The optimist in Nicola Atwool welcomes the recommendations in the latest report on Oranga Tamariki, but the pessimist needs to point out the enormity of the challenges ahead 

The sheer number of reviews, reports and restructurings has generated considerable cynicism about the capacity of Oranga Tamariki (and its many earlier configurations) to address the issues that have been highlighted since the 1986 Ministerial Advisory Committee Review and Puao Te Ata Tū report.

This cynicism is felt by those within and external to the organisation. The last 30 years have been testimony to the power of mainstream organisations to perpetuate colonisation despite legislation that could have facilitated a different form of engagement between statutory care and protection and tangata whenua.

The optimist in me welcomes this latest report, from the Government’s ministerial advisory board, because it has provided very clear recommendations that go to the heart of concerns. The pessimist in me feels the need to point out the enormity of the challenges and the significant shifts that will be needed to implement the Future Direction Action Plan.

The first recommendation appropriately situates statutory care and protection within the context of prevention. Our goal should be to eliminate (or at the very least significantly reduce) the need for statutory intervention to address the harm experienced by tamariki and rangatahi that is unequivocally acknowledged in the report. There is robust research evidence that prevention and early intervention are more effective than intervening once damage has been done.

The strength of this report is that Iwi Māori and community organisations are identified as the key to achieving this. The challenge will be ensuring the active engagement between fund holders and the community to ensure that effective and timely services to support whānau are available.

As the report notes, these issues cannot be addressed by national strategies and the challenge will be to develop robust communication at a local level to ensure that resources are made available and community organisations are respected for their expertise in the work of prevention and early intervention. Accountability processes will need to be outcome-focused and resources to support evaluation will be a key component in building the evidence base about what works.

The bulk of the resources are held in mainstream organisations and this is where the shift will be needed. So far there have been high levels of resistance to establishing relationships based on trust and respect.

The second recommendation calls for greater clarity of purpose in relation to the statutory role. There is also a strong call for the restoration of social work as the frame of reference at every level of the organisation. The reinstatement of social work is critical to achieving more effective ways of working in the statutory environment.

My concern is that many within the organisation do not realise how far they have shifted from social work and do not understand the ways in which they wield power over tamariki, rangatahi and whānau as well as their non-statutory colleagues in the community. These dynamics will need to be addressed if the partnership approach envisaged in the report is to replace the status quo.

This is a beleaguered workforce and the emphasis on kaimahi ora is very appropriate. It will be important that the enormity of the sift is not under-estimated. To achieve a different way of working, a paradigm shift is needed in how the task of statutory social work is understood, the way in which the work is done, and more importantly, the culture of the organisation.

The majority of the workforce are Pākehā and the majority of the people they work with are Māori. Attempts to shift practice have been made and there are rich resources available to support Tauiwi engagement with Māori. It is very clear that these are not widely used and a great deal of work will be needed to ensure that the changes needed are embedded at every level of the organisation.

As noted in the report, considerable investment in training, professional development and supervision will be needed. Some sites are already working in different ways, demonstrating that change is possible. The challenge will be tackling those sites where there is greatest resistance and working alongside to ensure Oranga Tamariki staff at every level of the organisation have the knowledge, skill and support to work in partnership with whānau, hapū, iwi and the community.

One of the key challenges identified in the report is to ensure that Oranga Tamariki is supported by other government agencies in their work. Advocacy is a key part of the social work role, especially when dealing with stressors such as poverty and inadequate housing.

An acceptance of collective responsibility for the wellbeing of whānau, as envisaged in government policy, is critical if social workers are to be effective in their advocacy. Timely access to mental health and addiction services is a key component of effective intervention and these services will need to reposition themselves as having a responsibility in the statutory care and protection space.

Those working in health and education will also need to position themselves as partners. They will need to develop the resources to ensure that opportunities for early intervention are not missed. The status quo has been that referrals are made to Oranga Tamariki when there are high-level concerns, contributing to many missed opportunities for an early and supportive approach to whānau who are struggling. Breakdowns in communication also mean that many whānau fall through the gaps, again contributing to missed opportunities.

The recommendation that a governance board be established to monitor progress is arguably the most important of the three recommendations. Past experience has demonstrated that reports are not sufficient to achieve change and that large organisations cannot always be trusted to follow through on recommendations. I was heartened to see the commitment to providing the oversight needed to achieve more effective engagement between statutory social work and the wider community.

In particular, I was pleased to see the commitment to engagement with other government agencies because this may be the hardest shift to achieve and without it, there is a risk that at some point in the future Oranga Tamariki could be scapegoated for failing to address issues that require a whole of government and whole of community response.

University of Otago associate professor of social and community work, Dr Nicola Atwool, is one of the country' top expert in attachment trauma.

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