When Erin Judge stood in front of a lecture theatre at the Victoria University of Wellington last week, she began with her pēpeha.

At 37 years old, this was the first time she had been able to include her hapu.

Judge has been the chief legal officer at Oranga Tamariki since June 2017, and prior to that worked on the other side of the issue with the police.

As a child, she was in need of care and protection. “A lot of the challenges in our childhood were similar to those I deal with with today.”

Her family had lost their connection with their hapu, and as a result, Judge did not know where she belonged, and did not have any way of finding out.

Only recently was she able to trace her whakapapa, with help from someone who heard the missing piece of her pēpeha.

Speaking at the second of a three-part series on the role of the state in New Zealand’s child welfare system, hosted by Victoria University, Judge said she had a deep passion for making sure tamariki like her did not end up – at age 37 – not knowing who they were.

The seminar looked at the past mistakes made by those working with the child welfare system, and how to take a more collaborative approach that was whānau-centred.

Judge’s presentation focused on the future of care, following the raft of law changes that came into effect on July 1.

While she understood the importance of looking back, Judge said she hoped the country was finally at the point where people could start looking to the future.

“One of the hard things, and the frustrating things, about looking back is it’s really easy to find the blame and the problems, and see where the system went wrong. But it doesn’t really take us anywhere.

“What’s a lot harder is putting the solutions into action, and finding the people who are willing to put up their hand and say: ‘No matter how hard this is, I’m here’.”

This resolve was what led the lawyer, with no family law experience, to the job at Oranga Tamariki.

The recent legislation included some significant changes, including the introduction of care standards, which articulated exactly what support and care the state was expected to provide to children in its care.

It also allowed for further early intervention, and for intensive intervention services.

And the much-talked about section 7AA, which stated the chief executive’s duties had to provide a practical commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi. This included reducing disparities for Māori children, and ensuring the policies, practices, and services of the department had regard to mana tamaiti (tamariki) and the whakapapa of Māori children and the whanaungatanga responsibilities of their whānau, hapū, and iwi.

The recent law changes and goodwill were not going to change the world, she said.

However, they gave the country the best opportunity to succeed in changing outcomes for children.

She argued in order for the system to work as it should, everyone had to play their part. Oranga Tamariki was just a small part of the wider system.

Hapu and iwi should also have a role in addressing the needs of tamariki. But in order for that to happen, there needed to be a connection between whānau, hapu and iwi, and they needed to have the resources and skills to step in.

Judge said the recent criticism of Oranga Tamariki meant the public was interested in the childcare and protection system.

She is not the only one to see the establishment of Oranga Tamariki and the recent law changes as an opportunity.

At the first seminar in the series, Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft, said the creation of the agency was more than just the 14th review of the child welfare system but a “genuine second chance for revolution”.

Becroft sat in the audience during the second seminar when the speakers reiterated their hope for a revolution.

“No one group or person has the solution.”

But Te Kōpū Legal principal family court lawyer Tania Williams Blyth said revolution could only happen if whānau and communities were engaged.

“If the community is not engaged, we will miss an opportunity to try and effect change,” she said.

In order to better understand the gaps, and engage the community, Williams Blyth carried out research, which showed whānau lacked information and understanding of the law, the system and their rights.

In response, she was teaching whānau the “rules of the game”.

Everyone needed to seize the opportunity “otherwise we’re going to be having the same conversation in about 10 to 15 years”, she said.

“Talk is easy, it’s the work we need to get right.”

Meanwhile, David Hanna, the director of NGO Wesley Community Action spoke about the importance of taking a collaborative approach, and the dangers of misconceptions held onto by both government departments and the NGO sector.

Wellington did not have all the solutions, neither did expensive consultants, he said.

But on the flipside, NGOs also fell into the trap of assuming government agencies always did a poor job, which was not the case.

“No one group or person has the solution,” he said.

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

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