The latest in a string of stinging reports has concluded Oranga Tamariki needs a new operating model more focused on prevention than reaction, and with greater community control of resources and responses

A “self-centred” Oranga Tamariki with weak systems and a propensity for being blown off course must shift from reaction to prevention and share more decision-making powers with Māori, yet another scathing review into the ministry has concluded.

The Government has accepted all of the recommendations of the report from its ministerial advisory board, including the development of a new, community-focused operating model and greater support and training for social workers.

Children’s Minister Kelvin Davis set up the board in January to provide independent advice on what was happening within the ministry.

The board was tasked with reporting back on Oranga Tamariki’s organisational culture, most recently called into question earlier this year following a Newsroom investigation into the treatment of vulnerable children at its specialised care and residence facilities.

It is just the latest in a series of investigations into the state of Oranga Tamariki, following previous inquiries from Becroft, Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier, Whānau Ora and the Waitangi Tribunal which raised concerns with the ministry’s uplifts of children and, in the case of the latter, recommended the creation of an entirely new Māori authority to oversee the care and protection of tamariki.

While the board’s report does not go that far, it says the ministry’s reactive processes have led to the Crown assuming the lead role in supporting tamariki and whānau “without really knowing how to be effective in this”, and in turn undermining the role of communities, particularly of hapū and iwi, in leading their own responses.

There is currently no coordinated strategy for how Oranga Tamariki partners with Māori and communities to enable a shift to prevention, a gap it says must be urgently addressed through engagement with Māori on the way forward, as well as the equitable sharing of adequate resources and authority.

“Many of the services and support for tamariki and their whānau currently delivered by Oranga Tamariki can, over time, be provided by Māori and community groups,” the report says.

“It is self-centred and constantly looks to itself for answers. Its current systems are weak, disconnected and unfit for the population of tamariki it serves, and there is no strategy to partner with Māori and the community.”

“Coming into contact with the current care and protection system, even if only briefly, can reinforce and cause further damage to already vulnerable and hurt tamariki and their whānau,” the board says in making the case for a shift of emphasis towards prevention, with state care as a last resort.

There is further stinging criticism of Oranga Tamariki itself, which the board says “lacks strategic direction and is not visionary”.

“It is self-centred and constantly looks to itself for answers. Its current systems are weak, disconnected and unfit for the population of tamariki it serves, and there is no strategy to partner with Māori and the community.

“It is an agency that is vulnerable to being blown off course by the headwinds it inevitably encounters over time.”

Oranga Tamariki social workers are doing hard work under significant pressure, with a lack of strong professional leadership and development coupled with the absence of consistent and timely induction across the organisation, as well as weak professional structures and systems.

“The social work voice within Oranga Tamariki needs strengthening as professional practice views, opinions, and experience are missing at many levels within the organisation, including at its leadership group.”

The report says the Office of the Chief Social Worker should be restored as a central role within Oranga Tamariki, with enhanced influence across the agency to address the “de-professionalisation” of the ministry’s workforce away from social work.

For “genuine and sustained transformation”, a two-track approach to change must run in parallel and for at least a generation, with one focusing on the reset of collective Māori kinship and leadership responsibilities to deliver for their whānau, and the other on improving the effectiveness of the care and protection system so it is “fit for purpose for the communities it serves”.

Children’s Minister Kelvin Davis says the state’s approach to care has undermined the ability of communities to look after their children. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

In an action plan responding to the report, Oranga Tamariki says it intends to develop a new operating model within a year, also closing its care and protection residences within the same timeframe.

Within two years, it plans to “place the voices of tamariki and rangatahi at the centre of decision-making at all levels and support tamariki and whānau to participate in and be central to decision-making”.

In the next six to 12 months, it will “set a clear direction to only use s78 Without Notice orders for tamariki when there is clear evidence of solid engagement or attempts at engagement with whānau, which leads to no workable safety plan being put in place”.

In the same period, it intends to develop revised restraint guidelines following the outcry over Newsroom’s most recent investigation.

Responding to the board’s findings, Davis said the Government had accepted all of the recommendations from a “confronting yet powerful report”.

“From the outset of my time as minister, I have been committed to fixing the child protection system and these changes will go a long way towards doing that,” he said.

Davis believed a heightened emphasis on community-led prevention would be the most significant initiative, with the removal of children into state care – while still a necessity on occasion – only carried out after all other avenues with community and whānau had been exhausted. 

“There will always be a role for the state in the protection of our most vulnerable children, but the approach taken to date has placed the state at the centre. This has undermined the ability of communities to ensure the wellbeing of children and their whānau.”

To ensure the changes took place, an action plan had been developed and an independent governance board established to ensure the implementation of changes stayed on track.

Davis also paid tribute to the “demanding and difficult work” carried out by Oranga Tamariki staff, much of which took place out of public sight and in a system that provided them with inadequate support.

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

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