Almost 500 children, teens in Oranga Tamariki care harmed during 2020-21

3:47 pm on 29 March 2022

Children are being harmed at an increasing rate while in the care of Oranga Tamariki.

Boy and girl drawing with chalk home orphan child dream. children paint on the pavement. happy childhood on the street. isolation out.

The report has come to light at the same time the government is considering reducing the powers of the Children's Commissioner. Photo: 123RF

Its latest figures are the worst since the child protection agency began reporting them to the public in 2018.

Its Safety in Care report for 2020-21 shows 486 children babies, children and teenagers suffered 742 incidences of harm in that year.

That equates to 8 percent of the 5357 children under 18 in care, up from 5.6 percent in 2018.

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Photo: Screenshot / Oranga Tamariki report

The agency says it is improving its care but has previously "acknowledged the vast improvement needed in compliance" across its social work practice.

This was noted by the Independent Children's Monitor, in its recent inaugural annual report, that found Oranga Tamariki was fully compliant just two percent of the time across all 12 of its own practice requirements, and that it still lacks the data to know if it's taking proper care of children or not.

It was compliant across six or more practice requirements three quarters of the time.

Read the monitor's full report (PDF: 25MB)

The Safety in Care report comes amid renewed controversy around the government's proposals to overhaul oversight of the state care system - some say weaken, by reducing the Children's Commissioner's powers.

It shows:

  • 289 children suffered 344 incidences of physical harm
  • 183 children suffered 252 incidences of emotional harm
  • 77 suffered 88 incidences of sexual harm
  • 58 cases of neglect of 34 children

Most occurred in the actual placement - such as the family or non-family home or youth residence - and a minority away from the placement, for instance, abuse by a stranger.

"Some of the harm was of a serious nature and resulted in children sustaining bruising and welts," the report said.

"Some of the children disclosed being fearful of the caregiver."

In 27 cases, staff in residences caused harm to teenagers they were restraining.

Oranga Tamariki says harm levels unacceptable but improvements have been made

Oranga Tamariki's general manager of practice, Nicolette Dickson, said improvements have been made despite the number of children abused in state care rising.

She told Morning Report that was unacceptable and agreed more needed to be done.

But she said the way Oranga Tamariki responds to cases of harm has changed a lot and they are now better at identifying and responding to it.

"We want to know any time harm is occurring to a child in care so that we can act on it and stop it from happening, we obviously don't want any children to be harmed in our care, we are paying really close attention to what the data tells us in terms of these increases.

"But what I would note is that we have social workers who are spending more time talking to children making it easier for them to tell us if something's not right."

Dickson said the report reflects a broad range of types of abuse but all of it is serious and reflects actions that are unacceptable to children.

She said it includes harsh discipline, harm that children might experiencing from their peers and harm that might be taking place outside of the caregiving arrangement.

Dickson agrees with the Independent Children's Monitor's report that Oranga Tamariki still has a lot of work to do, but said it also notes that the organisation's response when harm is found is more robust than in the past.

She said the report finds that Oranga Tamariki is more accurately recording assessment findings, is more likely to ensure that children know the outcomes of any assessment and is more likely to review caregiver's plans when harm has been found to ensure support is in place to address the harm and to prevent further harm.

Dickson said if there is a finding of harm the caregiver's status is formally reviewed.

"That means understanding the extent to which the concerns can be addressed and resolved, in many cases though those caregivers will not continue to be our caregivers."

Culture, attitudes failing children - advocacy group

The children's advocacy group, VOYCE - Whakarongo Mai, said children were unsafe at a time when oversight of Oranga Tamariki was being eroded.

"Irrespective of the amount of plaster that people are trying to put over a gaping wound, we have a massive problem around culture and around attitudes towards the care of children in this country," chief executive Tracie Shipton told RNZ.

The report showed neglect and physical harm were on the rise for the year with emotional and sexual harm cases steady compared to the previous year.

Harm can be reported by the child or a range of others. Social workers then assess the risks and the caregiving arrangement and see to the child's needs. Abusers can be prosecuted in some cases.

The report says harm done by family caregivers decreased significantly; OT noted that last year all new caregivers began being put through a new programme advising them on how to care for children.

Children who remained at their home while under OT's care, or who returned home to the care of parents, "continues to be an area of risk" - reflecting "the adult's escalation to violence in anger".

The pandemic might be in play, and it would take a closer look at this, the agency said. "The lockdown periods experienced by tamariki in the last year may be producing additional stress within care arrangements."

The Independent Children's Monitor, set up in 2019 to gauge whether OT is meeting new national care standards (NCS), said it was impossible to know if Oranga Tamariki was on target due to the poor quality of its self-monitoring.

"Oranga Tamariki respond well when tamariki enter care; practices weaken during their time in care," it said.

"In nearly two-thirds of cases, tamariki are not visited as often as outlined in their plan. This means there may not be opportunities to continue assessing their safety, wellbeing, and health and education needs."

The agency was able to answer fewer than two-thirds of the monitor's questions.

"For example, Oranga Tamariki cannot report on tamariki and rangatahi access to health services, and whether they are informed of, and understand their rights; or whether caregivers are given appropriate training and information about the tamariki they care for."

'Lack of accountability'

VOYCE - Whakarongo Mai said it was "appalled by the findings and lack of accountability".

After two years of having the care standards, "a significant proportion of tamariki and rangatahi are still not getting what is set out in their care plan" and "important assessments around wellbeing, including cultural, health (physical and mental) and transition to independence are largely not being completed," Shipton said.

The monitor lacked any "real power to enforce" standards.

"The report makes us wonder what these agencies have been doing."

The Safety in Care report, shows more harm was done to children older than 10 than to younger ones and Māori and Pasifika suffered disproportionately.

Oranga Tamariki said its Safety of Children in Care Unit had done three years of reviews it drew on to help social workers.

Overall, the agency was adopting te ao Māori knowledge, methods and principles, instead of the Western ones it had before.

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