1 Feb 2024

Oranga Tamariki insists it has improved since damning data was collected

8:00 pm on 1 February 2024
Oranga Tamariki

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Oranga Tamariki's chief social worker, Peter Whitcombe, insists vast advances have been made since another damning report into the agency was conducted.

The Independent Children's Monitor's latest Experiences in Care report, released on Thursday, found 40 percent of children in Oranga Tamariki's care were not seeing a social worker as often as they should. Aroturuki Tamariki said it had expected to see more improvement by now, in the third year of reporting.

Whitcombe said the reporting window closed in June, reiterating it was a priority area for the agency.

"The numbers of visits that children are receiving by social workers has improved significantly over the last six months. We now know that that figure is at 94 percent of tamariki [seeing a social worker regularly], so we've seen around a 30 percent lift."

The numbers were from Oranga Tamariki's operational data, which Whitcombe received weekly updates on.

It was a result of more internal staff training, a focus on quality visits and building strong relationships with tamariki, he said.

But the report's finding that children were having on average 10 social workers assigned to them during their time in care was very concerning, Whitcombe said.

"I will be doing work this year to ensure that we do not have children on any kind of conveyor belt where they are having multiple changes in social workers. We know that workload is having an impact on this and we know that there is really significant pressure."

There were a range of factors behind the pressure - examples were the number of children a social worker was managing and not having the right care options available, he said.

Oranga Tamariki had also begun a systems update so in future it would be able to provide data on metrics like mental health assessments and school attendance. The current system was from 2000, and required people to manually go through individual cases to pull out the data, Whitcombe said.

"That's a work in progress, but there is urgency in us having this information and I do believe that we will see that improve next year [when the next report is released]."

Open House Foundation - a Christian care organisation - and Barnardos were also included in the review. Both received more positive reviews in the report than Oranga Tamariki, but cared for far fewer children - Open House had 75 tamariki in its care, while Barnardos had two. Oranga Tamariki had just shy of 6000.

In a statement, Barnardos said it also worked closely with children in Oranga Tamariki and was "committed to working closely in partnership with all those important to these tamariki… to enhance their wellbeing and sense of belonging".

"Across all of Barnardos' services, we actively work with whānau to prevent young people from entering care. While acknowledging that care is sometimes the safest place for tamariki and rangatahi, we actively work to minimise this time."

Barnardos said it welcomed the report and the improvements it showed in the system.

Open House Foundation did not respond to requests for comment.

Chief Children's Commissioner Dr Claire Achmad said the time for action was now.

"While some improvements to the system have been made, I am disappointed to learn that basic standards are still not being met for mokopuna in care, despite a number of reports and promises to urgently address issues.

"The importance of good social work practice cannot be overstated. A strong and consistent relationship between a child or young person in care and their social worker can make a great difference. I would like to see a strengthening of the workforce and a commitment to consistency in working with mokopuna to meet their needs."

The absence of data on mental health assessments and increased numbers of mokopuna experiencing harm and neglect were also key concerns.

"We know that for children and young people in the state care system, they've experienced trauma. So we need to be ensuring that they're getting the right support to work through that trauma and to be safe and well."

But Achmad did believe change was possible.

"The need for action is urgent. Children and young people themselves have been saying that they want to be safe and well supported in the care of the state and actually, that's their right.

"I'm looking forward to seeing Oranga Tamariki once and for all following through on its promises. I believe that can happen and I'm looking forward to working with them to understand their plans to put that into practice."

ACT Party MP Karen Chhour

Karen Chhour Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

No new funding likely

Minister for Children Karen Chhour said the answer would not necessarily be to pour more money into the system.

"Obviously it's really disappointing and heartbreaking to read those reports, it really makes me reflect back onto why I put my hand up to be in this space in the first place," she told Checkpoint.

"I'm really wanting to make some real change in that space and each and every report just tells us what we already know. So now's the time to actually act on that and make sure we're having better outcomes for our young people."

While the report noted a lack of funding and resource, Chhour said it was "not about how much money we're spending".

"Right now we're spending more money than we've ever spent before, but we're not getting better outcomes. It's about making sure that the money we are spending is focused, targeted and has an outcome at the end... making sure we're outcomes-focused, because we can spend all the money in the world, but if we're not making sure that that money is going to the right places, we're not going to make any difference at all - and we've seen that over the last six years."

Chhour, an ACT MP, said there was a "lot of money" to be saved in Oranga Tamariki by cutting "back office" services.

Aside from suggesting "comms" and "some middle management jobs where there might be some double-ups", Chhour had no specifics of what might be cut to redirect funds to the front line.

"This is something that I'm seeking advice on now currently. And you realise that the finance minister has a Budget coming up, and so that will be part of our Budget proposal. So I can't speak too much on that… but we are looking in every area to make sure that every dollar spent has a good outcome."

She said the under-fire agency was "definitely fixable".

"We have so many people within the organisation where they are passionate about making some real change for young people so that they are not just surviving when they leave care - they are thriving.

"And when you just need to make sure that you realise it's not just one organisation that can fix this, this is a multi-agency approach. It's about making sure every agency is stepping up and doing their part and getting Oranga Tamariki back to their main focus, which is actually care and protection of our most vulnerable."

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