Investigations

The brave new world of Oranga Tamariki

Last week Newsroom revealed details around Oranga Tamariki CEO Grainne Moss’ sudden exit from her previous role at Bupa and asked how, within months of receiving a payout, she had managed to secure a top job in the public service.

Influential Māori leaders have been calling for her resignation for more than a year, with the heat turned up again this month after the release of the Children’s Commissioner report into the agency’s uplift practices.

In the second part of this investigation we talk to current and former staff from Oranga Tamariki who share serious concerns over a culture in the government agency that they say can put tamariki at risk. Melanie Reid, Cass Mason and Bonnie Sumner report.

Imagine an eight-year-old girl, alone in a teenage residential home, clutching her only two possessions - an old doll and a framed picture of Dora the Explorer.

The other members of the house are all much older than her - several tough teenage girls, many living with mental health challenges due to their own histories of abuse and neglect. They deface her Dora poster and throw her doll into a tree.

The girl is scared and lonely and she cries and cries.

Now imagine you’re a new social worker at Oranga Tamariki, one with 13 years of extensive professional expertise and experience in child and adolescent mental health, trauma and abuse, who has been drawn to the rebranded child welfare agency and its promise of a vision for helping Aotearoa’s tamariki.

The social worker knows there is no way the eight-year-old should be placed there and when she raises this with her supervisor, she simply replies: “I’m sick of hearing about that kid and all her crying.” The girl is left in the home.

“This was a financial decision made over the wellbeing of the child. The child could easily have been taken to a motel with a relieving caregiver until a placement could be found,” the social worker tells Newsroom.

She gets another case, one where she is asked by the supervisor to complete a caregiver assessment so a girl can be returned to the care of a family.

But one of those caregivers had only a year earlier been convicted and jailed for pointing a loaded gun at that child’s head and repeatedly beating her with an implement.

The social worker completes a complex assessment and recommends the application be declined.

The supervisor is clearly annoyed and doesn’t hide it, then re-allocates the case to another social worker who is instructed to carry out a new assessment.

The social worker would carry on seeing that same pattern at Oranga Tamariki for 18 months before leaving in despair last year, telling Newsroom she was “horrified by the ethics within the organisation”. Her former supervisor is still in the same role.

Surely it was just a case of one bad apple, right? Sadly, no. After Newsroom spent many months visiting and talking to a number of current and former Oranga Tamariki staff, poring over a mountain of police and court records, formal complaints, documentation, notes and interviews, and trawling through numerous disturbing accounts, it became clear that this is an agency with issues.

How did our flagship child protection agency, which launched with so much fanfare more than three years ago and whose guiding vision is to ‘put tamariki first’, come to this?

‘Stand up and you stand alone’

It was in early 2016 when Grainne Moss’ Bupa colleagues were left in shock at her curious disappearance from their head office in Auckland. Less than three months later, the disbelief was compounded with her swift appointment to the top spot at Oranga Tamariki.

Bupa whistleblowers who spoke to Newsroom about Moss’ time as their boss paint her as someone with a "strong managerial style" who would at times yell and thump tables, and a workplace culture that would encourage managers to turn internal complaints back on the complainants instead of investigating them.

At 9.40am last Friday, just hours after the publication of our story about Moss’ sudden departure from Bupa, an email was sent from the Oranga Tamariki leadership team to all staff: “Grainne does this work with aroha and is professional and respectful and is wholeheartedly committed to upholding the mana of the people she works with. Grainne is passionate and compassionate, she’s incredibly supportive and committed to us all. We fully support and respect her as our chief executive.”

But staff from both Bupa and Oranga Tamariki we have spoken to say this kind of effusive praise for Moss is indicative of the structure around her -  with ‘yes’ people who don’t rock the boat. And, they say, this kind of flawed structure and culture puts in jeopardy OT's mission to help New Zealand children and families.

These days, much more than in earlier decades, those working in the public service have a real fear of speaking out: the backlash, the loss of their careers and the feeling that if you criticise the agency you work for you are some kind of detractor or traitor.

“Stand up and you stand alone,” as one Oranga Tamariki staffer explained, “it’s way easier to just keep your head down and not make yourself a target”.

Even though many OT workers spoke to Newsroom on the condition of anonymity, most were still very nervous - and remain that way. But they believe the media is their only real hope.

“We are social workers for a reason. If we are not going to stand up and fight for the kids then who will,” one senior staff member told us.

All spoke of a degrading of the front line and deep concerns that despite the millions poured into the overhaul, things are not improving. In fact, those we spoke to say they’re getting worse.

“It used to be that all senior managers needed to have a social work degree. We now have what's known inside as ‘the corporation infiltration’ - the monetising of the public sector which you simply cannot do when dealing with the most vulnerable in our society,” says one.

In nearly all conversations we had, the same issues were brought up no matter where in the country the OT staff were from:

- Qualified social workers being replaced with unqualified youth or care workers

- Social workers being targeted if they complained

- Doubt over the way caseloads are calculated

- Children being misrepresented in documents going before courts

- Only paying lip service to Te Ao Māori  

- Major issues with staffing at youth justice facilities

They spoke of situations that would horrify many – situations they say are emblematic of the culture in Oranga Tamariki these days.

The email sent from Oranga Tamariki's leadership to all staff following Newsroom's story on Grainne Moss' departure from Bupa.

Newsroom put questions over two days this week to Oranga Tamariki about staff concerns on culture, management and the lack of social work experience in the leadership team. We received written answers in the name of Moss. She defended her organisation over the issues of culture and bullying, the quality and appropriate skills of senior managers, awareness of Te Ao Māori, the background of her senior executives and Oranga Tamariki's failures as determined by public inquiry after inquiry.

On the issue of treatment of staff and complaints, she told us: "Oranga Tamariki takes all allegations of bullying and workplace harassment very seriously. Formal complaints are handled with the utmost sensitivity and I reject that we have a 'culture of bullying'."

On social work experience, Moss said the leadership team of herself and 10 deputy chief executives "benefits greatly from the deep social work experience of the Chief Social Worker" (the only one in the leadership team with a social work qualification); just over half (seven of 12) regional managers had a social work qualification or are registered social workers. Eight-five percent of OT staff were in the front line, she said in answer to one question, but later said just 1600 of the total 4000 staff nationwide were frontline social workers.

Moss' detailed responses to specific areas of concern raised by staff and others in this inquiry are reported throughout this story.

Speak up and you’re out

In a modest house in a modest suburb in provincial New Zealand, a group of senior social workers invites Newsroom to visit. They cook an elaborate lunch, with homemade cake to finish. But among the piles of documents and endless cups of tea, there is a feeling of despair. All of these experienced and dedicated social workers share one thing in common: they’re deeply concerned about what’s happening in the agency and worried about what happens when they speak up for their young clients or question certain practices in the course of doing their jobs.

One of those social workers was “appalled” at a report submitted to the court - in her absence - about a teenager on her caseload who had previously been in OT’s care. The social worker who wrote the report had met the rangatahi once, two years earlier, and had painted an entirely negative picture of him based on that one meeting.

“The report significantly disadvantaged the boy. It was not just misrepresentative, it was against policy. The social worker did not include the views of the boy or his family, nor did they take any historical factors into account, which is in breach of OT policy.”

The social worker we spoke to submitted a complaint about the court report. But instead of it being properly investigated, a member of the senior management team informed her that while she was “an excellent social worker”, her values did not match OT’s. He suggested she leave the organisation.

“I was the victim yet I was forced to stay on special leave. When they take you out of the workplace people start to think you are the problem, because you’re not there and you can’t defend yourself.”

Another tells us the same happened to him when he refused to change an affidavit as demanded by his superior – someone with no social work qualifications. The social worker had written the legal document to the Family Court supporting the return home of a rangatahi, acknowledging Oranga Tamariki no longer needed to keep him in their legal custody, and instead recommending a support order empowering the whānau to care for their own tamariki.

He was instructed by his supervisor to change his professional opinion - views he had sworn to the court as his professional recommendation in the affidavit. The social worker says that when he refused, the issue became part of a disciplinary process for “refusing a lawful instruction”.

“I was painted as being disloyal and disrespectful to my supervisor because I wouldn’t change my professional view to match hers. My supervisor was not as qualified as me, not a registered social worker and didn’t have any recent experience as a practising social worker.”

After complaining about his supervisor, other allegations were levelled against him, including one stating he had been “disrespectful to his supervisor” because he had “rolled his eyes” when she was speaking, and for “doodling during supervision”.

“When you complain (of being bullied) they deflect blame by accusing you of the same thing you have complained about,” he says, a view common to past and present OT staff we spoke to.

Professor Liz Beddoe, a lecturer in social work at the University of Auckland, says this should not be happening. “Social workers are responsible to a professional code of ethics. It’s a registered profession. Everyone who works for Oranga Tamariki has a higher duty to the code of conduct which would say you should never sign or agree to anything you don’t believe is the truth or the correct practice.”

And there’s more from our original social worker, the one who brought to OT more than a decade of professional knowledge and experience in child and adolescent trauma and abuse.

She describes the agency as plagued with bad practice, bullying and incompetence. She has kept extensive documentation and immaculate records, and says another terrible situation she faced was with a very complex child with whom she had a long history.

She clearly expressed that this child should not be placed in the care of a woman who suffered major mental health issues, but the social worker was overridden and the child was sent to the caregiver. The placement lasted three weeks and was traumatic for both of them.

This social worker says she raised concerns about the culture within the organisation and of being consistently bullied by her supervisor, but “in true OT style these concerns were never fully investigated, in my opinion, and the unfit supervisors and managers just seem to carry on”.

In response to her formal complaint, the social worker’s concerns about the supervisor’s poor practice were substantiated, however the supervisor ended up being given more responsibility and staff to supervise both during the investigation and after it.

“I now understand why a succession of people leave without making formal complaints. This is not a situation of people throwing around the bullying word. What is evident is that if you stand up and say this is not okay, there will be definite repercussions. You are likely to be labelled unsafe, dangerous, a trouble maker, or covertly treated unfairly.”

She left Oranga Tamariki, concerned about “unethical, unprofessional behaviour, and children being placed in unsafe homes”.

“I later found out there were many other complaints and people who have left before me but the complaints were verbal so they did not escalate - so the regional offices look like they are running smoothly.”

Professor Beddoe says this kind of fear of criticism does nothing to help the profession or children. “There’s a lot of literature that talks about how if social workers don’t function in an atmosphere where they can critically look at their work, where they can get feedback, where they can involve people who use services or who are the object of intervention, if there isn’t that openness to critique and critical thinking then that practice tends to be rather rote, in the sense that you just do a legal process and it has an end point and then you can say you’ve done your job. That’s totally inappropriate when you're working with people who are incredibly vulnerable.”

Another academic with decades of social work experience who asked to remain anonymous agrees, “What you’re talking about is an organisational culture. People are afraid to rock the boat, and the organisation acts to defend itself. I think it’s so awful that they [OT management] put their defences up and the impact of their actions falls on the very people they should be caring about - the families and children - and that worries me.”

Grainne Moss' response on staff complaints"If a complaint is made in relation to a staff member who is a person's manager, or if there is a different conflict of interest, the next manager up or a senior manager from another area of the business [sic] is appointed to oversee an investigation.

"There is national oversight of all HR complaints and independent external investigators are also used where complaints are complex. Complainants are advised of the outcome of an investigation, though not necessarily the disciplinary outcome (for privacy reasons)."

Moss said of the claims of staff being told to change information to the courts: "Social workers have a professional, ethical and legal obligation to ensure information filed with the court is accurate and I expect all my staff to support them in fulfilling those obligations. It’s important to note that these decisions are so important, and have such huge impacts, that our supervisors, managers and lawyers have a role to play in safeguarding them. It’s necessary that aspects are tested and thinking challenged to make sure the right decision is reached.

"At the same time, it’s crucial the person signing an affidavit is comfortable with it. We are unable to respond to specific allegations without any information, but I’d encourage any social workers with concerns to raise them and ask Newsroom to share specific information they hold with us so we can look into it and ensure that children are safe."

Both staffers Newsroom spoke to who raised such specific claims with the higher-ups at Oranga Tamariki subsequently lost their jobs.

One said: "I was disciplined and ultimately fired. This doesn't encourage other people to come forward; it is a tactic used by management to promote a code of silence." 

A culture of fear

In one provincial office with 15 staff, eight social workers have left in the past few years due to the “toxic environment and dysfunctional leadership”.

This 'impact statement' was supplied to Newsroom:

“The way [supervisor] has treated me has had a far greater impact on my mental health and wellbeing than the experience of living through and losing my home in the Christchurch earthquakes. "

Staff say it is well known within OT that there is no point making formal complaints about supervisors or managers, because it will be their mates who are brought in to do the investigation and it will be “business as usual”.

Don’t forget, there has already been earlier media coverage of bullying within Oranga Tamariki in the Moss era.

The most public case is that of senior social worker Susan Kennedy, who attempted suicide and suffered two sensory strokes after numerous incidents of workplace bullying and sexual harassment.

Her support person from CultureSafe NZ, Allan Halse, says Oranga Tamariki has used “dirty tactics in an attempt to silence Susan,” and since sharing her story, 12 more people have come forward to him with similar reports of mistreatment.

All of the current and former social workers spoken to for this story say Oranga Tamariki has a toxic workplace culture where bullying of those who refuse to “toe the company line” is widespread.

“It’s pretty simple, you get slammed if concerns are raised about bad practice, which further victimises the country’s most vulnerable tamariki,” says a senior social worker.

Other social workers agree, saying that if you spoke out or questioned practice you were “ostracised, marginalised and accused of being disloyal”.

Yet another says: “Once you decide to formalise a complaint, then you become the target. There is no accountability from management. And it’s not just me who had to deal with this, I watched a lot of good people managed out the door, or who couldn’t do it anymore and had to leave.” He says things have only gotten worse under Moss.

“Doesn’t that tell a story about the kind of culture that’s operating. That if professionals, people who have been trained, many of whom will have a four-year university degree to do this work, who are intelligent and articulate and capable, feel they can’t comment because of the culture of fear, that tells you something. I think an organisational culture like that it trickles down if it’s not managed,” says Professor Beddoe.

Few Māori voices

A 2019 Te Ao News article points out that despite 70 percent of the children of children in its files being Māori, only 25 percent of Oranga Tamariki staff are Māori – this drops to 20 percent of staff who hold senior roles at the organisation. “But they’re happy for Māori to do things like welcomes, we call it dial-a-powhiri,” says a well-placed source with a deep knowledge of tikanga and strong connections in the communities she works with.

She says this kind of tokenism is rife in the organisation, and the pressure within OT is to follow the internal culture of the agency and to leave your own culture at the door.

“The clarity in Grainne’s direction is that for Māori to be working in the organisation you can’t be part of your iwi, you need to swim in your right swim lane. When you’re here you’re in the Oranga Tamariki swim lane.”

Recent law changes in the Oranga Tamariki Act, including new duties in relation to Te Tiriti, were designed to give greater recognition to mana tamaiti (tamariki), whakapapa, and whanaungatanga.

But our source says whenever she raised concerns around wanting a genuine Te Ao Māori approach to social work practice instead of just ‘box-ticking’, she would be shut down.

“When you’re challenged in a way that questions some of your ability to make good decisions from someone who has no idea what the practice looks like, it’s passive aggressive. And (if you speak out) you are discredited.”

She says Moss has no real understanding of the complex nature of families in need or of Te Ao Māori: “I believe [that] is absolutely unacceptable for our babies. I think it’s unfair that babies and whānau and mokopuna have to wait until she catches up. She may never catch up. She doesn’t understand the concept of whānau, hapū and iwi.

“Moss had said ‘I’m not prepared to take a risk.’ But the risk factor is going to be on us for making poor decisions after legislation tells us clearly that whānau has an entitlement. But if you argue like that, you’re not what they want at the table.”

Grainne Moss' response: OT had made genuine progress to change the system to respect, embed and show development in Te Ao Māori, and believed it was critical that social work was Māori-centred to offer appropriate support to Māori tamariki and whānau. This had involved new practices, more Māori roles and care teams.

"I recognise Oranga Tamariki does not hold solutions for Māori, which is why we are working differently with iwi, hapū and Māori community providers and NGOs. We're investing in Māori organisations like never before....

"We're already seeing some positive impacts. Eighty percent of tamariki Māori are now being looked after by whānau or Māori caregivers. The number of tamariki Māori entering care decreased by 29 percent, and there's been a 17 percent decrease in Māori youth (12-17) remanded in custody over the past year."

Doubt over the numbers

Oranga Tamariki insiders say the agency has been deliberately fudging the caseload numbers to conceal how overworked staff are. And in the business of caring for and protecting children, this can have serious consequences.

“Everyone in Oranga Tamariki knows they are manipulating the stats (KPIs),” an insider tells Newsroom.

They explain that Oranga Tamariki takes the number of cases allocated to any staff and divides that number by the number of social workers nationally to arrive at an 'average caseload'.

An internal review by the Office of the Chief Social Worker carried out in 2014 found this method of calculating caseloads - known as ‘Report 33’ - was based on the assumption every person listed as holding a case was a social worker.

At the time, the review was presented to a workshop of CYF senior managers and several NGOs, which found the methodology of Report 33 was so flawed it should be scrapped.

However, an insider who worked on the review said despite claims it was “ripped up”, the method has re-emerged.

“More recently, as social worker caseloads have started to climb we again started to see ‘average caseloads’ being quoted, and yes you guessed it ... Report 33.

“They hadn’t ripped it up. CYF and then OT claimed it had been ‘modified’ to take account of concerns, but refused to say how.”

The insider explains how it works: “If an admin worker has one case in the system assigned to them (for admin purposes) and a social worker has 50 cases, the system will calculate the average as 25 cases each, even though the admin worker has nothing to do with working those cases. Done nationally, the average that’s worked out is completely misleading and unrepresentative of the caseloads that real social workers have on at any given time.

“There are so many cases allocated to people who weren’t social workers that it skewed the figures nationally. We had some cases of social workers with 60+ cases who were then being told ‘You’re not overworked because the average caseload is 15’.”

“To give a simple example if you look at a site with a social worker holding 39 cases, and an admin worker holding one, then the average caseload between the two is 20 cases.”

Social workers being overloaded with many more cases than the figures show they are having their work severely impacted. Other staff stepping in to help with cases were often not given any background information, leading to situations like the attempted uplift in Hawkes Bay last year.

“Supervisors should take over staff cases if those staff are away, but lazy supervisors delegate to other workers, compounding the load. There is no handover, no background, no time to read up, just hoping nothing significant happens.

“Those social workers are being thrown under the bus, but that’s the system.”

In an open letter published by Stuff in the wake of Newsroom’s story, an unnamed Oranga Tamariki frontline social worker said every time a social worker left, their caseloads were spread amongst the remaining workers.

“Some of us have 50 children on our caseloads (our union, PSA, recommends 14-20 children per social worker as a safe level),” the social worker writes.

The PSA union, which represents social workers, reinforced concerns of heavy workloads in a YouTube address to its members on June 16. National Convenor, Rob Teppett, said members were having to demand reasonable workloads so they could undertake their statutory responsibilities and meet their ethical commitments. “We want the service we provide to our vulnerable tamariki to be exemplary; we can’t do that with the level of workload that currently exists for social workers.”

“We all aspire as social workers to practise safely but we have to feel safe in our workplace to do that and that comes back to stuff like workloads. It’s not new, the care and protection situation has been out of control for many, many years.”

Oranga Tamariki CEO Grainne Moss. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Grainne Moss' response: "The allegation that Oranga Tamariki manipulates caseload numbers is not true.

"We know reducing caseloads is important to both our staff’s wellbeing and transforming the way we work; that’s why we have invested in 401 extra social workers, which has seen average caseload numbers drop from 31 (when Oranga Tamariki started in 2017) to the current average of 21. The calculation for the average social worker caseload has remained consistent over time and the formula is regularly discussed with the PSA and NUPE (National Union of Public Employees). It is also regularly reviewed to ensure it remains robust.

"Caseloads are not divided by the total number of staff in an office, and never have been.

"It should be noted that this is an average calculation – some social workers may have higher caseloads and others may have lower caseloads depending on a number of factors, including their experience and the needs of the children and families that they support. Similarly, it does not take into account the complexity of cases and high needs of some families, which also may vary."

Contrary to Moss' claim, however, NUPE secretary and lead organiser Janice Gemmell says "OT does not discuss the formula for workload with NUPE on a regular basis as stated".

Youth justice facilities

When it comes to youth justice facilities, which fall under Oranga Tamariki’s remit, insiders say New Zealanders should be worried.

Social workers Newsroom spoke to said there are endless examples of experienced social workers being replaced with youth workers - who may not have any qualifications or even a rudimentary understanding of the complex needs of tamariki in residence.

A qualified social worker in the South Island explained that he went for a job interview at Te Puna Wai - a Christchurch youth justice facility run by Oranga Tamariki that has faced high staff turnover. He said he was told at the interview he could be employed as a youth worker but not a social worker because they were no longer hiring qualified social workers.

Another source said this beggars belief: “It is appalling that the majority of staff who work with these vulnerable young people on a day-to-day basis may have no understanding about the relationship between youth offending and child protection. Understanding this relationship is complex: many, if not all, of the risk factors for involvement in offending are the same as those that frontline social workers have to be able to work effectively.”

She says they need to have knowledge of the impact of abuse and neglect or violence, family instability, alienation from whānau and iwi, drug use, sexual abuse, poverty, disadvantage and deprivation. “How come we have staff, no matter how well-meaning they may be, who are working in residences with our most vulnerable disenfranchised young people, and the only qualification they may have is playing sports?

“They’re hiring big, strong new blokes who have received inadequate training meaning they often use restraint much earlier and improperly, for which they’d receive praise and give the impression to newer staff that that was their first port of call.”

In a 24-hour period at Te Puna Wai, fewer than five of the 55 staff on the floor are qualified social workers. 

The lack of training meant they weren’t even trying to use de-escalation tactics. “In order to do it properly, you should go through a whole de-escalation but there is one person who should be in control of the restraint - there’s a word to let your colleagues know you’re going into a restraint ... they need four people to safely restrain. They’re not allowed to use pain compliance, pressure point techniques or anything like that.

“If you have a team that is not cohesive and doesn’t train together, there will be one person who thinks a situation merits restraint, they’ll start piling in and there are others who will hang back. That’s when things go wrong. One person can’t back out. Once they’re physically in it becomes a fight.”

Another regional social worker agrees, saying Te Puna Wai has been “moving away from the social work model. They want people who will comply. While those applying might pass police vetting, some of the people they take on are questionable and dodgy stuff occurs”.

In a youth justice facility in another part of the country, things are no better. Kingi Snelgar, a lawyer working in South Auckland, wrote in e-Tangata about the conditions at Korowai Manaaki in Wiri and it makes for sobering reading. “It’s a prison. It’s a place where young people go when there’s nowhere else for them to live, or when a judge has decided that they can’t remain out in the community. It’s a place surrounded by 20-foot high electric fences and CCTV cameras. It has locked doors everywhere, cold concrete cells, and a secure unit where young people go when they misbehave. So, yes, it’s a prison. Most young people in there are destined to graduate to the adult prison system.”

Rumpty kids

Senior workers described a common situation that would arise in youth justice facilities where workers who wanted an easier shift would arbitrarily describe a resident as ‘rumpty’ - a code word of sorts - in order to lock them in solitary confinement for the night.

“Rumpty was a word they used when there was an undercurrent of disquiet that’s sitting within the unit.”

One young person would be described as ‘rumpty’ and put away for the night to ease that disquiet and give the workers less to think about.

Anyone who challenged these types of practices ran into trouble.

“One team leader who challenged management about the use of the secure units was gone within two weeks.

“If you’re a registered social worker you have a duty to act if you see something wrong. She challenged staff who then took a vote of no confidence against her.”

When Moss was appointed, then Minister for Vulnerable Children Anne Tolley (pictured) dismissed questions in the media over whether she was the right person for the job. Photo: Lynn Grieveson 

Training a 'joke' 

Not only is Oranga Tamariki hiring youth workers and others without any relevant qualifications, there has also been a shift from real-world, face-to-face workshop training to online training for social workers.

This has meant those who do get hired are not being trained to the required standard. Overwhelmingly, social workers have said they feel “livid and let down” by the serious dilution in training.

Where once social workers would undertake specialist training on topics such as, statutory social work, working with vulnerable children, ethics, the CYP legislation, assessments, sexual abuse, family violence and tikanga Māori in a workshop setting, staff were now doing “more than 70 percent” of their learning through an online programme called e-learn.

According to Oranga Tamariki staff who spoke to Newsroom, comprehensive training programmes have been dismantled under Moss’ leadership.

An insider who worked closely with the training programme said the online training modules were a “joke" - they were multichoice, and there was no limit on the number of times new staff could sit them until they got it right”.

“There are meant to be some workshops happening, but as the trainers are not social workers they haven't got a clue in hell about what or how to go about it. Social workers and supervisors are livid, feel let down and have lost all confidence in Oranga Tamariki’s learning and development system.

“People don’t learn from a computer, they learn one-to-one outside of their work environment. We can have all the pretty posters around the room and warm-up games for Africa but social workers need to be equipped with the skills and knowledge that will ensure they make the right call when it comes to our vulnerable children. Can you ever imagine that any other professional would be trained by someone outside their profession? Or by someone who had no real idea of the business?

“How can you learn cultural competence watching a few low-key videos or off a phone app?

“You can’t hongi a computer.”

‘I’m very confident she can do the job’

Oranga Tamariki - formerly Child, Youth and Family - was the brainchild of the previous National government.

In 2016, then-Minister for Vulnerable Children, Anne Tolley, dismissed questions in the media over whether Moss was the right person for the job, pointing to Moss’ experience as a mother.

“For a start she’s a mum, she’s got four children of her own so I always think that gives you really good experience understanding how children are different and how they behave,” Tolley said.

“She has good experience in change management and she’s come from the health sector so is used to dealing with people who are in some sort of distress and understanding that, so I’m very confident she can do the job.

“I’ve made it very clear to the chief executive that her big job is to lead a culture change.”

But not everyone had Tolley's confidence.

Professor Beddoe says she was “very alarmed” by the appointment of someone who “lacked both the professional credentials or senior public service experience necessary to oversee change in a very troubled organisation”.

“Her background did not instil any confidence in professional communities and was commented on widely at the time. The lack of Māori and professional input to the appointment process is also very disappointing.

“There was a great deal of consternation about someone being appointed from a private healthcare organisation who didn’t seem to have any exposure to the social welfare sector or to children’s services or anything like that.

“It was just a bizarre appointment. And someone who had no experience in the civil service either. Why would you appoint someone with absolutely no track record? I can’t think of anyone who would defend that in the profession, unless they know something about her background that isn’t visible to us.”

Last week’s revelations have cemented Beddoe’s concern that someone was appointed to such a “sensitive and strategic” role who had seemingly left a private sector position under a cloud.

But what worries Beddoe - and many others - most, is what appears to be the silencing of the social workers, despite increasing professionalism of the industry.

“We seem to have become more hampered by requirements that we don’t speak out, that we just toe the party line. People are being muzzled,” says Beddoe.

The academic we spoke to who asked to remain anonymous can’t understand why Moss is still the CEO, despite the numerous failures and calls for her resignation. “In these situations someone would usually be expected to fall on their sword, and it’s usually the most senior person. I’ve seen people go over far more minor issues. I’m really surprised she’s still there. There’s some really bad practice that goes completely contrary to all of the changes that she would probably claim credit for. I don’t get it. I can’t work out why it’s been allowed to carry on for as long as it has. In my view something pretty radical needs to happen.”

‘Advisors advising advisors’

On her arrival as the new leader of a newly reorganised government agency, Moss had clear ideas – and instructions – about how it would be run.

And it didn’t involve keeping a number of the most experienced practitioners there. As an example, the office of the chief social worker was ‘restructured’ - although some would say de-powered.

Qualified social work practitioners who had been with the organisation for years, who knew and had strong relationships with external providers, who were respected nationally and internationally, were suddenly in the position of having to apply for positions in the brave new world of Grainne Moss’ vision.

Many did not survive and went on gardening leave or were given redundancy. Of those who did, an alarming number lacked social work qualifications or community connections, yet were tasked with delivering services they had neither the skill or knowledge to do.

A social worker from inside Oranga Tamariki says much of the agency’s failure is because a lot of funding was directed towards hiring “an enormous number” of senior managers and external consultants at the same time the agency shed qualified social workers and denigrated the front line.

“It was a standing joke on the sites that there were more advisors and contractors in the national office and in the regional management teams than there were social workers doing the real mahi. Even worse, because these new managers (recruited from outside the agency) knew nothing about child protection they would take staff off the front line and slot them into a project. This depleted experience on sites so the opportunity to deliver good service was severely compromised. Secondments to advisor positions became the new normal.”

Before the creation of Oranga Tamariki, a single deputy sat beneath the chief executive at MSD. Under Moss, that position was replaced by nine deputy chief executives – described as her “leadership team”. At the time this was even questioned by Anne Tolley, who said she had been assured that number would be reduced.

In fact, the number of deputy chief executives has increased to 10 since then.

While OT is a large organisation, there are layers of managerial roles, including a number of principal advisers, chief advisers, regional managers, general managers and senior managers and directors.

“Anne Tolley and Grainne Moss promised that the new leadership structure would be ‘flatter’. Unfortunately we [social workers] just saw it getting ‘fatter’ with a proliferation of advisors advising advisors. Lots of talkfests but no changes on the front line,” says one senior social worker.

At the National Union of Public Employees, which represents public service workers, they don’t mince words. Secretary and lead organiser Janice Gemmell, says “The layers of management and numerous deputy chief executives means managers are increasingly removed from the frontline staff, tamariki and whānau. Significant resources appear to be going into management and not the front line.

“I genuinely believe that these levels of management gives them an ability to make hard and fast decisions while remaining quite distant from the families they affect. It really isn’t the flattened structure Grainne Moss talked about. Every day I'm hearing about new roles, they’re always announcing things. Seriously, it’s an organisation that has this huge management side to it. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m deadly serious.

“From the site manager down, they’re all frontline, and yes they need back room to support delivery of service, but seriously, the amount of back room they have, it’s hard to see how it can be justified. I think the organisation has become very bureaucratic.”

That’s a sentiment backed by academics, who say there are some good ideas being generated by the top brass in the agency, but not reaching the front line. “It feels like huge money is being spent on building enormous infrastructure - I have never seen anything like this dramatic kind of increase in a top structure in virtually any organisation, and I’ve been around for a while.”

A current employee inside the agency says: “So you’ve got people who came from places like Westpac, Watercare, MFAT, Kiwibank and the only one who came from a social work background was the Chief Social Worker.”

That social worker is Grant Bennett: “His reputation is more about being a change and operations agent, as opposed to being passionate about practice.”

Newsroom is aware three other contenders for that position were respected, published doctors of social work with both national and international standing in the field of child protection, and with genuine knowledge of Te Ao Māori.

“In the past we had chief social workers who were passionate about the profession. Marie Connelly and Paul Nixon worked closely with social work staff to create systems, policies and practices that were designed to be evidence based and family/child focused. They also had a clear bi-cultural perspective. These folks were brave, they were relentlessly committed to best practice and caring for our staff,” says a senior social worker.

“We have in the past had amazing chief social workers and that offered some reassurance for front line workers who believed that when they were sitting at the ‘leadership table’, that the voice of social work practice was strong and clear.”

Another insider agrees: “So from the outset we have the extremely popular former head of social work who was essentially forced out of the top job and the woman pipped for the position was a highly qualified Māori woman. But not only did she not get the role, she is working from home. It’s no wonder front line staff are shaking their heads.”  

Grainne Moss' response: "The leadership team benefits greatly from the deep social work experience of the Chief Social Worker. There are 10 Deputy Chief Executives who oversee wide-ranging and complicated areas including HR and finance, policy and communications, care services, youth justice services, our new transitions service and strategic partnerships with a focus on iwi and Māori organisations. The skills needed for these positions are wide-ranging and varied, with all DCEs receiving advice from a diverse range of direct reports."

She defended the number of deputy chief executives: "The Oranga Tamariki leadership reflects the wide range of complex work that we undertake and the massive programme of change that we need to deliver. Oranga Tamariki has more than 4000 staff spread across the country, including more than 1600 frontline social workers and we work with over 550 NGOs in an incredibly challenging environment.

"The mandate of the DCEs includes overseeing wide-ranging and complicated areas including assessment of children’s needs, care services, youth justice services, our new transitions service and strategic partnerships with a focus on iwi and Māori organisations. Through all of these areas we are in the process of transforming the care, protection and youth justice system so that it is responsive to the needs of our most at-risk children and young people, and their families, whānau and caregivers. It is important we have a strong leadership team with the skill sets required to do this."

It was not made clear how experience in banks or Watercare might meet the DCE mandate above.

The very big budget

Child, Youth and Family had already been through 14 restructures since 1989, all of which largely ignored the enlightened recommendations from seminal 1988 report of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Māori perspective for the Department of Social Welfare, Puao-te-Ata-tu.

The budget for the rebranded agency was decent: $347 million to fund the transformation process and to address cost pressures. (The previous 2015 budget allocated just $58.6 million in new operating funding earmarked for the next four years and $2.3 million in capital funding to help vulnerable children.)

“This is the start of a four to five year major transformation programme to build a more child-centred care and protection system, focusing on harm and trauma prevention and early intervention, rather than crisis management,” said Tolley at the time.

Last year the Government announced a further $1.1 billion as part of its Wellbeing Budget.

Senior social workers we spoke to repeatedly convey a very different picture to the communications teams in Wellington, saying things haven't improved for tamariki under the Grainne Moss school of management.

“The argument from the front line is that, despite all this money, nothing has changed. There are lots of pretty words and rhetoric but it hasn’t filtered down to the front line or to the families and kids and those in need. That’s why so many of us are so upset,” says a well-placed insider.

The anonymous academic we spoke to agrees and believes the reason OT hasn’t been able to effect enough change for families and children, despite the money thrown at it, is because those at the top don’t understand what’s happening on the front line. “I don’t think there’s sufficient understanding at the top level about life on the ground, and when they’re confronted by it, people get thrown under the bus rather than backed.

“My major issue is there is some very good work that has gone on in terms of trying to design systems and improve things, but it’s happening in silos. It doesn’t seem there’s a lot of communication across different work streams.”

However, the agency hasn’t been without its successes. In the latest annual report, released mid-last year comparing statistics with the previous year, Oranga Tamariki points to achievements, including an increase in the number of social workers from 1503 to 1625; young people in youth justice custody decreasing from 220 to 140, and Māori  Oranga Tamariki staff increasing from 25.9 percent to 26.5 percent.

A quarterly report from March this year shows the number of children in care has decreased from 6450 last year to 6100 this year.

Waitangi tribunal inquiry

Five official inquiries have been launched since Newsroom broke the story of Oranga Tamariki attempting to uplift a newborn from a mother in Hastings last year.

Four have been completed - an internal Oranga Tamariki process assisted by a nominee from Hawkes Bay iwi Ngati Kahungunu; a review of Māori baby uplifts by the Children's Commissioner; a broader inquiry by the Chief Ombudsman; and a Māori-led inquiry spearheaded by the North Island Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency.

The Waitangi Tribunal, in its Oranga Tamariki Urgent Inquiry, is the fifth such inquiry and will look into why there has been such a significant and consistent disparity between the number of Māori and non-Māori children being taken into state care under the auspices of Oranga Tamariki. Two weeks of hearing have been scheduled for October, and a report can be expected in the first half of next year. This inquiry has a narrow focus.

In addition, there is also a request from a number of senior Māori entities and iwi for a wider, focused, and urgent inquiry into the current legal framework that allows the state to directly intervene into all matters related to Māori whānau, including the forced removal of tamariki, care of children, custody, guardianship, and generally all policies that undermine Māori self-determination over matters related to their whānau.

One of the matters Māori have found concerning is Oranga Tamariki’s reaction to the recent report of the Children’s Commissioner, released on June 8. The Children’s Commissioner had identified six key areas for change, the first one being that “the system needs to recognise the role of mums as Te Whare Tangata, and treat them and their pēpi with humanity”.

Moss responded in a press statement that “although the role of the Children’s Commissioner is to support and advocate for the welfare of children, the report has focused on the experience of their mothers, and remains silent on the interest of their babies”.

Mere Mangu, the CEO of the largest Iwi in Aotearoa, in an affidavit filed in the Waitangi Tribunal stated: “To me this statement demonstrates a very profound misunderstanding of our Tikanga and of the role of wāhine as mothers. It is of great offence to us that pēpi can be taken from their mothers in such callous, brutal and inhumane ways, let alone taken at all. In our tikanga, one cannot separate the interests of pēpi from the interests of their mothers. They share a sacred bond, which should not be so readily interfered with. They are intertwined biologically, spiritually, and by whakapapa.”

Moss' response on the inquiries into the ministry: "Oranga Tamariki commissioned a review into its handling of the Hawkes Bay case. We have been open about the lessons learnt and made the changes in social work practice that were needed. We believe we’re moving in the right direction.

"While we’ve made good progress, subsequent reports by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner and Whānau Ora have shown we’ve got further to go, particularly for Māori. Listening to the views of others and better understanding the experiences of children and young people, as well as their whānau, hapū and iwi is crucial and external reports give us further perspectives to continue to improve the way in which we work.

"Oranga Tamariki can’t solve the problem of child abuse alone, nor should it try to. This work needs to be done in partnership with partners and other agencies. We will always put the safety of children first and are committed to improving the way we work with wider family and to get the best outcome for all."

Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.

Comments

Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: contact@newsroom.co.nz. Thank you.

With thanks to our partners