2 Feb 2023

Reported assaults on children by Oranga Tamariki staff up 250 percent in 2 years

2:48 pm on 2 February 2023
Oranga Tamariki Sign

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Physical assaults on children by Oranga Tamariki (OT) staff detected by its Safety of Children in Care unit have jumped by 250 percent in two years.

OT's latest safety in care report shows 49 findings of physical harm by staff in 2022, up from 27 the year before and just 14 in 2020.

The agency said the rise was primarily due to an investigation at Christchurch's Te Oranga care and protection home in mid-2021, triggered by media reports a boy was held in a headlock there.

"There was a considerable increase in findings of harm, predominantly physical harm, for children and young people in residential placements," the report said.

"Physical harm caused by staff most often occurred when young people were being physically restrained."

Staff reacted with force when they should not, applied restraint holds incorrectly and "unlawful physical actions" had also been used.

This occurred even as OT boosted staff training - including about proper restraint holds and therapeutic treatment for children, and tried to make the inside space at its homes calmer, the report showed.

OT had also made it easier for children to complain and they had better access to independent people to talk to, it said.

Image of chart from Oranga Tamariki report

Photo: Supplied / Oranga Tamariki

However, an independent watchdog at the very same time reported OT had been getting slower, not faster, at investigating complaints.

Only a fifth of the 251 cases investigated by its safety-in-care unit were done within the 20 working days standard set by OT, the Independent Children's Monitor found in its 146-page report, out Wednesday. That was a drop in timely investigations of 40 percent in two years.

"Oranga Tamariki was unable to explain the continued decrease in timeliness," said the monitor.

It concluded OT was not meeting minimum standards overall for children in care.

Overall, the total amount of physical, emotional and sexual harm, and neglect of children in care dipped a little in 2021-22, to 711 incidences for 453 babies, children and teenagers. That compared with 742 and 486 in 2021. The dip came after the 2021 harm numbers hit a high.

It represents abuse to 7 percent of all children in care, slightly down from 8 percent the year before.

Total numbers of children in any kind of care - OT homes, non-family placements and whānau - dropped by 635, or 12 percent, to 4722.

The 2021 safety report said there had been three years of work done on training staff to respond better - but the 2022 report showed the same kinds of physical harm was still occurring.

"Where harm has been caused by staff, an assessment of any ongoing risks is made, and the appropriate actions taken," the OT report said.

In addition to physical harm, most of the neglect of children in non-family placements was also by OT staff, eight out of 12 findings, involving lack of "emotional support [that] significantly impacted the children being cared for".

'Threatened by staff'

Most emotional harm in care and protection homes was by staff, too - 10 of 14 findings.

This "related to the emotional impact of seeing other children and young people harmed by staff, being called names by staff or being threatened by staff".

In the homes, other instances of harm were most often done by other children.

Though Te Oranga was a trigger for the revelations of more staff abuse, OT has confirmed it was looking at refurbishing and reopening the home, though under a new model of care.

It was at the same time working to close its other "current model" of care and protection residences, it told RNZ on Wednesday.

Overall, physical harm events by anyone against a child in care were up slightly in 2021-22, with 354 events involving 275 children, mostly over the age of 10.

"Some of the harm was of a serious nature where the child or young person was assaulted with implements or sustained bruising or other injuries. Matters were referred to police where the physical harm met the threshold of likely assault."

The report does not give numbers.

Police and OT early last year updated a protection protocol to put more focus on supporting whānau and consider cumulative harm.

Most of those harmed in care were hurt once, but one-in-10 were harmed more than once.

Most of the harm was physical - 344 instances.

"As with previous reporting, physical harm, most often in the form of harsh or inappropriate discipline measures, was mostly caused by whānau/family caregivers," the report said.

Emotional abuse dropped a bit (214 instances), sexual abuse was up (99) and neglect was lowest of all, down from 58 last year to 44.

OT responds

Oranga Tamariki said today that despite the overall dip in harm "we acknowledge that the findings are concerning".

"Any child experiencing harm is one too many, we acknowledge it is unacceptable and are resolved to doing all that we can to prevent harm from occurring," deputy chief executive of quality practice and experiences Nicolette Dickson said.

All allegations of harm were assessed and a child's plan reviewed to strengthen care arrangements.

Dickson acknowledged more harm in its own homes being reported.

"Residences have been proactively adapting to this challenge by enhancing kaimahi training, strengthening oversight of how the safety and behaviour of children is managed" and working more closely with partners in health, justice and education.

"Ensuring we have the right care environment to best meet the needs of each child is a priority area for the work we have underway."

Changing the residences' model of care was taking time, and it needed to keep homes operating meantime for the highest-risk tamariki.

It had plans to partner with iwi "in specific locations" and was talking with iwi about acute care models.

Dickson cited a future direction plan, and action plan as evidence of working with communities to reduce the number of children who come into state care.

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