child’s gender identity.
  • Given that children commonly outgrow desires to transition, low thresholds seemingly give officials considerable discretion to decide what may warrant intervention.

Context of the inquiry

With NZ Health officials expected to support the continued use of puberty blockers in children this week, Oranga Tamariki has just signalled it’s ready to knock on family doors if they refuse to let their children change gender.

While OT already has the power for children officially “in care”, it now says it can intervene in any family if it believes parental resistance to transitioning threatens the child’s “emotional wellbeing”.

A response to an Official Information Act (OIA) request indicates, not surprisingly, that the government may take steps to protect children if there are concerns about the child’s physical safety in the face of parental opposition. 

Oranga Tamariki News
What level of government discretion is appropriate for handling parental disagreements on gender identity?

However, the far broader brush of protecting “emotional wellbeing”, which does not necessarily include threats of physical violence or any behavioural indicators to substantiate, is also a possible basis for ministry intervention.  

Centrist submitted the OIA to the Ministry of Children–Oranga Tamariki seeking to understand whether children outside the direct care of the agency could receive support from the ministry if their familial caregivers opposed their decision to transition. 

Oranga Tamariki’s response

While OT says that parental resistance to a young person’s transitioning “would not normally be a concern in and of itself in the absence of any other risk factors”, they elaborate:  

“There may be times where a situation involving a rangatahi [young person] who is actively considering or is in the process of transitioning is facing resistance from whānau that may be having an impact on their safety and wellbeing.” 

What constitutes “serious harm”? 

OT’s response notes that intervention may be based on circumstances in which a child is “likely to suffer” from “serious harm”, which includes “more than an average disagreement” between the child and parent. Those differences could include parents who did not support transitioning, expressed in a way which impaired the child’s “emotional wellbeing”. 

OT’s guidance on so-called “serious differences” are described, in part, as “likely” to be irreconcilable, and result in the child “suffering emotional harm due to the breakdown in their relationship with their parent or caregiver”. Such differences could include disagreements and arguments about a young person’s “identity and cultural connection”. 

To add to the subjectivity, OT says that only in “some” cases behavioural indicators arising from these differences “may” become a basis for ministry involvement. 

So, put together, OT has a lot of wiggle room to decide when to intervene in instances where children may disagree with their parents over their gender. According to the OIA, the bar for intervention appears to be set low enough that actual physical threats to safety or physical behavioural indicators are not required to suggest “serious harm”. 

Is the bar for intervention set too low?

How wise is it to set the bar for intervention so low considering the potential for government overreach in such sensitive matters? This is especially concerning given the emerging evidence that many young people may outgrow their initial feelings of wanting to transition, coupled with the possibility that their distress might stem from unresolved mental health issues rather than a genuine need for gender transition.

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