After years of scandals, the children’s ministry must return to the community to help solve problems, not be ‘the car in the driveway that’s coming to take your tamariki’. The new acting head talks to Sam Sachdeva about whether the organisation can be saved.
Oranga Tamariki, says Chappie Te Kani, is “feeling the pinch of change”.
That seems an understatement from the ministry’s acting chief executive, after a barrage of damning criticism from Māori organisations and government watchdogs for several years over its uplifts of children from their families and polluted internal culture.
The rebukes culminated with a report last September by an independent advisory group chosen by Children’s Minister Kelvin Davis, which pulled few punches in pointing out Oranga Tamariki’s lack of vision and strategic direction.
“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,” the group’s report said.
“It’s a fair statement, and I’m not critical of it whatsoever,” Te Kani says of that stinging remark.
“I read it and went, actually there’s change that needs to be made – we all accept it, and we know… the report was singularly focused about the importance of delivering better outcomes for our tamariki.”
While Te Kani has spent more than a decade working in public service roles, he missed much of Oranga Tamariki’s turmoil: he started at the ministry as a deputy chief executive in May last year, several months after the departure of polarising boss Grainne Moss.
Having grown up in Gisborne and experienced “some of the complexities at the whānau level of what we have to deal with”, the move felt personal and has taken on added significance after his step up.
“We want decision-making closer to our whānau and our communities, in the hands of regional leaders, in the hands of our social workers, closer to our site managers, all the people that really understand our whānau and their needs and create a trusted environment.”
– Chappie Te Kani
“Sitting here, leading the organisation after Sir Wira Gardiner [who stepped down as acting head for medical reasons], I started to see some of the awesome and powerful mahi that we do, and then realising, we can actually make a real difference in the lives of tamariki … and we do it in quite a direct way.”
Come to the end of 2022, he hopes several new initiatives will have started to “turn the tide” on the perception of a ministry easily blown off course, as the advisory group put it.
Top of the list is bedding in a restructure of the senior leadership team announced last December, with the number of deputy chief executives almost halved amid talk of both structural and cultural change.
Te Kani says the goal is to make it clearer and easier for staff to understand which groups are responsible for what work, while also feeding into a devolution of power into the regions.
“We want decision making closer to our whānau and our communities, in the hands of regional leaders, in the hands of our social workers, closer to our site managers, all the people that really understand our whānau and their needs and create a trusted environment.”
As part of the restructuring, two roles in the leadership team must go to registered social workers (the chief social worker, and the deputy chief executive for quality practice and experience).
It is a direct response to criticisms from the ministerial advisory board (among others) about the “de-professionalisation” of the workforce and a lack of professional leadership and development.
The obvious question raised at the time, which still remains, is how a ministry so reliant on social workers to succeed could allow them to become so disillusioned.
“That’s hard for me to know, being new, to pinpoint … I remember very early on when I started last year as acting [chief executive] was talking to social workers about why they love what they do, and what’s clear to me is it’s a very heartfelt group of workers and they just want to do the very best they can.”
Data gaps ‘disappointing and not acceptable’
That concern about staff burnout and disillusionment is behind the development of a Kaimahi Ora strategy to improve work-life balance and provide regular debriefings following traumatic events, among other measures.
Despite years of negative headlines about its culture and treatment of staff, Te Kani insists Oranga Tamariki has not struggled to recruit new workers, with people drawn to “the cause and the kaupapa of the organisation”; the bigger problem is in fact the demand for social workers and youth workers across the sector.
Another area of improvement he emphasises is making better use of data and evidence to shift the way it approaches its work.
There is clearly some way to go on that front. The independent children’s monitor, set up to report on whether Oranga Tamariki is meeting national care standards, recently said it couldn’t make a proper assessment due to the poor quality of its self-monitoring; the ministry could answer all of the monitor’s questions for just five percent of the children in its care.
“Very disappointing, and personally for me, not acceptable,” Te Kani says of the findings while promising changes, noting the care standards are important not just within Oranga Tamariki but for wider public accountability.
As for the Government’s controversial plans for both the monitor and the Children’s Commissioner, Te Kani politely declines to comment but says Oranga Tamariki will work with whichever watchdogs and processes are put in place to oversee it.
“There is no pushback or defensiveness for me on it: whatever decisions land, wherever it lands, we’ll work with that, let’s get on with the business and do what we have to do.”
“There’s definitely a need … to really grapple with the drivers for our tamariki coming into care, whether it’s structural racism, or whatever you want to call it.”
– Chappie Te Kani
The ministerial advisory board’s report was particularly stinging in noting Oranga Tamariki had “no strategy to partner with Māori and the community” despite the disproportionate number of Māori children taken into care, and there is a clear expectation from the Government that must change.
Te Kani affiliates to several iwi, including Ngāti Porou and Tūhoe – not insignificant, given the criticism Moss received from some for not understanding the broader cultural issues at play.
“What’s really important is that they’re [children] in loving, caring whānau, and for tamariki Māori or Pasifika whānau, ensuring that there’s always connection back to their culture,” he says.
He has been speaking to a number of iwi and Māori service providers, and recently met with prominent Māori leader and previous Oranga Tamariki critic Lady Tureiti Moxon to talk about the path ahead.
Te Kani mentions an agreement signed with Ngāi Tahu late last year as an example of the treaty partnerships the ministry is seeking to form, while there are two Māori-specific roles in the new, slimlined leadership restructure (the deputy chief executive for Māori, partnerships, and communities, as well the tumu tikanga).
Speaking to the Waitangi Tribunal shortly before her departure, Moss acknowledged there was structural racism within the care and protection system. Does he feel the same way?
“There’s definitely a need … to really grapple with the drivers for our tamariki coming into care, whether it’s structural racism, or whatever you want to call it.
“And some of those elements are common for all our tamariki, not just Māori: poverty, complex needs, the daily struggles and frustrations that whānau often find they face – not just whānau Māori, all families with their tamariki that come into our care.”
But some children, including those of Māori descent, will always need to be taken into state care, he says, with protection of tamariki the organisation’s single focus.
While Oranga Tamariki’s goal is to do everything it can to help parents at risk of losing their children to turn their lives around, “in the cases where they where it doesn’t work and we have to intervene and exercise our statutory role, I will do that without hesitation knowing we’ve tried everything we can”.
The same threshold applies to the controversial ‘without notice’ orders used to take children from their parents, overused despite expectations they were to be an option of last resort.
“Just to state the obvious, one of the most coercive powers Oranga Tamariki has is the removal of a tamariki from its whānau into the care of the chief executive, so in those cases of section 78 without notice it’s really important for me that I’m assured that we’ve done everything possible to avoid it,” Te Kani says.
The number of orders has dropped after the public outcry, falling from 1527 in 2017 to 649 in 2020 due to increased use of family group conferences and earlier planning with whānau, but Oranga Tamariki has committed to set a further “clear direction” on the matter by September.
Some believe the ministry is beyond repair and should instead be replaced, but it’s a view Te Kani doesn’t hold.
“The Waitangi Tribunal made this point too: there’s always going to be a need for a statutory care and protection agency, and we wish that wasn’t true. I wish…I could as the chief executive work my way to a point where we have no tamariki coming into care and Oranga Tamariki doesn’t exist, and that would be a great thing but we will need, unfortunately, to use these statutory powers in some circumstances.”
As to how the ministry can regain the confidence of the public and the communities it serves, it must be “seen in the community as helping solve problems and not the car in the driveway that’s coming to take your tamariki” – something which many frontline workers are already doing under the radar.
Te Kani describes an optimism within the organisation, including at the coalface, that the changes it has flagged will make a genuine difference (even if some community leaders could be forgiven for some scepticism).
“We know there’s change, we’ve been through change, we’re optimistic about the direction and just want to get on and get the work done now.”