As controversy surrounds the Government’s planned changes to oversight of the state care system, the independent monitor seeks improvement from children’s ministry, Sam Sachdeva reports

The first annual report from New Zealand’s independent children’s monitor says the watchdog cannot confirm whether or not Oranga Tamariki is meeting all its responsibilities, due to the poor quality of its self-monitoring. 

But what data the monitor has been able to gather adds to concerns about the state care and protection system, with social workers failing to visit children as often as planned in nearly two-thirds of cases.

The independent children’s monitor was established in mid-2019 to oversee whether Oranga Tamariki and other providers were meeting the new national care standards set out that year.

After three interim reports on just some of the regulations, its 2020-21 annual report released this week said it could not say that Oranga Tamariki was “meeting all obligations for tamariki Māori or disabled tamariki, or for all tamariki and rangatahi in care” due to gaps in its self-monitoring.

Of the 199 questions the monitor asked of it, Oranga Tamariki could only answer 57 percent – and just five percent of the questions could be answered for all children in its care.

While Oranga Tamariki said it had identified and made connections with the whānau of 85 percent of Māori children, a sample of 352 tamariki Māori in its care found that 38 percent had not had an assessment of their cultural or identity needs and 61 percent had not had their wider cultural connections identified.

“Some tamariki Māori told us they wanted more time with their whānau, and others said they felt completely disconnected. Staff of service providers say that the system (bureaucracy, policies and processes) gets in the way of tamariki Māori connecting with their whānau.

“When communication or contact with whānau gets lost, it prevents tamariki building their cultural identity.”

“Even though Oranga Tamariki talk about the gaps in reporting, actually, the voices of those who are experiencing services, that’s where the change comes from.”
– Nova Banaghan, chief monitor

Good practice was taking place when children first entered care, but support weakened as they progressed through the system.

In nearly two-thirds of cases, children were not visited by social workers as often as outlined in their care plan, meaning opportunities to assess their safety and wellbeing were potentially being missed.

In 87 percent of allegations reviewed by Oranga Tamariki, the initial response and safety response was prompt, but only 31 percent of following investigations were completed on time.

Arran Jones, the executive director of the monitor’s office, told Newsroom the report was a significant milestone for the wider system as it was the first time much of the information had been publicly available.

“It’s the first time that you’ve got an organisation that’s actually focused on making it available, but also continuing and sustaining the focus on it, so we’ll continue every year and go back to see whether things are changing, and also look at the reasons why they may be changing or not changing as quickly as we’d like.”

Jones said the gaps in self-monitoring were not entirely a surprise, as the Government’s ministerial advisory board had previously drawn attention to shortcomings with the quality of information held by Oranga Tamariki.

“They’re putting a real focus on improving those systems … I’m pretty confident that for our next report, which will come out next year, there will be improvement.

“The question is, how long is it going to take? You’re dealing with legacy systems and replacing them and I think they’re as impatient as anyone to be actually better monitor these [standards] well, as they need to.”

Chief monitor Nova Banaghan said the organisation focused not just on collecting data from the ministry and other organisations, but going into the field and hearing from those in care, their whānau and workers in the system to understand their first-hand experience.

“Even though Oranga Tamariki talk about the gaps in reporting, actually, the voices of those who are experiencing services, that’s where the change comes from.”

Arran Jones (left) and Nova Banaghan from the independent children’s monitor say the organisation’s culture shouldn’t be affected by a move into the Education Review Office as a departmental agency. Photo: Supplied.

Jones said poor communication and collaboration between Oranga Tamariki and other agencies had been identified from speaking to those within the system.

“We do know that there’s some great practice where collaboration is occurring, and it’s often down to some amazing individuals doing really good things and being determined, and sometimes working in spite of the system to make things happen.”

In a statement welcoming the release of the report, Children’s Minister Kelvin Davis said that “while it was heartening to see plenty of positive findings by the monitor, we’ve known for some time there is still a lot of improvement ahead of Oranga Tamariki”.

“Work is well underway to empower communities and Māori to help children and their families in a way that works for them. There is still a place for Oranga Tamariki, but for too long the state has been at the centre of child protection.”

Davis said the seemingly low number of children in care registered with a GP as per Oranga Tamariki’s data – just 40 percent – was not a reflection of the reality on the ground, but an inability to record the right data.

“Regardless, this shows a need for Oranga Tamariki to improve its data recording methods so it can provide accurate information to those monitoring its performance.”

In its own response to the monitor’s findings, Oranga Tamariki said it had significantly strengthened its self-monitoring of the care standards since they were first introduced, but it agreed further work was needed to expand its data and information gathering.

“We’re not auditors, so while in the report there’s a lot of structured data … when our monitors head out to talk with people, we’re asking very open, practical questions.”

While the ministerial advisory board had described the children’s ministry as “self-centred”  and “vulnerable to being blown off course by the headwinds it inevitably encounters over time”, Banaghan said the monitor’s office had not encountered any difficulties in getting people within the system to speak to it.

“We’re not auditors, so while in the report there’s a lot of structured data … when our monitors head out to talk with people, we’re asking very open, practical questions about, what is helping them, what’s good about what’s happening for them, what’s not so good, what are the things that they enjoy.”

The future of the independent monitor has been a topic of controversy, with the Government’s plans to place it as a departmental agency within the Education Review Office rather than as a standalone entity sparking concerns about a potential lack of independence.

The monitor was initially set up within the Ministry of Social Development as an interim measure, and Jones said the need to maintain its independence was one of the reasons why it had to move elsewhere, given it could soon be reporting on work overseen by MSD.

The intention was to maintain the monitor’s community connections and internal culture through the transition to a new home, and since its inception significant work had gone into reassuring people about its independence from Oranga Tamariki.

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

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