Children are being put at risk and whānau carers short-changed, according to front line social workers at Oranga Tamariki. They say reform is critical.

A new emphasis within Oranga Tamariki to find whānau to care for at-risk children has left many of the families with almost no financial or material support.

Social workers inside Oranga Tamariki have told Newsroom the situation is so dire they can no longer be silent.

“We agree with the practice of finding safe whānau, but the problem lies in the expectation that those safe carers are left to foot the bill alongside the extreme life changes needed to accommodate the at risk tamariki,” says one social worker.

Instead of being funded to take on these children, aunties, grandparents, siblings and cousins who have stepped up to help are being forced to give up their jobs and rearrange their lives with limited, if any, financial assistance from Oranga Tamariki.

This is because, technically, the children are not under the care of the state, and the whānau are not ‘formally approved’ caregivers.

“The issue is that when these whānau agree to care for and keep their tamariki safe, there isn’t the financial or material support for them that would be available if, as would have been more common in the past, OT took court ordered custody orders,” a social worker told Newsroom.

She says there needs to be an immediate policy change to ensure the whānau of these tamariki get sufficient funding to care for them from “day one” of the agreed safety care plan.

“OT has no obligation to pay for anything, not set up costs, daycare, holiday programmes, transport, beds, nothing. The whānau that have agreed to take the children are expected to pay for all these things. If whānau are able to give these children safety they should be supported to do so. The money needs to follow the child.

“There is a lack of genuine support for whānau who are caring for their at-risk tamariki.”

At this point, social workers say Work and Income NZ is meant to pick up the slack and the Unsupported Child Benefit should kick in.

Yet for many, they can’t even get that.

The 12-month rule

Not only do these family carers get little or no funding through Oranga Tamariki, they also struggle to get help through WINZ.

Caregivers on low incomes who need financial support to look after someone else’s child due to a ‘family breakdown’ are eligible for the Unsupported Child Benefit (UCB) starting at $203 a week for under-fives.

But only if they can prove they are likely to care for the child for 12 months or more.

“The whānau often have no idea how long they will have the children, often the plan is for them to keep the children until the parents have done some work to sort out whatever the risk is – sometimes that might only be for three months, and in that case there is no payment at all from WINZ,” says one social worker.

This system also relies on Oranga Tamariki or WINZ informing the caregiver they’re eligible. One grandmother had been raising her grandchildren for years before she realised she was eligible for the UCB, and only found out by attending a Grandparents Raising Grandchildren support group meeting.

Grandparents raising grandchildren

Tricia Corin is a financial support and benefits advocate for GRG clients. She says it’s imperative the policy is scrapped.

She describes one of her recent clients, an elderly disabled couple living in a two bedroom Kāinga Ora flat who have taken on the care of three grandchildren. They have received almost no financial assistance from either Oranga Tamariki or WINZ for the eight months the children have been in their care, relying on petrol vouchers and food parcels to get by.

“This law needs to go. I fight with WINZ all the time about this 12-month law, it’s just an absolute nightmare,” Corin told Newsroom.

She says GRG want this law to be removed because it disadvantages children and caregivers.

“Family caregivers have to be confident they’re going to have the child for 12 months before they are granted the UCB, but in some situations there is a discussion over how long the child’s going to be with them.”

“They may say ‘right, in three to six months’ time another Family Group Conference decides where the child goes from there’, and if that’s the case and WINZ are aware of this, the caregivers can’t prove they are going to have them for that one year minimum, so they get nothing.”

“It’s very nice for OT to turn around and say ‘do you want to look after your grandchild or they’ll go into foster care’ and 99 percent say ‘of course, we don’t want them in foster care,’ But they may not get any money.”

Corin says this gap in the law is profoundly affecting countless families who are struggling, and that even applying for the UCB is challenging.

“If you talk to grandparents and caregivers going to WINZ asking for handout, they feel degraded. WINZ make it so hard – they put them through hoops to get it, when they should be saying thank God for grandparents for taking on these children.”

Currently there is a bill before the Social Services and Community Select Committee to change the law and in particular to remove this one-year rule.

GRG has put in a submission asking for urgent change.

The select committee report is due back on June 8. Social workers and GRG say change needs to happen immediately.

Not enough to live on

Even when someone is approved to receive the UCB, the amount provided often leaves carers still struggling.

Aroha was one of the ‘lucky’ ones. She managed to get the UCB straight away when she agreed to take on the fulltime care of her mokopuna.

But she didn’t think she would have to give up her new business, her fulltime job and spend almost the entire weekly payment on childcare just so she could work a few hours to make ends meet.

She receives $203 a week under the UBC. This is meant to cover everything the child needs. For Aroha, who pays $185 a week on 18 hours of childcare, it doesn’t even pay for formula or nappies.

“Baby is big and I started to get arthritis from lifting him which means I can’t do my usual work anymore, so I’ve had to shelve my business. I can only work part time now. And I can’t send him for longer hours because I can’t afford it.”

She says she works a quarter of the time she used to.

“I would do it for nothing, of course, but it would be nice to have at least the daycare covered.”

In other words, the state believes when it comes to family, love should be enough.

Why is this happening?

Social workers told Newsroom the lack of funding for whānau taking on tamariki and mokopuna is a “total disaster”, and the result is that kids are – yet again – the ones missing out.

Some social workers are tearing their hair out trying to work out how to provide for whānau taking on at-risk tamariki. Funding support is at the Oranga Tamariki site manager’s discretion, which is dependent on the site’s budget at the time.

Often social workers are unable to secure approval from their managers to provide even basics like bedding, nappies and clothes for children going to live with family members, and they say multiple attempts to address the issue internally have been “ineffective and slow-moving”.

In the past, Oranga Tamariki would frequently take custody of a child deemed at-risk. When this occurs, tamariki are only able to be placed with approved caregivers (whānau or non-kin).

Approved caregivers have to meet stringent requirements – for example, they need to pass a medical check; they cannot have had any police history in the past 13 years; and their homes, vehicles, cultural competency and safety are assessed.

Once approved, these caregivers can access a suite of support payments to help care for the tamariki. This includes a minimum weekly amount of $203, plus pocket money, a monthly clothing allowance, respite cover, birthday and Christmas gift allowance, weekly nappy payment, stationary, school camp, club and uniform costs, as well as school, early childhood and after school care fees.

The baby at the centre of the Hawkes Bay Hospital attempted uplift.  

But ever since the Hastings attempted uplift – and the five subsequent inquiries slamming practices within the agency – Oranga Tamariki has been more likely to place tamariki directly with whānau, via the whānau agreed process of Family Group Conference, without going through a court order and other official channels.

This is called ‘taking the care of children by agreement’.

It has its upsides: being less formal, it is less time consuming – and there are no court visits, no fighting to ensure the kids have a safe place to live, the family have been empowered to come together and make a decision in the best interests of the child, and most importantly it gives time for the parent/s to have a chance to get themselves into a position to be able to care for their tamariki again.

The problem is, these safe whānau don’t have access to the funding that comes with being an approved caregiver.

“They get nothing. Zero,” says one social worker, who told Newsroom there is now a huge drive to place children in this way.

“My belief is that families don’t understand the difference between a custody order by Oranga Tamariki, and taking the care of children by agreement. So they think at that hui ā-whānau or Family Group Conference meeting ‘if we say yes I will take the children until mum or dad gets their shit together’ that that’s going to mean they’ll get funding. And it doesn’t. There’s no funding because there’s no custody order.”

Insiders have told Newsroom it’s ‘incredible’ how few orders are now being made, and this is another example of a reactionary policy instead of best practice.

“Nowdays there is a real push for OT not to take custody orders for children. It’s almost like the pendulum has swung way too far, to where it is near impossible to get management agreement to bring children ‘formally with custody orders into care’.”

This shift, she says, will be a “huge financial saving for the government”.

Children in danger

A social worker told Newsroom these recent changes are another example of Oranga Tamariki swinging from one extreme to the other – and that the push to place children with whānau without court orders could be putting some of them in danger.

“We’re in a situation at the moment where we are depending heavily on community agencies and family to keep these kids safe, because OT are too scared to step up now and take any kind of orders because of the public backlash.”

“It’s gone completely the opposite way, which is just not helpful. And in some situations we should still be able to come together and agree that taking court orders and custody is the best way to keep some kids safe, but I tell you, it’s bloody hard.”

When the social worker became aware of an unsafe situation involving a four-month-old baby placed with whānau where drugs were involved, she was unable to convince superiors that formal orders were required to keep the baby safe. Instead she was directed to request another Family Group Conference.

She says this is a symptom of the agency’s fear of public backlash. “Because we’ll be seen to be doing something wrong, instead of standing by best practice to keep vulnerable children safe.”

Children’s Minister Kelvin Davis hopes a new law can boost support for whānau carers. Photo: Lynn  Grieveson

The Minister for Children responds

Newsroom put the concern that whānau are getting a raw deal to the Children’s Minister, Kelvin Davis.

He confirmed Oranga Tamariki can only make decisions if they hold custody orders for the children in question, but were working on transforming the system “to better support caregivers caring for children outside the State care system”.

“This includes exploring both financial and non-financial assistance.”

He said “progress has been made” to make support more equitable between caregivers caring for tamariki outside the State care system and those caring for tamariki inside it.

He reiterated the select committee is currently considering the Social Security (Financial Assistance for Caregivers Bill), which would remove the 12-month eligibility rule, which, if passed, will come into effect on July 1.

“This is to allow caregivers to receive financial assistance when the expected duration of the care arrangement may be shorter-term, unknown, or uncertain.”

He said the weekly base rate will also be increasing from April next year to be in line with the amount Oranga Tamariki approved caregivers receive.

There was no mention of items like daycare, school fees, uniforms, stationary, respite care and other financial support also available to approved Oranga Tamariki caregivers.

One social worker says she is glad change appears to be happening, but has questions over what non-financial assistance would be available, and wants to remind the minister that for many, they need help right now.

“Will they supply the whānau caregiver, going from caring for their own two children to taking on another three at risk kids, with a bigger home or extensions, more beds etcetera?

“These changes are a step in the right direction, I just hope they come to fruition as soon as possible.”

Bonnie Sumner is part of the Newsroom Investigates reporting team

Leave a comment