Care and protection, or containment and punishment? How state care fails NZ’s most vulnerable young people

8:38 am on 1 March 2024

By Jennifer Montgomery* of The Conversation

The Conversation
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Photo: 123RF

Recent reports by the Chief Ombudsman, the Independent Children's Monitor and the Auditor General have detailed the grim state of affairs for children and whānau in Oranga Tamariki (Ministry for Children) care.

The ombudsman called for "change on a scale rarely required of a government agency", and said Oranga Tamariki has lost the public's trust.

He highlighted the story of a young person who spent years in a secure "care and protection" residence. He also acknowledged the harmful effects of residential care on young people.

Care and protection residences provide a secure living environment for children aged 12-16, when it is considered unsafe for them to live at home or in their community. The ombudsman said these sorts of facilities should only be used as a last resort for the shortest time possible.

But care and protection residences are increasingly being used as a default solution for young people with the most complex needs. What needs to change to ensure they become a therapeutic safe space for children in need, rather than a dumping ground for "bad kids"?

Secure, locked environments

Care and protection residences are at the most intensive, institutional end of the state care continuum. They bear a striking similarity to prisons.

Young people are placed in these residences when they are considered to be at serious risk of physical or mental harm from others, or towards themselves, and cannot be placed in the community.

The length of time a young person spends in residence is largely unregulated and is often related more to a lack of community placement options than need.

Oranga Tamariki

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Oranga Tamariki currently operates two care and protection residences, Epuni in Wellington and Puketai in Dunedin, as well as a care and protection "hub" in Auckland, Kahui Whetū. A third Oranga Tamariki residence, Te Oranga in Christchurch, remains "non-operational", following serious concerns about staff conduct. Barnardos operates Te Poutama, a specialised, contracted residence in Christchurch.

For almost four decades, the state-run residences have been subject to extensive media coverage and institutional examination. This includes the Puao-te-Ata-tu report in 1988, and more recent reports from the Office of the Children's Commissioner, the Independent Children's Monitor, the Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency and the advisory board of the Minister for Children.

The Oranga Tamariki Rapid Review was released in September 2023 and highlighted significant, systemic and longstanding issues with the residences and the need for urgent change.

In 2021, Oranga Tamariki announced plans to close these residences by 2022 and "replace them with smaller purpose-built homes". But residences continue to operate and are chronically under-resourced.

Traumatising effects of residential care

Youth in care and protection residences make up 2 percent of all children in state care.

While Māori, Pasifika and rainbow youth are generally over-represented in care, rangatahi (young) Māori represent 57 percent of youth in residences.

The consistent over-representation in rangatahi Māori in state care connects with deep historical and intergenerational trauma for Māori.

Residential care claims to provide intensive and specialist support. But in reality, it has significant negative impacts for young people.

The number of children in residential care experiencing serious physical, sexual or emotional harm by staff or other young people in residence is increasing dramatically.

Part of the problem is the lack of specialist staff. Residences are predominantly staffed by support workers who have no minimum level of professional qualifications, skills or regulation. They have minimal support or supervision to address the complex needs of young people in residences.

The role of meeting the mental health needs of those in residences tends to be outsourced to already oversubscribed public mental health services.

Young people who enter care and protection residences have experienced disproportionately high rates of trauma and mental health challenges compared to the overall population.

This may be due to a range of complex and challenging life experiences in childhood. The experience of being uplifted and placed in a residential care environment can also be traumatic for youth and whānau.

Children in care and protection residences are often negatively labelled and subjected to misdiagnoses and inappropriate or inadequate interventions.

They are also more likely to experience extremely poor life outcomes and follow a pipeline into Youth Justice and the prison system.

No clear model of care

Despite Oranga Tamariki's intentions to develop a trauma-informed, system-wide framework, there is no clear or consistent model of care to guide practice, policies or service delivery in care and protection residences.

Trauma-informed models of care recognise how trauma affects the neurodevelopment, health, behaviour and functioning of young people and whānau. These models also create safe environments and emphasise stable, predictable relationships.

But care and protection residences utilise an outdated and detrimental behavioural reward-and-punishment model. Contrary to international human rights law, seclusion and restraint continues to be used in residences, with rangatahi Māori experiencing higher rates of seclusion.

With the report from the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care due this year, we must listen to the experiences young people, whānau and youth advocacy groups like Voyce Whakarongo Mai, to avoid the mistakes of the past and prevent future traumatisation in care.

Key recommendations to transform Oranga Tamariki include increasing leadership and staffing expertise, service improvement investment, and collaborative inter-agency approaches. It is also recommended Oranga Tamariki devolve care to community partners and develop a therapeutic, trauma-informed model of care.

Healing from trauma is possible when a young person belongs to a strong network of people who enable them to feel loved, cared for and part of a community. Every young person deserves this.

*Jennifer Montgomery is a Faculty of Health research associate at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington

This story was originally published by The Conversation.

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