Family of missing children say Oranga Tamariki closed case on them

Oranga Tamariki has “closed the case” on three Waikato children who have been missing in the past five months and is not seeking to verify their well-being, a family member said.

The children – Jayda, 8, Maverick, 7 and Ember, 6 – are believed to have been taken by father Tom Phillips to remote bushland near the coastal town of Marokopa in early December 2021.

He has reportedly only been seen once since then. The children were not seen.

The children’s adult half-sister accuses government agencies, such as child protection organization Oranga Tamariki and the police, of dragging their feet without taking serious action to find the children.

Oranga Tamariki says he is unable to comment on the case as it is before the courts and due to privacy concerns for those involved.

But the children’s sister says emails sent to her by Oranga Tamariki say she has ‘closed the case’ on the children ‘on the understanding that the police will notify the children again of their return’.

It’s like it’s a case of “out of sight, out of mind,” she says.

“It seems to me that Oranga Tamariki is doing as little as possible to safely locate the children.”

The sister says she understands there are limits to what social workers can do while the children are missing.

Inspector Will Loughrin, Commander of West Waikato Region, first said that Tom Phillips had not breached any judicial restrictions and had done nothing wrong in this regard. Photo/Mike Scott

But she says she points to an apparent systemic lack of concern and action among government departments and agencies to trace the children.

“I understand their hands are tied to some degree, but someone has to take responsibility.”

She says Oranga Tamariki’s website says it is responsible for ensuring that children and young people are safe and nurtured in their families, whānau and homes.

Yet the three children had been missing for five months now, she said.

“It’s ridiculous.”

The latest disappearance is the second time in months that Phillips has disappeared “off the grid” with her children.

Police earlier launched a major search for him and his children in September last year when his ute was found on Kiritehere beach with water splashing over its tires, raising fears the family may have been swept away by the sea.

Emergency service teams and members of the local and iwi community spent 17 days searching for the family before he and his children showed up at his parents’ home on September 28.

People wait outside Te Kuiti District Court for Tom Phillips to appear for his first hearing.  Photo/Mike Scott

People wait outside Te Kuiti District Court for Tom Phillips to appear for his first hearing. Photo/Mike Scott

They had stayed in a tent in dense bush, his family said.

The police accused him of wasting police resources.

However, Phillips is then “off the grid” again in early December.

The mother of the young children and older adult half-sisters posted on Facebook shortly after calling for help to find the children, saying they wanted to “get these poor babies back”.

But when Phillips left in December, police said he had not broken any court orders.

“As far as what he can and can’t do, he’s not doing anything wrong,” West Waikato Police Area Commander Inspector Will Loughrin said at the time.

Phillips later missed his January court appearance where he faced the charge of wasting police resources. Police later issued an arrest warrant for him for failing to appear.

Last week, the police stepped up their efforts to find him by appealing to the television program Ten 7 Aotearoa for the public to help find him.

A map of the area where Phillips' car was found when he was first missing for 17 days in September last year.  Image file

A map of the area where Phillips’ car was found when he was first missing for 17 days in September last year. Image file

Loughrin today said police had received a number of calls from people wanting to provide information after watching the broadcast.

“We are currently in the process of reviewing and evaluating this information and conducting follow-up investigations as needed,” he said.

However, the older half-sister – who was 12 when her mother married Phillips – says her family has had to lead all new efforts to bring attention to missing children.

But they still don’t know where they are or how they are doing.

Are they home schooled, do they need medical attention, do they eat well – no one knows, she says.

The youngest child Ember recently celebrated his sixth birthday while missing.

“We didn’t get to see the kids grow up and we missed all those moments,” their sister says.

“It’s taken us a long time…and in the worst case, they never come back.”