A young person is put in a headlock in the whistleblower video aired by Newsroom. Photo: Supplied

Whistleblower slates reversed decision as ‘disingenuous’

Oranga Tamariki performed a sudden u-turn yesterday when it announced it would not be closing its Te Oranga care and protection residence in Christchurch after all.

The agency declared it would close the facility and launched a number of internal and external reviews and investigations into staff treatment of tamariki at the facility following the release of a Newsroom Investigates video showing a young person being restrained in a headlock and thrown to the ground by some members of staff at the specialised facility.

At the time, then acting chief executive Tā Wira Gardiner, said he wanted to know why the abuse shown in the video had happened and why Oranga Tamariki’s processes didn’t work.

“One of the questions that I’ve asked the investigators to look at is exactly that: how is it that we didn’t know? Is it that our reporting system is inadequate, is it broken, does it need to be fixed, what needs to be done? It’s one of the key questions – how is it that we have to rely on somebody leaking CCTV footage to the public, via television?”

Yesterday’s announcement, which came in the form of a press release, said the investigations were nearly complete and that they “do not support the view that the tamariki and rangatahi at Te Oranga are unsafe, or that there is a widespread culture of abuse.”

The whistleblower who came forward with the damning video footage says this latest announcement from Oranga Tamariki is “disingenuous”.

“It was never widespread, it was only a few individuals and this was covered up by the management at the time. The point was it shouldn’t have happened at all. There were individuals stepping across the line and being abusive to particular children. And that’s what the clear video evidence showed.”

He told Newsroom “of course” the rangatahi at Te Oranga are no longer unsafe, because immediately following the video’s release the staff involved were stood down, and remain so.

“It’s only safe now because they’ve got an accountable manager in, and everybody has had such a shake up from these investigations that any bad practice should be stomped out for a while.”

“But it wasn’t being investigated before [the video], it was continually being covered up.”

The whistleblower told Newsroom at the time the closure of the facility was announced that it was a kneejerk reaction by the organisation that would not help the children.

“What the hell is going to happen to these kids now? What about the staff who work their backsides off to look after these kids? … This is just typical showboating from Wellington,” he said.

Yesterday’s Oranga Tamariki’s press release also came with a comment from the agency’s senior media adviser stating it would “not be facilitating interviews or providing any further comment on this topic.”

Newsroom approached the acting chief executive, Chappie Te Kani, to ask him ask why a publicly funded state agency would not be taking interviews, and also whether he believed the rangatahi in the Newsroom video were unsafe or the featured staff members were abusive.

We also asked whether the perceived safety of the rangatahi was because those shown in the video restraining him have now been stood down.

In an emailed response, Te Kani said he was open to discussing his decision further “when appropriate” and said multiple investigations either had been or were underway. “Investigations by the police are ongoing. Employment investigations into the specific incidents are ongoing and being completed by an external law firm. Oranga Tamariki also gave all Te Oranga staff the opportunity to participate in a more general investigation, to raise any concerns about the safety and wellbeing of tamariki, rangatahi and/or kaimahi at Te Oranga. This was conducted by a different external law firm. The Ministerial Advisory Board conducted a review.”

He said the actions shown in the whistleblower video aired by Newsroom were “excessive and therefore unsafe, which is wrong. I cannot comment further at this time as police and employment investigations are ongoing.”  The staff actions shown were unacceptable and that was why immediate employment action had been taken by the ministry. Asked if the staff actions had been abusive, Te Kani said: “Based on the video footage, yes, and I agree that abuse does not have to be widespread to be abusive.”

Oranga Tamariki’s Care and Protection Residences are secure facilities for vulnerable children and young people to receive the help they need. The tamariki and rangatahi in the residences haven’t committed a crime and are considered to have high and complex needs that require intensive support.

The press release said Oranga Tamariki was still committed to transitioning tamariki and rangatahi away from these residences.

Melanie Reid is Newsroom's lead investigations editor.

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