19 Jan 2022

Concern raised over new Oranga Tamariki legislation: 'I don't trust the government to deliver'

8:06 am on 19 January 2022

An advocacy group is urging the government to pump the brakes on new Oranga Tamariki legislation over concerns it is a rushed patch job.

Youth advocate Tupua Urlich spent time in police cells when he was younger, and says they're not a healthy environment for a young person to be in

State care survivor turned-advocate for VOYCE Tupua Urlich says the legislation, as currently drafted, would provide oversight with less independence than what currently exists. Photo: RNZ/ Samuel Rillstone

The Oversight of Oranga Tamariki System and Children and Young People's Commission Bill passed its first reading on 16 November 2021.

The bill would set up a monitor for Oranga Tamariki, replace the children's commissioner with a Children and Young Person's Commission and expand the investigative powers of the Ombudsman.

It has been broadly pitched as extra safeguards for children living in state care but advocacy groups are concerned about the finer details and speed at which the legislation is progressing.

It was just last year that the Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry heard from those who'd survived state care; torture, violence and trauma accounts that numbered too many count.

It is with the lens on the past that advocacy group for children in care VOYCE Whakaronga Mai has considered, and opposes, the 'Oversight of Oranga Tamariki' legislation.

The organisation's initial optimism about the legislation plummeted when it learned the 'independent monitor' would sit within the Education Review Office; a government department.

State care survivor turned-advocate for VOYCE Tupua Urlich said the legislation, as currently drafted, would provide oversight with less independence than what currently exists.

"If they were serious about strengthening the oversight they would better support what currently exists. Independence is so important for me because I don't trust the government to deliver," Urlich said.

"I've always said that we can't have a service provider monitoring themselves and feeding back on that; it just lacks any true independence. How can we trust them to be honest?"

For many survivors, a key part of being able to heal from abuse in state care for was knowing it could not happen again, and only independent oversight could achieve that, Urlich said.

"More than 250,000 children and young people were abused at the hands of the state and now the state is turning around and saying, 'Oh, you can trust us to prevent that from happening, we'll make sure that we watch over it'.

"They were watching over it all those years. It's so important that moving forward we have an honest, independent monitor watching over that space and speaking up when they see things that aren't right."

Labour, National and the ACT parties voted for the bill at first reading, while the Greens and Te Paati Māori voted against it.

Green Party children spokesperson Jan Logie said while the bill appeared to be good progress at first, it lacked independence and would make the complaints system harder to access.

"The problem is that it's creating a monitoring role within a Crown agency which doesn't give us the independence that we've seen is needed for that strong voice [for children in state care]," Logie said.

"It also takes a function away from the Office of the Children's Commissioner who has really been one of the only voices within the wider government system who has consistently challenged the Crown on our failure to care appropriately for our kids."

Te Paati Māori wanted legislation that had tangata whenua leading the oversight of the Oranga Tamariki system to uphold mana motuhake, autonomy or self-determination.

Instead, Paati co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said the establishment of a Māori Advisory Board under the current legislation was "another example" of the Crown failing to engage with Māori.

"What our concern is that actually, we're just going to dress up the same pigs in different clothes, and we just can't do that. There just cannot be any justification and acceptance of the Crown delivering the same services dressed up differently," Ngarewa-Packer said.

The Children's Convention Monitoring Group has asked the Social Services and Community Committee to extend the deadline for public submissions.

It was given the green light to extend the deadline to 23 February 2022 but chose not too because the Business Committee had declined to give them more time to report back on the bill.

Committee chair Angie Warren-Clark said "an extension to the submission deadline with no extension to the report time, would have meant that the committee would be pushed to produce their final report and capture the broad range of voices that will contribute".

VOYCE chief executive Tracie Shipton said the government was rushing changes when it should be focused on listening to communities and getting any new legislation right.

"Failing young people in care is such an indictment on a country. This has happened over and over and now is the government's opportunity," Shipton said.

"So rather than ask why they're rushing it, I'd ask them to consider the value of slowing down and really listening and consulting with communities. They'll get the right answers."

Public submissions for the Oranga Tamariki oversight bill close at midnight 26 January 2021.

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