Social Issues

Oranga Tamariki braces for more bad news

As the children's ministry prepares for an urgent Waitangi Tribunal hearing and two further reviews into its practices, a social workers' organisation starts surveying frontline staff to counter political and executive dismissals of a toxic culture

The Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers will start collecting accounts from social workers of their experiences working in Oranga Tamariki, saying it is concerned the Minister for Children Tracey Martin and the ministry's executives “are not taking the concerns raised by Oranga Tamariki staff sufficiently or seriously enough and are failing to address systemic issues.”

“The collection of accounts from frontline professionals, in conjunction with supporting academic literature, will form the basis of a report presented to Minister Martin and Oranga Tamariki CEO, Grainne Moss,” said the ANZASW.

Oranga Tamariki itself will be under a spotlight again with the first submissions to an urgent Waitangi Tribunal hearing this week into the agency's practices, and two further official reviews - from the Ombudsman and a final report from the Children's Commissioner - due out soon. 

Its leadership team has emailed all staff 'in-confidence', warning them "the next couple of months is likely to be a difficult time, too" but not to be distracted from their core purpose of keeping children safe and well.

Linking the effects of the pandemic and lockdown with the negative official inquiries, the executive says : "We don't underestimate how the combination of the ambiguity of Covid-19 and this pressure of scrutiny on our work might affect your wellbeing and pressure at work."

Oranga Tamariki has been accused by former and present staff members as part of a Newsroom investigation of having a culture of bullying and poor practices of inquiring into issues raised by frontline staff. The executives' memo to staff says: "We're also keen to make sure you have all the information you need about a safe and inclusive workplace and we realised it wasn't easy to find, so we've brought together all the information you need on a single page on {internal site] Te Pae."

Claims of bullying culture in Bay of Plenty

The memo, and the new survey of social workers, comes at the same time concerns are being raised at Oranga Tamariki offices nationwide, in particular the Bay of Plenty region, where an exodus of front line social workers and concerns over a toxic work environment have resulted in one OT site bringing in an outside manager to question staff.

Around a third of front line social workers have left the west Tauranga site since February 2019, either resigning or moving to different areas in Oranga Tamariki. On the other side of town at the east OT site the situation is almost the same, but with eight further front line social workers applying for alternative internal or external positions this year alone.

One social worker from the west site is currently on stress leave. A youth justice manager from another site had been brought in to interview up to 15 of the front line social workers due to allegations of bullying and workplace stress.

When Newsroom asked the child protection agency what was going on, it said it was conducting an ‘informal questionnaire’ and had brought in someone from another office to conduct it so ‘staff felt more comfortable’.

“In this instance, the site manager was made aware by staff of some concerns within their site so decided to undertake an informal questionnaire to gauge staff wellbeing,” said a statement attributed to Bay of Plenty regional manager Tasi Malu.

Social workers from the region say they have been told by their supervisors to “stay away” from the staff member on stress leave, despite concerns they hold for their colleague’s mental health.

One social worker who resigned told Newsroom she preferred to take a massive pay cut than spend any more time working at the agency. She said the environment in the region’s offices has been toxic for years, but any time concerns were raised they were ignored.

“It’s like living in a domestically violent relationship. You’re walking on eggshells the whole time,” she says. She also worries nothing will ever change until they instigate a formal independent investigation into the entrenched bullying across the entire agency.

“The problem is the complaints are being investigated within the organisation, but anything like that should be independent. And will the staff speak? Because there’s the fear you’re going to get bullied more if you speak up, so it’s internal process won’t even work.”

Newsroom spoke to a number of social workers. Another who also left one of the region’s offices in recent years was put on sick leave for a year and says she is still traumatised from her time working there.

The woman - who has a number of awards for her social work - says despite two psychologists confirming her mental health diagnoses were due to the impact of her work environment, she has never received an apology or acknowledgement of the way she was treated.

“I loved that job. I am passionate about that job. And we’re all trained in recognising trauma and how to deal with trauma but the managers and supervisors don’t want to recognise it within their own people when they’re causing it. They’re not supporting social workers, they’re actually punishing them.”

She says the organisation would always turn her complaints back against her with claims of “underperforming”. Others spoken to by Newsroom confirm this is a common practice within the organisation from managers and supervisors towards social workers who don’t toe the line. “When someone reports bullying they wrap it up in poor performance. It’s not bullying – it’s ‘performance managing',” says one.

Failing our children

Social workers are repeatedly saying this environment is putting the very children they are meant to be protecting at serious risk.

“In one family I knew the children were not okay and that something needed to be done that day. I approached the supervisor who advised that I needed to put it in writing to get her to sign it off but then she left for the day,” says another social worker from the area.

There was no one else to sign off on the report until weeks later. The social worker says the children suffered accumulative harm from continual exposure to drugs and family violence as a result – yet she, the social worker, was then accused of not doing her job properly.

When another social worker who had been present explained what had happened, she was told to “be quiet - because it wasn’t about my supervisor, it was about my (social work) practice.”

She says every time she tried to seek help she was denied, and told she was not allowed further workplace counselling support or any professional development within the organisation. “I didn’t know what to do. In the end I just shut down.”

She told us social workers spend hours in the office filling out paperwork when they should be visiting children instead. She says she was lucky if she was able to spend five hours a week visiting children and families.

“The responsibility is only on that social worker and if something goes wrong the social worker is accountable when there should be a support network around them. Instead we get punished.”

She says her union representative even contacted Grainne Moss directly about her case but never heard back. “No matter how much you cry for help there’s nothing.”

More than half of the people in the office she worked in are also currently seeking work elsewhere.

Another social worker who also works in the region is taking a hefty pay cut to go to another organisation because she says the culture is so bad in the Oranga Tamariki offices.

She says she faced bullying and belittling behaviour from her supervisor and managers.

She says they prioritise meeting KPIs (key performance indicators) over the needs of tamariki. In one example she says a grandmother took on the care of eight grandchildren but needed furniture, furnishings, bedding and other necessities, however her manager has declined the money needed. “It’s been weeks now and it’s still not approved – we are talking beds – kids need to sleep well to do well at school so this is urgently needed. It’s a few thousand dollars and they haven’t approved it, but if we put them in care it would cost the taxpayer $100,000 every year in placement costs.”

Case overload still common

One of the social workers we spoke is adamant that when people ask why we have such terrible child abuse statistics in Aotearoa we only need to look to the number of cases social workers are responsible for in this country.

This theme of case overload is backed up again and again by people we spoke with. The main union for social workers, PSA, recommends 14-20 children per social worker as a safe level.

The Bay of Plenty social workers we spoke to were responsible for up to 70 children each. A social worker from a different part of the country who left her Oranga Tamariki role last month due to the “toxic working environment” says a former colleague of hers was responsible for more than 90 clients at one point last year.

In a recent interview on radio station bFM in response to Newsroom’s in-depth investigation into concerning practices within the organisation, the minister, Tracey Martin, said she had not heard of any bullying within Oranga Tamariki.

“I’ve been into Oranga Tamariki offices, I’ve sat with social workers, people know my email, I’ve never had any of these issues brought to my attention by social workers inside of Oranga Tamariki. My matron of honour is an Oranga Tamariki social worker on the front line, she knows how to get hold of me, so you know, just because it’s been written down let’s not all leap to the assumption that every word that is written down on a page is true.”

She also blamed people wanting to see others fight as the reason children are placed into care.“This country seems to be really keen to see people fight and see people brought down and I tell you what, the very reason we’ve got children that need to come into care in this country is because this country seems to like to see people fight.”

Since Newsroom’s stories, dozens of former and current social workers have been in touch with us to share their own stories, many claiming bullying and unethical practices by managers and supervisors.

There have been five inquiries launched since Newsroom’s groundbreaking documentary about the attempted uplift of a newborn in Hastings last year. The Waitangi Tribunal Inquiry is the final of these, with submissions starting to be heard from Thursday in Wellington.


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