Week in Review

Oranga Tamariki running for cover

Vivienne Martini, who worked for OT and its predecessor CYFS for 15 years, says the case of the boy badly injured at his home in Flaxmere raises deep issues about the practices at the children’s ministry.

This case is about the terrible abuse of a child. But it is also about poor quality social work practice, influenced by an intractable system that fails the social worker and the children and families it is charged to support. Unless the dysfunction inherent in Oranga Tamariki leadership is addressed, we are going to see more of the same.

The same office, run by the same regional manager, was involved in the attempted uplift of a baby boy at Hawkes Bay Hospital last year, the one that led to so much controversy. They have again got it horribly, terribly wrong.

There were four reviews conducted by Oranga Tamariki (OT), the children's commissioner the Chief Ombudsman, and a Māori-led inquiry into the Ministry of Children. The findings slammed Oranga Tamariki for its practice in uplifting a newborn baby at the Hawkes Bay maternity hospital.

To recap, the internal OT review found that Oranga Tamariki didn't do enough to build relationships with the family in question, nor did it properly explore placing the baby in the wider family. The lack of engagement meant the assessment behind the removal order was based on the views of a single Oranga Tamariki employee, and "no clear rationale" was noted for the decision. "Too much reliance was placed on historical information about the whānau and not enough effort was made to understand their current situation," the review said. Oranga Tamariki chief executive Grainne Moss apologised for the mistakes and said new practices would be implemented immediately to avoid history repeating. She admitted the work wasn't of a high standard and that their usual checks and balances failed.

Just a few months after this promise, Oranga Tamariki social workers made the decision to return this four-year-old boy back to a family in Hastings. This in turn was just six months after he had been hospitalised with significant (unexplained) head injuries. Despite numerous requests for information, Oranga Tamariki have steadfastly refused to speak.

They are a public service. They have no legal right to “remain silent” but they have been very silent indeed. They cite an ongoing police investigation for their refusal to speak. However, the police are investigating the assault on the child, not the history of Oranga Tamariki with this family, not its social workers or their decision-making process, not its risk analysis or lack of it.

In other words, why the boy was sent back to this abusive household in the first place. That is for OT to answer and they’re not.

No one is absolving or excusing anyone here for the damage done to that little boy, but surely the question that needs to be answered is: "What was he doing back there so soon after he had suffered serious injuries in the same household?"

When I was a social worker I saw similar cases, where the police were unable to prove it wasn’t an accident, but the children were very rarely returned in such a short timeframe.

That’s where you will find Oranga Tamarki hiding in the shadows, unable to comment because they were the ones who put that boy back with his immediate family. They have let the wider whānau take the full brunt of the public outrage and this is not just unreasonable, it is blatantly unfair.

OT needs to come out and say “we got it wrong, made a bad decision and we apologise for our part in this”, but no. Instead they’ve oiled and greased their highly paid, over-resourced media department to ensure the ‘narrative’ is on everything and anything but them.

Background

In June 2019, the Flaxmere boy had been flown to Wellington Hospital with injuries described by the paediatrician as being equivalent to being in a head-on car crash. The police and OT became involved.

A couple then had five children removed from their care. Four tamariki went to one grandmother and the four-year-old boy went to live with the other grandmother in Auckland. She nursed him back to health.

The police investigated and in the meantime the couple did a variety of drug and alcohol courses and parenting programmes. They came through those with glowing reports. The police by now had said there was not enough evidence to lay charges over the initial injuries.

The four children went back to the immediate family in what is described as a transitional period, but the fifth child, the four-year-old boy who was injured, was another case altogether. He’d been hurt, and key whānau members did not believe he should be returned, not immediately anyway.

An Oranga Tamariki-led family group conference had been held to decide the boy’s future. A very real problem was that key family members who were closely linked were ​not​ invited and therefore not part of any decision.

This beggars belief and goes against every rule in the book. The interests of the child are the first and paramount consideration and this is enshrined in the Oranga Tamariki Act. How can a comprehensive plan to keep this vulnerable tamariki safe and secure be developed if key people in his life are not present to contribute to it?

As we now know, just before Christmas, OT facilitated the boy's return and paid for immediate family to drive to Auckland to get him.

I ask:

- Where was the analysis to support the decision to return this child to Hastings?

- Where is the ​evidence​ of the use of myriad assessment tools Oranga Tamariki use to help the social workers develop a structure for assessing current and future harm to the child?

- Was a Tuituia done?

- Was there a case consult?

- Did the plan involve weekly visits to the whānau by Oranga Tamariki when the little boy was returned?

I accept that these tools alone do not always provide a ​comprehensive picture of the whānau or help engage them in support services, however they go a long way toward ensuring child safety.

Oranga Tamariki said that the immediate family had successfully completed a number of courses. Something has to be utilised/experienced in order to prove how successful it is. The reality is that less than six weeks after this little boy was returned to his immediate whānau he was admitted to Starship Hospital with serious head injuries. Hardly a testament to a ‘successful course completion’.

The country is currently debating the immediate family choosing its right to remain silent - fuelled by media reports saying the wider whānau have closed ranks. This is clearly not true. I have seen a compelling interview with the little boy's grandfather.

In reality, those who have remained the most silent of all are Oranga Tamariki – who, yet again, have got it very wrong.

This is the most OT have said in a press statement:

"Decisions like this are not made in isolation. We always take into account the views of other professionals and information available from the family. Legally we cannot discuss the proceedings of a family group conference or who attended."

Perhaps they can explain why key whānau were not involved in the family group conference because therein lies the beginning of this catastrophe.

I worked at Oranga Tamariki (and its predecessor Child Youth and Family) for 15 years. I saw the hard, tough work social workers did. In all my time there I never experienced any of them deliberately setting out to stuff up.

They were committed and dedicated, and sometimes they did get it wrong. The establishment of Oranga Tamariki promised things would be different. The Government has poured money into it. However, social workers on the ground are not seeing these millions given to Oranga Tamariki. That seems to have been taken up by OT's national office and the bureaucratic juggernaut that it has become.

Social workers have seen the erosion of training and development, the appointment of non-qualified staff to key positions, a proliferation of ‘advisers’, the pulling back of resources, the wastage of money to support ideas dreamed up by someone who has no idea of the real needs of sites, bean-counters and national office rhetoric and spin.

In the meantime, social workers’ caseloads continue to be high and complex, and for some they see that taking shortcuts is the only way they can stay afloat.

They are not carrying out OT practice policy correctly. Things like comprehensive risk assessments, completing Tuituia, home visits and case consults are desperately lacking. The child, who should be at the centre of all the mahi, is often invisible.

This tragic case is not a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” situation. Some intelligence needs to be applied. We all know some tamariki need to be uplifted.

What we witnessed with this Oranga Tamariki office was the uplift of a newborn baby that should not have been uplifted, and now a child being sent back to a household it should not have been sent back to.

Vivienne Martini has 30 years' experience as a social worker in a number of social services, including primary health, mental health, NGOs, CYF and Oranga Tamariki. She holds a post graduate diploma and honours degree in social work from Canterbury University, and has post graduate qualifications from Otago University. She worked at Oranga Tamariki in the Learning and Development Unit before it was restructured in 2019. 

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