21 Feb 2024

Oranga Tamariki failing to follow its own laws, Chief Ombudsman finds

6:53 pm on 21 February 2024

The chief ombudsman is calling for changes at Oranga Tamariki to be made on a scale rarely required of a government agency.

A new report by the ombudsman's office has found Oranga Tamariki is still regularly failing to follow its own laws in a way that is totally unacceptable for a government agency.

In a new report, Peter Boshier has called for the new government to make urgent and sweeping changes to the children's ministry.

The review outlined 2000 complaints and enquiries made to the ombudsman about Oranga Tamariki over the last four years.

It is a result of Boshier's enhanced role under the Oversight of Oranga Tamariki System Act, which came into force last year and made him responsible for receiving and acting on complaints to do with the agency.

Boshier concluded the report by saying he could not be sure the agency was consistently doing a good job.

"In my past I was a judge, so how many times have I made orders based on information as a judge removing custody on information which was inadequate and sometimes presented to me in a biased fashion to achieve the result that the social worker wanted - now that hurts me deeply because I don't know now on reflection whether some of my decisions were correct."

Boshier said the complaints revealed there were widespread inconsistencies across the agency when it came to following rules and processes.

"They've got good legislation, they've got good practice, they know how to do it but the discipline is lacking in actually doing it and getting it right.

"In some respects in the country there is good service, in others it's awful, and it's that inconsistency that I find really alarming."

The core problems are that reports of concern were inadequately recorded and responded to, tamariki and older children were still being wrongly uplifted, and information provided to the Family Court was often wrong.

The report included distressing stories from complainants, including a rangatahi kept in an institution against their wishes for years and a young disabled mother whose baby was uplifted at birth and never returned.

"The case studies that we have illustrated in our report, really show on some occasions, a disgraceful approach and end result," said Boshier. "It is not acceptable of a government agency in Aotearoa today."

"In relation to some uplifts we felt that if there was a proper process of a whānau hui, consultation, looking for other ways than leaving it to the last minute - uplifts might not have been necessary."

Oranga Tamariki deputy chief executive quality, practice and experiences, Nicolette Dickson, welcomed the report and insisted change was already occurring.

Ombudsman Peter Boshier

Peter Boshier Photo: RNZ / Phil Smith

"We accept there are more changes to be made. The changes and the issues and the recommendations that the ombudsman has made in this report, we already have significant work programmes that are speaking to or have addressed a number of those factors."

Dickson said New Zealanders could trust the agency to make changes based on the work it was currently doing.

"I would point to some of the things that we do see very clearly, which is the reduction of children who have come into care for those reasons around working better with whānau, with communities. I would point to improvements we've already made in our own feedback and complaints process... and I would point to the partnership we've built with iwi."

But Boshier said the agency needed a dedicated timeline to implement those changes as soon as possible.

"I'm afraid 'we're working on it' doesn't make the cut for me. It's got to be a real commitment, a time measure and at a point in time a clear demonstration that the inconsistencies have been stamped out".

He said there appeared to be a will and acceptance by the new government that change was needed in real terms, and quickly.

The recommendations made by the Ombudsman to Oranga Tamariki include an organisation-wide quality improvement plan, ensuring staff understand and apply legislation and policy, better attention to detail and accurate information in decision making, more training and supervision, regular tracking and reporting, and keeping better records overall.

Minister for Children is not surprised

Minister for Children Karen Chhour said the ombudsman's report was nothing she had not heard before.

She wanted to set clear priorities for Oranga Tamariki and said she was currently working with frontline social workers to find out what those priorities were.

"So it's making sure we're actually resourcing frontline staff to be able to have the tools they need to do their job and do their job well. I know that a lot have been overworked, they have big case loads and they're struggling right now. We need to support them in that space and we need to make sure we're getting that space right."

The ACT MP did not want to see Wednesday's report go on a shelf and be forgotten like the many reviews before it.

She said it was important people knew the agency was taking them seriously.

"So that young people do know that their voices are being heard. It's not good enough for young people to say that they feel like they're invisible and they're not being listened to."

Children in care advocate reacts

Voyce - Whakarongo Mai, the independent advocacy organisation for children in care, does not trust that Oranga Tamariki will take on the Ombudsman's advice.

National care experienced lead Tupua Urlich said there had been countless reviews of the agency and very little had changed.

"It is really frustrating for myself as an advocate when you're pushing for system change, you can get it in writing and law but into action it's a whole different ball game altogether, which it should not be."

The ongoing failure to improve was not good enough and continued to have life-changing consequences for tamariki, he said.

"It's our children and young people that are at stake and their experiences of their childhood. You know what happens in childhood stays with us for a long time and that will eventually be reflected on society as a whole. It's in everybody's interest that we get this right."

Urlich said it was scary how often the agency ignored its own procedures.

"As someone who survived 12 years of abuse under their care, it's just insult to injury. Polices are not optional right? They're there to be followed, yet when it comes to a big government agency like Oranga Tamariki they seem to act like it is optional."

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