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Oranga Tamariki continues to struggle with caring for children

Malini Yugendran

Malini Yugendran

Auckland, 2 February 2023

(Flickr Image under Creative Commons Licence)

Dr Malini Yugendran
2 February 2023

In a recent assessment for the years 2021–2022, Aroturuki Tamariki, an Independent Children’s Monitor, underlined the ongoing difficulties that Oranga Tamariki have in caring for tamariki (children) and rangatahi (young people). Oranga Tamariki has more than 6000 children in their custody.

The annual Independent Children’s Monitor review examines compliance with the National Care Standards (NCS) Regulations by organisations with custody and care obligations, including Oranga Tamariki. The (NCS) Regulations, which came into effect in 2019, specify the basic standard of care that must be provided when the state assumes custody of a child.

Lack of support for social workers

The report revealed that despite a 30% increase in the number of social workers since 2017, the agency continues to struggle to meet the needs of the children in its care.

The report emphasises the importance of providing more support to social workers in order to improve the quality of their relationships with the children and families they work with. The report identifies workload, staff turnover, lack of resources, and leadership issues as factors that have prevented this from happening so far.

RNZ reported that Children’s Advocate group VOYCE Whakarongo Mai’s chief executive, Tracie Shipton, said, “we are facing a crisis in New Zealand around employment and retaining workers everywhere so I can see it is an issue, but you cannot remove a child from a situation to place in a safe environment and then not check that it is safe and, in some cases, not have it assessed.”

Monitoring children’s rights

The report raises concerns about Oranga Tamariki’s ability to fulfil its responsibility in protecting the children’s fundamental human rights, including health and education. It points out that the organisation is not effectively monitoring if the children receive regular medical check-ups, mental health support, or are attending school. The report also mentions a decline in the number of children registered with a GP, from 60% in 2020-2021 to 53%.

Premature placement

The report also highlights the issue of placing children in care before proper assessments have been concluded and carers have received full approval. 32% of children were assigned to a caregiver before this process was finished.

Ms Shipton said, “that is never going to be ok because the caregiving situation is so important to young people’s safety and if you haven’t actually finished some of the assessments and insuring that caregivers have the right information that is part of it, making sure that caregivers are well supported, then it is just a recipe for disaster.”

Manjusha Mane Clinical Lead & Mindfulness Educator, Wellness Support Team with Tamaki Health said, “It is also appalling to see that caregivers were appointed without the completion of proper assessment as safety of the rangatahi is compromised in such situations.”

The report states that out of 756 files reviewed, half of the evaluations were completed after the deadline and 25% were not completed at all.

Manjusha Mane (Photo: Supplied)

Mental health concerns

The lack of access to mental health treatments for children in care is another concern brought up in the report. Only 21 of the 756 cases analysed had “substance and choices screenings,” 18 underwent suicidal risk assessments, and 25 underwent well-being interviews.  Jones notes that “given concerns raised about the psychological health of tamariki and rangatahi, the level of screening by Oranga Tamariki of children in care for substance abuse, psychological distress or risk of death by suicide appears low.”

Ties with whānau

The investigation also concludes that the ties between the agency and the whānau are lacking, which has a detrimental effect on the well-being of the children. Whānau, carers, and rangatahi are advocating for improved coordination and communication among governmental organisations.

Ms Mane said, “there needs to be a deeper understanding from the cultural perspective.  Matching Oranga Tamariki social workers culturally or ethnically with the whānau will be helpful in providing meaningful and culturally appropriate assistance.”

Another report revealed more gaps

The Dame Karen Poutasi report was released in November 2022. The report examined the events leading to the death of five-year-old Malachi Subecz, who was physically abused and murdered by his caregiver, Michaela Barriball.

Nicolette Dickson, Oranga Tamariki (Photo: Supplied)

Citing the case, Children’s Commissioner, Judge Frances Eivers told RNZ that though Malaichi was not under the agency’s care when he was killed it failed to act when family members raised concerns about his treatment and that Oranga Tamariki appears to be getting worse in some areas.

Six public agencies commissioned the report with the aim of identifying ways to improve the children’s sector’s identification and response to child abuse. Each of the six agencies provided reports that informed the study, which focused on systemic rather than agency-specific improvements. The legislative framework of New Zealand requires the best interests of the child to be paramount, but in Malachi’s case, he became an “invisible child” within the system.

The report made a number of recommendations to address the five major gaps in the child safety system, including mandating Oranga Tamariki’s involvement, offering children legal representation, seeking input from other agencies, combining medical records, and making the health sector a party to the Child Protection Protocol.

The report stressed the importance of proactively caring for the well-being of children in the system to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future. The Independent Children’s Monitor was tasked with evaluating the effectiveness of these suggestions in promoting children’s safety.

Indian Newslink contacted Oranga Tamariki for their response to the report.

Deputy Chief Executive Quality Practice and Experiences, Nicolette Dickson, said, “the report identifies that progress has been made in some areas in the past year, however, it is abundantly clear we have more work to do, in order for us to fulfil our commitment to meeting the needs of tamariki and rangatahi in our care, and support for their whānau and caregivers.”

When asked what steps have been taken, Ms Dickson said, “many of the findings in this year’s report are being addressed by work that is already underway as part of the Future Direction Plan FDP and the Oranga Tamariki Action Plan OTAP. We are focusing on the amount of time social workers spend with tamariki and rangatahi… Oranga Tamariki is also looking at how it can simplify its process and systems so that social workers can focus on their core role of working with tamariki, whānau and caregivers.”

Oranga Tamariki informed Indian Newslink that it is exploring information sharing with Te Whatu Ora (Health NZ) to address gaps in data on well-being. It said that the agency recognises the importance of collaborating with other organisations, including the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Health, to improve the well-being of children in care through the Oranga Tamariki Action Plan.

Ms Dickson concluded, “Oranga Tamariki is committed to meeting the National Care Standards Regulations and we agree with the Monitor that changes Oranga Tamariki has made, or are in the process of making, will result in further improvements over the next reporting period.”

Making a report of concern

If you are worried about a child and want to make a report of concern, please call 0508 326 459 or email contact@ot.govt.nz. If you believe a child is in immediate danger, please call 111.

Dr Malini Yugendran is an Indian Newslink Reporter based in Auckland.

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