How a small town set a national example

Blenheim went from having a disproportionately high number of Māori children in state care to none at all. Teuila Fuatai looks at how it was done.

Blenheim has been under the Oranga Tamariki spotlight.

Two years ago, Ministry workers in the small South Island town changed how they approached and dealt with children and families both in the care and protection, and youth justice, systems.

That change focused on the lead-up to what Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft refers to as “the linchpin” of both systems: the Family Group Conference.

Family Group Conferences are put together to map out a care plan for children and young people removed from their homes. In the youth justice system, the conferences function as a platform – ideally involving the young offender, their family and ministry representatives – to finalise what courses of action are best in the situation.

Jo Harrison, Oranga Tamariki general manager professional development, said when Blenheim changed its processes around the conferences, the number of Māori children in state care was disproportionately high – a pattern which also exists in national statistics. Emphasis was placed on involving wider whānau early on in the process, so concerns from all parties involved – Oranga Tamariki, family members and children themselves – could be discussed ahead of the conferences themselves.

“They have seen a significant impact on the number of Māori young people who are now in Oranga Tamariki care,” Harrison said.

“At the moment, there are actually no Māori young people in our care from that area, and this is because of the work they’ve been doing with whānau prior to that," she told Newsroom this week. 

In a report released today by the Office of the Children's Commissioner, early whānau involvement in cases involving children and youth in state care, or in the youth justice system is highlighted as crucial to achieving better outcomes - such as those seen in Blenheim’s care and protection statistics.

Nationally, about two in three children in care with Oranga Tamariki are Māori.

“The Family Group Conference is the linchpin of both systems,” Becroft said when discussing the report.

But waiting until they occurred to involve whānau, hapu and iwi of young people involved with Oranga Tamariki, or in the youth justice system, was not good enough, he said.

His office's report, based on its review of six then-Child, Youth and Family sites last year, outlined why it was smarter to approach whānau and wider family groups early in care and protection, and in youth justice cases.

However changing the current approach required serious resource reinvestment and a shift in perspectives.

Key results from the report showed that of the four care and protection sites visited by Becroft’s office, early involvement of whānau and wider family members in cases happened on a relatively minor scale. At the remaining two sites, both youth justice, there was no evidence of early family involvement. The six sites had been selected because they were considered to be “exemplar” in how they conducted early case processes.

When asked about the cost and viability of what was being recommended, the former principal youth court judge said it was “impossible” to put a dollar value on the change needed.

“What is required [for each conference] is the resourcing to bring the best possible, widest possible support to the conference, and to give the time that is required to make good decisions. Whatever that costs upfront today – it will save significantly greater costs in terms of poor life outcomes later on.”

Harrison agreed with Becroft, and said the recently revamped Oranga Tamariki ministry was “absolutely committed” to fully implementing changes highlighted in the report.

“Whānau-led decision-making is the key bit for us to get right in improving our practice within Oranga Tamariki.”

Making sure resources were assigned to cases early on would be a major focus in the coming year, she said.

And while Harrison was yet to receive direct feedback from the Labour-led Government regarding changes to the family group conferences, previous party support for the ministry’s work was a positive sign, she said.

Latest statistics show in the 12 months to June 30, about 8500 children attended a family group conference. The average annual amount spent on conferences over an eight-year period was about $540,000. 

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