Taken By The State

‘The tip of the iceberg’

Since publication of Newsroom’s extensive investigation into serious issues at Oranga Tamariki, our inbox has been flooded with stories from more current and former employees. 

In less than 48 hours after Newsroom’s in-depth inquiry into the children's ministry was published we received a high volume of correspondence from current and former Oranga Tamariki employees and others who interact with the agency. Every one confirms the issues brought to light in our article.

What is clear is the systemic issues within the child protection agency are having serious ramifications for a number of people, including tamariki.

Those who contacted us reiterated many of the problems Newsroom raised, including complaints not being investigated properly, a ‘toxic’ work environment, lip service paid to their Te Tiriti commitments and children being put at risk.

Again, all asked to remain anonymous due to fears over losing their jobs, potential legal threats and the possibility speaking out could compromise any future career working with children.

Below are a selection of extracts from some of these professionals working in the field of child protection:

Former senior Oranga Tamariki employee:

I left OT on my own terms, and on good terms, with a strong reputation in the community I worked in. I left because the values they espouse and that sit on the walls on posters, pretty much stay on the walls as posters and words. It is all lip service. There is categorically minimal fairness, almost no integrity when it comes to protecting and caring for tamariki and rangatahi, almost no respect for whānau, community and each other in a lot of cases.

Leadership is hectic and erratic at the best of times. Much like the analogy of children in a classroom with no rules, disruption is rife and no one is settled. It is simply chaotic and dysfunctional at all levels.

I have no personal reason to be sharing this information with you. I was not disgruntled or under any HR process nor have I ever been when I have worked for this department. I am telling you what I tell you out of frustration for the mess this agency is in.

What you report in your article is all correct and more. There is so much wrong with this agency now I don't recognise it at all. I was in the care and protection field for more than 18 years on and off. I was there when it worked well for the children and their whānau, I was there when community partnerships worked in the best interest of the children. I was there when we didn't have the layers of middle (muddled) management with, as you say, almost no experience whatsoever in the specialised world of care and protection of children. And it worked.

I have so many views on what’s gone wrong, but as a start, the social workers coming into the organisation are trained, yes, as social workers, but not given an adequate induction into the complex and at times high risk world of care and protection. Even workers at McDonald's get trained better. You would complain if your Big Mac was missing half the ingredients because the worker was not skilled to make it, so why would you put new social workers into a high risk, volatile at times, complicated landscape with zero training on the complexities of working in this space.

I tried my best to work in this environment, but if you have integrity, need a decent night’s sleep and want to survive, it is not viable to work for this agency. Social workers are mostly unsupported by middle and top management and a blame culture is rife.

Don’t even get me started on the impact of all of this on children and young people.

I am sure Grainne [Moss, the OT chief executive] is a lovely and well liked individual. But she is out of her depth on so many levels. Not cut out for the job, unfortunately. It is all true and more. It is not about Grainne’s leadership team having aroha for her. It is, and should always be, about the safety and support for children. I see none of that in Grainne’s response to your article. What I do see is incorrect truths, no accountability and a defiance towards the media. I don’t see the right thing happening, still, yet. Spin doctors at work, all day every day, churning out robotic responses is all I see.

Own it, fix it, learn from it. They will always be in this mess while they are sweeping everything under the carpet.

…..

Current Oranga Tamariki social worker:

I have worked on and off for the service for more than 15 years. What you have reported is only the tip of the iceberg.

I can tell you of many incidences where the safety and wellbeing of the children has been compromised due to management ‘holding the purse strings tight’, being more concerned about the cost than the outcome for the child.

Generally, social workers are passionate and hard-working, striving to do the best by their clients. There is so much red tape, with nonsense requirements attached, that it is near impossible to achieve the outcomes that we know will make a positive difference for children and their whānau.

Many New Zealanders constantly ask the question ‘why does New Zealand have such terrible child abuse statistics’? It is my opinion that the way our child protection service is run is definitely one part of the reason.

It has been my experience that management treat the social workers like idiots. They take very little notice of their assessments, ideas and needs. We are treated like a disposable commodity.

It feels like they are not wanting social workers that question the system. They want robotic-type workers that do as they are told without stepping outside the lines that they expect to be adhered to. Eventually, most social workers learn to keep their heads down and do the best they can without ‘bucking’ the system, for fear of bullying, ridicule and humiliation.

Recently, all staff on our site had to complete an ‘anonymous’ feedback about our opinion of management and processes specifics to our site.

When our site scored very poorly, during a meeting our manager told us that we have a few ‘stirrers’ among us, that were trying to make trouble and our result was not an accurate account of how it is. This is why nothing improves because when social workers try to let the ‘powers that be’ know that all is not okay, we get shut down and targeted as the bad ones.

Former Oranga Tamariki employee 

A big concern for me was the internal view of the agency and how it supported its frontline workers.

Working for OT was commonly described as being “stuck in the cycle of domestic violence”. It was actually a joke among front liners to help us cope. We could match our employment experience up to The Cycle of Domestic Violence theory. Full of abusive treatment of staff, setting us up to fail and gaslighting us. Apologies and promises of making things better that would draw you in and make you want to stay, and failure to follow through on the changes. I also remember a group of newbies sitting around talking about how long they thought they would last in the office and what their plans for inevitable burnout were.

I started to burn out and was told by senior management that it’s normal to just start crying at a certain point in your employment at OT and not to worry about it. We were made to feel like requesting to switch to a less intensive role (than care and protection) was a failure because it’s “where social workers go to die”, and were warned to not stay too long “otherwise you end up selling yourself out to the ministry because no one else can match the money”.

Although I left on good terms and had only ever been encouraged and told I was doing an incredible job, my team leader evaded all my communication post-exit. This team leader refused to give me a reference for future roles due to my “mental health in the last few months” as a result of my burnout. The Health and Disability Commission became involved to help sort the matter. However I was warned not to pursue it and told I would be branded a troublemaker and no other social agency would hire me.

For me, no amount of money in the world is worth working for Oranga Tamariki and sacrificing yourself for. I struggle desperately to see how they can properly support whānau and tamariki when they consistently put their own staff in situations where they are not looked after. I met incredible, excellent frontline social workers in my years at OT and strong, knowledgeable, passionate managers who fought for their staff, but my goodness does upper management and the system let us all down.

….

An insider from the not-for-profit sector:

Qualified and registered social workers receive about $30,000 to $40,000 less than Oranga Tamariki social workers. They have been known to clean out an entire senior social worker team at a not-for-profit agency for higher salaries and then threaten the agency with cancellation of their contract because it cannot be fulfilled.

On challenging the CEO, about the differences in salaries I found her response aggressive. We have been expected to 'over deliver' on the contracts, meaning the agency is subsidising Oranga Tamariki.

Longtime Oranga Tamariki social worker:

I have worked for the organisation under three name changes but nothing has changed. This is an organisation that is broken. The staff turnover is ridiculously high. Staff are progressed within the organisation, often for being friends or not making waves with their superiors, not on merit.

The culture of bullying and being undermined is rife. I have seen staff sitting in one office running their own businesses, spending most of the day doing crosswords and fudging KPIs, and bullying staff. Supervision and support is sporadic and based solely on case management and meeting KPIs.

I would also like to say that there are many social workers who do a brilliant job and have huge integrity. But staying like this in this organisation is very difficult and that is why I needed to leave. My values could not be upheld in such an organisation.

I have been saying for years the organisation needs to be rebuilt. No staff should remain. A new hiring process should happen from the top down. Oranga Tamariki should be a great place to work where professional social workers can help keep our babies, children and young people safe.

Former OT social worker

I too am an ex-employee who spoke up about the bullying and unethical culture and work practice in the site I worked at.

I attempted suicide and became extremely unwell after months of toxic working conditions. Other employees in the office were witness to the culture, but they were either unwilling to speak up as they feared for their own job security, or knew that the abusive and toxic staff would turn on them should they speak up. The PSA [Public Service Association] was of little use except to have me placed on special leave, isolating me from my job, my colleagues and my clients overnight.

ANZSWA [social workers' association] was also unable to help me as I did not have a complaint against me, I was the victim, therefore any legal proceedings were out of the question and Oranga Tamariki are aware of that and I believe they rely on that.

WorkSafe did not proceed with my report as I did not succeed in suicide, so the job, in effect, did not kill me. Really is that what this has to come to before they will actually open a file and investigate it? Even after reports from many professionals advising them that it was by the grace of God I was still alive to tell my story.

I was never given a voice to advise my clients (some of these children) that I would be leaving the office, so to the outside world I suppose I looked like I was incapable of doing my role professionally.

An external investigation and a report showing a number of breaches of bullying and poor management and what was the outcome? I am unemployed and struggling to work again after being diagnosed with PTSD and I can assume a red flag on my name for any social work role in the future, and the bullies, they still have their jobs and their incomes, so no consequences for their actions.

OT spent thousands on special leave, external investigations, counselling, lawyers and psychologists’ reports, all of which pointed at the organisation’s practice, not me. How would the NZ taxpayer feel knowing that this is going on constantly in the organisation?

When I left, I was told I would be given preferred application status in any role I applied for at another site. I have applied for a number of positions so far, to not even get an interview.

The professional feedback provided by Family Court, trainings, the panel and senior management all reported that I was performing an exceptional role and they were happy with the way I worked with tamariki and whānau; so I am at a loss to understand why you would discard the staff that hold the values and beliefs that are outlined on their website and keep the toxic and stagnant staff who have been unwilling to evolve with the change.

As a social worker of 15 years, all I have seen them do is change the name and a few forms, and perhaps add a bit of colour around the offices.

Nothing will change until that organisation is shaken upside down and all the management and national office roles are reviewed, bullying and toxic cultures taken seriously and staff demoted or removed for consistent breaches of their employment agreements (it is said to be a non-bullying organisation).

How can Grainne and her team stand on their podiums and expect society to believe the tamariki of Aotearoa are safe and supported, when they can’t even provide that to their staff behind the doors?

Registered psychotherapist

The OT machine is incredibly powerful and oppressive. Half their good staff end up in my office recovering from burnout and being oppressed and systematically dismantled by inept systems and bullying colleagues. Often they have two choices: stay in the broken system and become broken themselves, or leave and survive.

In my support of ex-OT staff, I see people who have been basically annihilated by the system and have been unable to speak out for fear of reprisals. One was 'managed out' for speaking up.

If the system is destroying good clinicians working within it, what chance do vulnerable children have of real care and protection? I’ve heard things that would break the average Kiwi’s heart. It seems irreparable, without burning the whole thing to the ground and starting from scratch.

...

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