New Zealand has another chance at revolution when it comes to its child welfare system – but can the country succeed where it failed three decades ago?

Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft says New Zealand must succeed in its efforts to reshape the child welfare system, warning there will be no more second chances after a failure to capitalise on a similar “revolution” 30 years ago.

The fate of children in state care has been under the microscope in recent months, after Newsroom’s investigation into the attempted uplift of a newborn baby in Hawke’s Bay sparked a march on Parliament and calls for an end to the “theft” of Māori children.

In the first of a three-part series on the role of the state in New Zealand’s child welfare system hosted by Victoria University of Wellington, Becroft said the country had squandered a previous attempt to protect its children through “world-leading legislation” three decades ago.

Becroft said the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act, which became law in 1989, had an emphasis on family decision-making without state intervention if at all possible, as well as partnership with whānau, hapū and iwi.

However, it was not backed up by the necessary resources or education for those involved in the system – including himself.

“This is our second chance, we’ve got a chance to do right what we got wrong in 1989, and we cannot afford to fail – we won’t get the chance again.”

“With the benefit of hindsight as we look back, we blew it, all of us…big chunks of the legislation, I never really I guess understood or saw the power of.

“For instance, whānau, hapū and iwi were mentioned 28 times in that legislation as a triumvirate, a package, I can hardly myself remember addressing a decision as to how our intervention would strengthen hapū and iwi, which is what the law required.

“If there are others like me, you add that all up, put together it’s a good example of systemic bias.”

The creation of Oranga Tamariki was more than just the 14th review of the child welfare system but a “genuine second chance for revolution”, replacing the old “ambulance at the bottom of the cliff” approach with a greater emphasis on early intervention and preventative action rather than resorting to “the ultimate mechanism” of a child’s removal.

“This is our second chance, we’ve got a chance to do right what we got wrong in 1989, and we cannot afford to fail – we won’t get the chance again.”

Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft says he failed to fully understand the power of “world-leading” legislation from 1989 guiding the protection of children during his time on the Family Court. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Family Court judge Sharyn Otene, from the Hamilton District Court, said those involved in the system had to change the way they carried out their duties, building more authentic relationships with Māori and viewing the decision-making process through a “Treaty [of Waitangi] lens”.

“The path to solutions for Māori, because that is going to be the most difficult path to forge, will lead to path to solutions for all – it won’t be the same solution but it will guide us to it.”

Otene said there could be improvements in how whānau, iwi and hapū were involved in decisions on without-notice applications (the type of court order documented in Newsroom’s investigation).

“Sometimes that immediate intervention is needed, but sometimes the exercise of judgment is that the risk disclosed might require urgent intervention, but not necessarily immediately, or at least not without further information, or without hearing from from whānau, or without hearing from social workers a bit more about what’s going on…

“If in those circumstances there was a process whereby a judge could pause, could say…I’m not going to make a decision just yet, I’m going to hear from you in five days, seven days, 10 days, whatever, in short measure, when there is a lawyer for the child, when whānau are on notice about just how high the stakes now are…when iwi have had a chance to wrap around that whānau and provide a plan for their support, does that sound like a process that better accords with notions of partnership and participation and protection?

“Does that sound like a process that can better allow the expression of whanaungatanga and enhance the mana of the child? Well I think it is, and those processes have now been put in place very recently.”

The recent debate over Oranga Tamariki has been “uncomfortable” for the ministry, its chief social worker says. Photo: John Sefton.

Oranga Tamariki chief social worker Grant Bennett said the decision to bring a child into state care was “one of the most difficult any social worker will make”, and was influenced by a number of factors including their training, risk assessments, and community resources.

Poverty levels had the greatest association with entry into state care, while family violence, addiction and drug abuse, and housing problems were also significant factors.

Bennett said the number of children entering care had decreased, although at a slower rate for Māori than non-Māori, while there had also been a significant increase in the number of whānau placements over the last decade.

Speaking about the recent criticism of Oranga Tamariki, he said the debate had been “uncomfortable for us at times, and certainly we appreciate the challenge”, but people needed to remain optimistic.

“Everybody wants the best for our rangatahi and tamariki, everyone is there for them. What the risk is of the narrative is that we fragment rather than come together as a society and a community around our children – that would be the greatest disaster that came out of this.”

* Victoria University of Wellington is a sponsor and supporter of Newsroom. More information on the child welfare system seminars can be found here.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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