The Government’s reforms of state care watchdogs are a backwards step masquerading as progress, MPs have been told

Survivors of abuse in care have accused the Government of “deliberately preempting” a Royal Commission of inquiry into state care abuse with its planned shakeup of Oranga Tamariki oversight.

Proposals to replace the Children’s Commissioner with a board of representatives and place an independent monitor of Oranga Tamariki within the Education Review Office, rather than as a standalone entity, have attracted criticism from both former and current commissioners.

There are also concerns the work is cutting across the work of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care, tasked with looking into the historical mistreatment of young people and providing recommendations for reforms by next year.

The Royal Commission Forum, an independent community organisation set up in 2018 to monitor and support the commission’s work, told MPs it was “dismayed” by the decision to push ahead with changes before the inquiry was concluded.

Speaking to Parliament’s social services and community committee, forum member and abuse survivor Keith Wiffin said the state care system needed stronger oversight to avoid children suffering the way he had.

“It is absolutely essential that there’s an effective and adequate monitoring service available which is truly independent, which this is not.

“This is a backward step – it is the wrong approach, and it is masquerading as progress when it is not.”

“[The Government’s reforms] seem to me to have been developed for essentially nefarious reasons by officials who are keen to protect the reputation of the agencies themselves.”

– Keith Wiffin

Wiffin said the Royal Commission’s interim redress report had placed a heavy emphasis on the need for an independent body to be established, given the “abject failure” of state agencies over multiple decades – but its final report was now being preempted by the Government’s proposals.

“It is mind bogglingly arrogant, for me personally, to see this done without waiting for the recommendations that might come from the Royal Commission of inquiry. It seems to me to have been developed for essentially nefarious reasons by officials who are keen to protect the reputation of the agencies themselves.”

Dr Alison Blaiklock, a public health physician, forum member and survivor of abuse in faith-based care, said she supported the views of others that children and young people had not been properly engaged in the development of the bill, which “weakens the roles and responsibilities of the Children’s Commissioner for all children and silences its crucial advocacy”.

“It doesn’t comply with the state’s obligations under Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and international human rights law, and it appears to be a deliberate attempt to preempt the findings of the Royal Commission on abuse in care.”

Other submitters also offered broad criticisms of the Government’s plans.

Oranga Tamariki’s ‘destructive’ worldview

Lady Tureiti Moxon, representing a group of Māori kahurangi (or dames) who have been critical of Oranga Tamariki, said the proposed oversight arrangements would only consider problems and complaints after they had occurred, and was insufficient given the number of reports into the ministry’s failings.

“We are talking about continuing to keep them in a system that is foreign to them, that does not include a Māori worldview, that has a worldview that is quite destructive and … very, very destructive to our families, and has undermined the very core fabric of rangatiratanga but of whakapapa as well.”

Making tweaks to the organisation would not bring about the changes needed, when Māori needed greater control over the care and protection system.

Jane Searle, chief executive of the Child Matters national trust, said the proposed changes would undermine the work of previous children’s commissioners and significantly reduce trust in the system.

The development of a more comprehensive care and protection system should be built on strengthening the current structure of the office of the Children’s Commissioner, not dismantling it, Searle said.

She also had concerns about the independence of the children’s monitor, noting her trust had changed its name from the Institute of Child Protection Studies because the public had seen it as being too connected to the state.

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

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