Oranga Tamariki has failed to spend millions of dollars newly set aside to protect and help child victims of sexual violence.
The revelation from an OIA response comes soon after the government launched a national strategy to combat family and sexual violence.
Figures obtained by RNZ show Oranga Tamariki (OT) budgeted $11 million but spent just $7m, a $4m underspend or 38 percent, meaning community child support services got a lot less than they could have.
The agency said the underspend was because it had slowed its pace to match that of its Māori service providers.
The cross-agency board that oversees the new national anti-violence strategy said it was "satisfied" with OT's progress.
But Minister for Children Kelvin Davis said the underspend is "disappointing".
Tackling family and sexual violence was "an absolute priority" - however, he did not know about the underspend because OT had not told him, he said.
Oranga Tamariki said the unspent money was being carried over into the 2021/22 financial year.
However, Davis said the opposite.
"I have been assured that despite the underspend not being carried over into the new financial year, funds are available for these initiatives and will be spent on that purpose," he said in a statement.
One major service provider, HELP Auckland, has id it had just one support job for abused children and their families funded under the OT programmes in 18 months when it could use 10 workers.
Children's Commissioner Frances Eivers said it was "critically important work for the large group of mokopuna Māori".
It was disappointing that despite having the resources to get underway, there had been "significant delays", Eivers said.
"We don't yet know the reasons for these delays but will be seeking a briefing from and discussing this with Oranga Tamariki."
The National Party's spokesperson for children, Harete Hipango, said the fate of the underspent money - and if it might mean less genuinely new money was put into the programmes in next year's Budget - was a serious concern.
The financial figures for the year to this July took weeks for RNZ to get from OT.
The agency said it did not have to put them in its latest annual report.
A fortnight ago, when RNZ first contacted the minister's office about this, it said there were no concerns raised in Cabinet papers or briefings about the money not being spent.
In the interim, Davis' office did not find out that there had been an underspend - instead, it found out when RNZ contacted the minister again yesterday.
"I am disappointed that in this case the money earmarked for these programmes has not been able to have been spent sooner," Davis said in a statement.
"It is important that this work is delivered in partnership, which does take time.
"While it would have been ideal for these supports to be able to be put in place earlier, I do not believe that this reflects a lack of importance placed on the work."
'Adapt the pace'
Oranga Tamariki funds two programmes - for children and teenagers who are victims, or who display concerning or harmful sexual behaviour - as its core contribution to a government joint venture set up in 2018.
It budgeted $11.53m on the two programmes, and spent just $7.1m. The $4.4m underspend would be rolled into 2021-22, it said.
The agency said it spent $200m last year with its community partners on other programmes.
In its OIA response, the agency did not initially say why it had underspent on the sexual violence work.
In a subsequent separate statement yesterday, OT deputy chief executive of partnering for outcomes Rachel Jones said: "In order to engage fully with Manawhenua, we needed to adapt the pace at which parts of the project were moving to allow for authentic partnership to be established.
"Recognising the pace at which our partners are able to work is important, partnering successfully takes time."
The agency had put on hold engaging with the sexual violence sector to co-design crisis support services as it had planned should start in October 2020.
This was so it could "create a new approach that prioritised engagement with whānau, hapū and iwi" in line with legal obligations, Jones said.
'Satisfied ... satisfied'
The three-year-old family and sexual violence joint venture aimed to smooth coordination between 10 agencies that are now implementing the new national strategy.
Its board keeps the government informed and recently briefed the Cabinet on progress with new sexual violence services.
Board chairperson, Public Service Commisioner Peter Hughes, a few days ago told RNZ he was "satisfied that this reporting indicates OT is progressing the sexual violence programmes as intended".
Yesterday, after the underspend OIA, Hughes stated he was "satisfied that the suite of programmes across the public service, and subject to the Board's oversight, are progressing appropriately".
An official audit of the 10-agency joint venture in June found it was heading the right way, but was not as effective or as highly prioritised as it should be, partly because its work is an add-on for the 10 agencies. The audit did not name names.
Oranga Tamariki is under fire and in flux after a series of reviews as it tries to adopt the latest set of recommendations for "transformative change", tabled in September by a ministerial advisory board that said the agency was not fit for purpose.
The Auditor-General in February said OT lacked information on performance measures which made it "impossible to come to a view what substantive outputs and/or outcomes have been achieved".
It needed to keep improving its contracts with NGOs, the AG said.
The Abuse in Care Royal Commission [". https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/458028/abuse-survivors-says-devil-will-be-in-the-detail-when-it-comes-to-redress reported this week on redress systems], and said Oranga Tamariki's system - among others - was "completely inadequate in many way.
Service providers of help to abused children are holding out hope the new national strategy will give them a boost, though some say it pays insufficient attention to children.
Initially, Oranga Tamariki told RNZ it was unable to readily provide the spending figures on its sexual violence programmes because it was not required to report these financials back to the public.
Its annual report did not mention the sexual violence programmes at all.
It said that it needed "real engagement" to co-design those services.
"This is what we have started doing and we will ensure the funding is used to get support and services in place as quickly as possible," chief executive Chappie Te Kani said in a statement late yesterday.
Hipango said it was wrong for the agency to put priority on changing its approach to engaging service providers over and above funding urgent intervention for abused children.
She was at a private select committee meeting yesterday looking at oversight of Oranga Tamariki and the setting up of a Children and Young Persons Commission to replace the Office of the Children's Commissioner.
"It appears that whilst the government focuses on setting up an oversight of Oranga Tamariki system, OT has taken it's eye off the ball in fully funding service providers to meet the needs of our children who require crisis support," Hipango said.
The government's "well-intentioned good messaging" in its national strategy was not enough, she added.
The report to Cabinet on how the new sexual violence services are going would be made public, the Ministry of Justice said days ago.
The ministry hosts a business unit that coordinates the anti-violence joint venture. The unit was funded below expected levels at its set-up under the 2019-20 Budget, according to the Auditor-General.
Hughes said each agency's delivery and spending was a matter for its chief executive, not the joint-venture board.
The board comprises the 10 public service chief executives, including OT's.
OT's annual report did not go into detail about its joint-venture work, and the Ministry of Justice did not either; Justice's - its financials only covered the joint-venture business unit's coordination work.
Oranga Tamariki also funds two smaller programmes added more recently to its joint venture work: Pandemic response services for family violence that spent its $2m budget; and a new family and sexual violence programme to work with communities and whanau to support parents.