Oranga Tamariki is working to improve the quality of state care and support – as well as reduce the number of young people in care. Laura Walters reports on a new $153m transition service aimed at setting young people up for an independent life.

The Government will spend $153.7 million on a new transition support service for young people leaving state care, as part of a raft of changes required by law.

Until now, young people who left the care of Oranga Tamariki have essentially fallen off the edge of the cliff.

Minister for Children Tracey Martin said the lack of support for those leaving care had been a “huge hole”.

Currently, 30 percent of children in care have parents who had also been in state care, and a lack of support upon leaving care was one of the reasons the cycle continued, she said.

Those leaving state care or youth justice found it difficult to start their independent lives, and it was wrong that support ended when they turned 18, Martin said.

The new, nation-wide service is expected to help about 3000 people over the next four years.

It will kick in on July 1, and is a mandatory requirement of the Oranga Tamariki Act.

“For too long they have been left to fend for themselves with little support, in a way we would never accept for our own children when they leave home.”

The law stipulates Oranga Tamariki has to provide this transition service for those leaving care who were aged 18-25, and it includes the right to stay with a caregiver until 21, if both parties agree.

The service was originally proposed by the Modernising Child, Youth and Family Expert Panel in 2015.

About 40 transition workers will be on the ground and available to work with eligible, young people leaving the care system from July 1. The workforce will grow to 175 by 2023.

“It is time to recognise the special responsibility we have for the young people leaving the state’s care,” Martin said.

“For too long they have been left to fend for themselves with little support, in a way we would never accept for our own children when they leave home.

“For these young people, the transition to adulthood often comes early, abruptly, and with little in the way of a safety net… It’s time to fix that.”

The Minister said young people were engaged with in the design of the transition service, which would largely be provided by NGOs, iwi and Māori organisations.

As well as the 175 specialist transition support staff, there will also be 60 supported accommodation places for those who need a stepping stone, $25m over four years to support people to remain with their caregiver beyond 18 (up to age 21), and $9m to provide advice and assistance for those leaving care, up to the age of 25.

The announcement comes at a time when Oranga Tamariki is facing criticism over the number of Māori children being uplifted from their parents.

Newsroom has detailed cases of children being taken by the state, and there has been criticism over the significant increase in the number of Māori newborn babies uplifted.

Figures showed the number of Māori babies taken from their parents rose from 110 in 2015, to 172 in 2018. However, Martin said there had been a recent downward trend.

These figures, along with an increase in child abuse inflicted on Māori children in the state system, led University of Waikato Te Kotahi Research Institute associate professor Leonie Pihama to call for the resignation of Oranga Tamariki chief executive Gráinne Moss, earlier this month.

Moss will not be stepping down, but this was unlikely to be the end of the criticism faced by Oranga Tamariki, and other state departments – including the former Child, Youth and Family – with the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in State Care due to begin hearings.

Oranga Tamariki CEO Gráinne Moss. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Raft of changes

As well as the transition service, the new law stipulates Oranga Tamariki has to make other changes to how it operates.

This includes supporting and caring for 17 year olds who will come under the youth justice system – rather than the adult justice system.

Oranga Tamariki is also required to significantly improve the quality of care, which will be underpinned by New Zealand’s first ‘Care Standards’. The department will be legally required to report annually and publicly on how it has improved outcomes for tamariki Māori, whānau, hapū and iwi.

Oranga Tamariki is also working on a plan to significantly increase the provision of ‘intensive’ support for children and whānau who are at risk of harm, with the aim of reducing the need for children to enter or re-enter care – instead ensuring they are safe in their whānau and communities.

In order to achieve this goal, Oranga Tamariki is running a small pilot of intensive support for children and families, with live-in “supernanny-style” social workers.

The programme is expected to be funded through this week’s Budget and rolled out more widely, with whānau having 24/7 access to a dedicated social worker, in an attempt to help stop issues in the home escalating to a point where the child needs to be removed.

Along with the raft of changes to Oranga Tamariki’s model, earlier this month Martin announced a full review of the financial assistance provided to foster and other caregivers. She is due to report back to Cabinet on the outcomes of the review later this year.

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