Police have an independent overseer, so do doctors and health workers. But no one watches the children’s agency. Jacoby Poulain argues we need a new, independent complaints agency for Oranga Tamariki.
The silent are silent no more and they are crying for help. There is nowhere for them to go.
Hundreds of people are coming forward around the country with harrowing stories of families and children that have been subject to child welfare proceedings, too often with reports of misconduct by agencies involved.
These stories are flooding the inbox of others around the country including iwi, lawyers, government offices, and myself included as an elected representative in Hawkes Bay.
I am a councillor for the Hastings District Council representing specifically the Flaxmere Ward. Flaxmere is one of the lowest socio-economic communities in New Zealand with our city of Hastings reportedly leading the country in statistics of children in state care.
I am also an elected board member of the Hawkes Bay District Health Board, which governs the hospital where the recent child uplift matter occurred.
What has become glaringly obvious is that there is no one single trusted landing pad for these cases being reported, which are essentially complaints filled with grievance.
Therefore these complaints are landing haphazardly around our nation with each recipient not knowing what to do with them and no place to forward them to. The cries of the nation are invisible to the government. Professional people and advocates around the country are overwhelmed.
We have a tidal wave of child welfare crisis and desperation upon us right now. The common thread of these accounts is that the collective actions, behaviours and practices of all the agencies in this space create a system of major power imbalance with no independent oversight.
We have the most powerful in our society dealing with our most vulnerable, with no independent accountability. Families are desperate and have nowhere to go. It seems Oranga Tamariki have an extreme amount of power that is seemingly unbalanced and unchecked.
We need urgent immediate action by the highest powers in government and our nation to come to the aid of our communities and nation now. I call upon the Prime Minister, Minister of Children and the Children’s Commissioner to create an independent authority to receive, handle, investigate and resolve complaints against Oranga Tamariki, and potentially child welfare practices involving other agencies. An organisation like the Independent Police Conduct Authority.
I am aware the health system has created child protection policies and practices that have the potential, and reportedly the effect in some cases, to create far more harm than they prevent.
Courts are obviously involved. Courts of course can only judge on the material before them. Families of children around the country, however, are screaming out that their rights to participate in a fair hearing have been unnecessarily withheld and interfered with.
There are far more serious allegations that demand investigation.
Importance of Independence
It’s a conflict of interest for the chief executive and managers to investigate and make ultimate findings on serious complaints against the conduct of their own employees and organisation.
It is crucial the authority created is fully independent, like that covering police.
The Independent Police Conduct Authority is headed by an independent judge, a team of case resolution offices, investigators, report writers and support staff. The authority makes its own judgments about the facts, based on evidence and law.
Independent oversight provides assurance for both the public and government agencies working in child welfare and protection matters that allegations of misconduct or neglect of duty are dealt with fairly and properly.
Independence protects children and families from abuse of power, exposes misconduct, improves practices and policies, encourages higher standards, restores trust and confidence in the system, and ultimately improves the lives of our children and their families.
If it has been found necessary to establish an independent authority to oversee the conduct of police and the use of their powers, then it is only fair and right that a similar authority is established to oversee and hold accountable the massive powers that Oranga Tamariki and other agencies involved with child protection matters have.
Child welfare matters disproportionately affect Maori, therefore Iwi and Māori must be part of the design of any solution and kaupapa. Iwi and Māori are being side-lined unjustly in the system of child welfare and care and protection. I back the call of all Iwi in the space. The government must give madate, power, authority and resourcing to Iwi to correct the cultural imbalance and practices.
Also, this is not just a Māori issue. Māori are making complaint to the Waitangi Tribunal however the jurisdiction of the tribunal centres around Māori issues only, effectively leaving out European and non-Māori children and families from having any avenue of help and investigation. Establishing an Independent Child Welfare Complaints Authority would overcome this issue, ensuring all children in our country are protected and provided for, regardless of race.