22 May 2024

Oranga Tamariki warned of legal action if job cuts delay release of victims' records

5:23 pm on 22 May 2024
Oranga Tamariki Sign

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

A law firm that works with survivors of abuse in state care says job cuts at Oranga Tamariki will further slow down the release of victims' records.

Job cuts will see 447 roles removed, with staff previously telling RNZ they [https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/514484/oranga-tamariki-proposes-to-cut-more-than-400-jobs

ranged from HR to system leadership to policy to the evidence centre].

Cooper Legal principal partner Sonja Cooper, who has been working for more than 30 years with victims of abuse in state care, said these cuts would slow down an already slow system - and staff shortages were already used as a reason for delays to releasing records of former children in care.

"People placed in state care have been denied, or had limited access to their own records for years," she said.

"Cutting all of these resources that play a part in protecting the integrity of those children's rights and protecting them potentially from further harm, that's all being diminished."

She said her company was currently settling several hundred claims regarding delays processing records requests from the Ministry of Social Development, with compensation reaching $1.7 million. It was the second time MSD had paid out for delays.

"Given that more and more of our clients are young clients, and so their records will be only held by Oranga Tamariki, we are going to be coming after them in the same way if we have to wait months and months," Cooper said.

She said Oranga Tamariki also held all records of children in residence, including complaints or grievances and their punishment record - every time they were in timeout or placed in the secure unit - which could determine whether they were entitled to compensation.

"Agencies use lack of financial and staff resources as a reason to delay record releases or refuse to release records at all."

The Royal Commission into Abuse in Care's final report is due to be released to the public by 26 June.

But it has already made recommendations specifically related to improving survivors' access to their own records.

"Responding to record requests, especially in a timely way, requires staff and other resources, and agencies need to ensure there are enough of both to perform this task properly," it said.

Oranga Tamariki's deputy chief executive for people culture and enabling services, Caz Anderson, said the agency maintained its position on the importance of safeguarding its record management of children in care.

"We have concluded the formal four-week consultation phase of our proposed organisational restructure and will now be considering feedback before making final decisions."

Meanwhile, The Post is reporting a leaked document shows the agency is [https://www.thepost.co.nz/politics/350285519/oranga-tamarikis-legal-shake-proposed-leaked-documents

planning to downsize its legal team].

It has reportedly been justified by a claim that less work should fall on the legal team anyway, due to an increase in the capability of social workers, and a focus on prevention and early intervention to deal with things before they reach court.

The Post reports the proposal says: "Because we have, over a number of years, invested in our social worker professional capability we could reasonably expect there would be less requirement on the legal team to support case preparation and court report development.

"My expectation is that with greater accountability resting with Regional Commissioners to take a prevention approach and intervene early, there would be a reduction in complex litigation cases and the need for the organisation to keep the number of senior solicitors to represent Oranga Tamariki in court."

Ministry of Social Development's general manager for historic claims Linda Hrstich-Meyer admitted it had been taking too long to provide some people with copies of state care recorded, and apologised for this.

"We have put steps in place to ensure that undue delays do not happen again, by having sufficient staff working on new requests so these can be released within appropriate timeframes."

Those affected had been offered a settlement.

She said staff in the historic claims team were not part of the job cuts proposal, so the ministry's ability to meet its obligations under the Privacy Act would not be impacted.

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