2 Aug 2018

Hutt Valley Oranga Tamariki under fire over suspected delays

10:41 am on 2 August 2018

A Family Court judge raised issues around child protection in the Hutt Valley three times with Oranga Tamariki, highlighting concerns with delays in its response time.

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The grandmother of a teenage girl in the Hutt Valley says she fears her granddaughter will end up on meth, following months without intervention by social workers. Stock photo Photo: janfaukner/123RF

An Official Information Act response from Oranga Tamariki shows that three times - in January, February and June - Judge Tim Black ordered for his minutes to be sent to the department's chief executive Grainne Moss. RNZ has requested a copy of Judge Black's minutes.

The OIA indicates the minutes raised concerns about children in care and delays at the Hutt office.

Four family lawyers RNZ spoke to said this was unusual.

"I've never heard of that before," said lawyer Chris Nicholls, who's on the Hutt Family Court's management committee.

It was symptomatic of chronic, ongoing delays revolving around Oranga Tamariki, he said.

"I was told [in May] that there were over 100 cases for investigation of alleged child abuse that were unallocated to a social worker within the Hutt Valley offices."

Oranga Tamariki said in a statement it was monitoring 60 cases in the Hutt, of which fewer than five percent required investigation.

'To hear nothing is soul-destroying'

A woman (who cannot be named), whose teenager granddaughter was involved with Oranga Tamariki, said there were "at least 10" notifications going back to early this year, from mental health workers, the police and the school.

The grandmother had partial custody but the girl was still spending most of her time at a house known for meth use and violence.

"My worries are that she's going to start using," said the woman. "She's at risk from the people that go to the house."

The case came to the Family Court in March.

She had given up after multiple calls that went to message, elicited promises of action that never eventuated, and attempts to escalate that went nowhere, she said.

"My confidence in Oranga Tamariki at the moment would be zero."

She waited three months for a referral to a counselling service after Oranga Tamariki had not made the call, she said.

Even her calls about immediate safety concerns went unanswered, which left her feeling they did not care about her granddaughter.

"To hear nothing is soul-destroying.

"Those people aren't doing their job. And that's their core business, to look after our babies, and they're not," she said tearfully.

System struggling to keep up

Lawyer Sarah Hughes is experienced in the Hutt Family Court. She knew of at least three cases with care and protection concerns that had waited months for a family group conference.

Mr Nicholls said he knew of one case where it had taken six months to get a group conference with workers involved in a case where pre-schoolers were suspected victims of family violence.

In another, a teenage boy's claim his father kicked him in the head was sent straight to the agency by Mr Nicholls in February; he had never heard back.

"The ministry should have responded to it within seven days."

Oranga Tamariki was meant to perform better than its predecessor Child, Youth and Family, but his cases showed it lacked the resources to do so.

Mr Nicholls said lawyers who acted for Oranga Tamariki told him they could not cope with the relentless workload.

Oranga Tamariki declined to be interviewed.

In a statement it said it recognised the importance of meeting the courts' expectations and valued receiving feedback so it could "continually improve".

It has also met with judges.

Its Wellington East Coast regional manager Grant Bennett said all cases of suspected abuse were considered immediately.

"If new information came to light that a child was at risk this would be considered and we would respond ... accordingly."

Family group conferences could be difficult to set up, he said.

The Lower Hutt office was "continuing to work tirelessly to manage all concerns in a carefully considered way", with extra social workers.