Boss of vulnerable children uber agency vows to halt New Zealand's roll call of shame

Grainne Moss has had five months as chief executive-in-waiting for the Ministry for Vulnerable Children Oranga Tamariki, ...
MONIQUE FORD / FAIRFAX NZ

Grainne Moss has had five months as chief executive-in-waiting for the Ministry for Vulnerable Children Oranga Tamariki, which on April 1 will swallow CYF whole.

In Otara's Child Youth and Family open-plan office there were a dozen photos, printed on A4 and sellotaped to a glass partition, of beautiful young children.

There was a whiteboard with a list of the names of children who had recently come to the attention of the social workers tasked with keeping them safe from their own families, including one whose first name simply read "Unborn".

In the kitchenette there were bilingual Maori/English labels on the fridge, next to the hand-towel dispenser – everywhere really.

And on a table next to the fridge, there was a modest spread of sliced fruit, rice crackers and mixed nuts. There was also tea.

READ MORE
* Faces of Innocents - a Fairfax campaign
* Horrifying outcomes warrant new system, says Tolley
* NZ's child homicide rates – how do we compare?
* Don't forget the love factor, say foster kids

This was the no-expense-indulged welcome that one of New Zealand's busiest CYF offices laid on for the new big boss on a muggy Auckland afternoon this week.

For more than an hour, after the haere mais and waiata were out of the way, 30 or so slightly anxious social workers and their managers threw questions at the woman who in six weeks will formally take charge of the ministry responsible for New Zealand's vulnerable children:

Will you solve the foster-parent drought that makes it impossible to find placements for our mokopuna?

We find it terribly difficult to access the external resources, such as mental health services, when the children clearly need them. Is the new system going to fix that?

Can we have IT systems that don't struggle to open more than a single window? And what about some more social workers?

The responses from Gráinne (pronounced Gron-ya) Moss were a mix of yesses, noes and maybes, but there were no evasions. 

She's had five months as chief executive-in-waiting for the Ministry for Vulnerable Children Oranga Tamariki, which on April 1 will swallow CYF whole and lead the country's provision of services for at-risk children, and she's been busy getting her head around some of the finer details of what the 3500 or so people she'll be leading actually do every day. 

Moss, 47, was born in Belfast and moved to New Zealand almost two decades ago. Her previous job was managing director of Bupa, the country's largest aged-care providers.

You can confidently guess the private sector job paid significantly more than this one does.

"If we can harness the passion that I've heard as I've travelled the country from the community to turn this around... ...
MONIQUE FORD / FAIRFAX NZ

"If we can harness the passion that I've heard as I've travelled the country from the community to turn this around... we'll get a far better outcome."

In Auckland on Wednesday she had two morning meetings, then a sitdown with Stuff, then an hour-long roundtable with the West Auckland NGO Youth Horizons, then the Otara CYF gathering, then a flight back to her new Wellington home (she lived on Auckland's North Shore till three weeks ago).

She's been recruiting and strategising and meeting front-line workers and foster kids (both past and present) from the Far North to Invercargill, and it never really ends.

She claims not to count the hours, but it's "a lot".

"I love work. I love the role, the challenge, that I can be part of the team that makes a difference."

On average nine New Zealand children are killed a year, usually by someone they know. Some of the names become iconic – Moko Rangitoheriri, Nia Glassie, Coral Burrows, James Whakaruru – but most of the iceberg of abuse remains less visible.

Of the million children in New Zealand, 5500 are in state care, and another 20,000 are deemed to be at risk.

James Whakaruru was beaten to death in April 1999 by his mother's boyfriend.

James Whakaruru was beaten to death in April 1999 by his mother's boyfriend.

As it struggles to mitigate this rolling tragedy, Child Youth and Family has repeatedly been found wanting. Critical reports have been appearing for decades.

Ad Feedback

In 2015 Children's Commissioner Russell Wills concluded the foster care system was failing. A broader 2016 report by senior civil servant Paula Rebstock, commissioned by Social Development minister Anne Tolley, highlighted multiple failings and has been the platform for the current wave of reform.

Some in the sector were disappointed that the Rebstock report, like so many before it, didn't seem to notice that there was in fact some good work going on.

Toddler Nia Glassie died after suffering horrifying abuse from members of her family in 2007.

Toddler Nia Glassie died after suffering horrifying abuse from members of her family in 2007.

Interventions do work. Social workers battle the odds and families do get turned around. Children are saved.

But even those with half-full glasses know there's room for a lot of improvement. And Lord knows attempts have been made to improve: there have been a staggering 14 restructures of CYF in the past 17 years.

In the face of such constant tweaking, it's something of a miracle that anything gets done.

Yet it would be a big mistake, says Moss, to think of the creation of Oranga Tamariki (there's been consternation over the ministry's name and some people are just ignoring the Victorian-sounding English part of the name) as simply Tweak #15 for an agency in a state of permanent revolution. This change, Moss says, really is the big one, and things are going to be different this time.

CYF obviously plays a huge part in government care and protection of vulnerable children but Moss says several other major levers affecting the outcomes for vulnerable children are changing at the same time: there's new underpinning legislation, a new independent child-advocacy group, Voyce Whakarongo Mai, has been created; as the ministry's chief executive Moss will become the single point of accountability for the entire system, including the input from other ministries – and "that's never ever happened before," says Moss.

"So now I can go to Health and say, 'That child is at risk and my ministry has a responsibility, but you must play a part as well.'

Anne Tolley, Minister of Social Development, who has driven the sweeping changes behind the creation of a new children's ...
GETTY IMAGES

Anne Tolley, Minister of Social Development, who has driven the sweeping changes behind the creation of a new children's ministry.

"It gives a razor-sharp focus to one group to ensure that all the government and system intervention is working well. CYF could never do that before."

Yet she points out that fixing New Zealand's problem with the care of its children isn't solely up to her new ministry, nor the other arms of government she's going to twist, nor the many NGOs that deliver the social-service contracts.

"It needs to be in partnership with community and iwi. If we can harness the passion that I've heard as I've travelled the country from the community to turn this around – well we have 3500 in the ministry, but if we have another million people out there with us, we'll get a far better outcome."

Moko Rangitoheriri: just the latest in a long line of names that speak of New Zealand's problem with the abuse and ...
SUPPLIED

Moko Rangitoheriri: just the latest in a long line of names that speak of New Zealand's problem with the abuse and neglect of children.

That includes people who have no direct contact with families that are in trouble, but who decide to "step up and becoming a caregiver, or even a respite caregiver", or who bother to act when they spot a family that appears to be at risk. 

Since its conception last year, the embryonic ministry has been hammering home the claim that in the new system, the "voice of the child" will be heard not only at the front-line when a social worker tries to assess a child's needs, but at every level of the organisation. It's a requirement that you could imagine getting messy.

"I have," says Moss, "the most complex set of accountabilities of anyone in the public sector.

A protester responds to the horrific death of three-year-old Moko Rangitoheriri, who was killed in 2015 by the adults ...
GETTY IMAGES

A protester responds to the horrific death of three-year-old Moko Rangitoheriri, who was killed in 2015 by the adults who were meant to be caring for him.

"I'm accountable to the independent advocacy group, and to the minister, and to the Vulnerable Children's Board (the board is a group of leaders from sectors including Health, Education, Corrections, Police, MSD, the Ministry of Pacific Peoples, and Te Puni Kokiri).

"All of those will create a tension that will be innovative. But I'm very excited about the voice of children being at the forefront."

Moss has four children of her own – aged 7 to 12. Nineteen years ago she and her English husband were living in London and fancied a change, came on an adventure to New Zealand, and didn't leave.

"I feel very, very at home here."

Not that she's abandoned her Irishness: the accent's still there, and when asked about her musical tastes, the first name to mind is Van Morrison (followed by fellow Gaels The Waterboys and "musicals" in general, especially Sondheim's).

Back home, her mother was a nurse who eventually became a nursing home matron, and her father was a prison governor. They now live in New Zealand too.

Moss is Catholic – she has said that growing up in Northern Ireland you're always conscious of everyone's religion, but in New Zealand it doesn't cross your mind.

She has a BSc in biology and an MBA from a Swiss business school. Past employers include the UK's National Health Service, where she was a manager, and a Swiss software company.

She's right for this job, she says, because she's got a history of accepting and succeeding at significant challenges, including the routinely-reported fact that at 17 she became the first Irishwoman to swim the English Channel.

She's since swum Cook Strait too, though her favourite long swim in New Zealand was the 9km stretch from Whale Island back to the shores of Whakatane in the Bay of Plenty.

Other big challenges included moving, in her early 30s, to Tokoroa to run Carter Holt Harvey's forestry operations for the central North Island.

Among the customers, there was "jubilation because they felt this new girl was in town" and they could pull the wool over her eyes.

"They were relatively unfriendly initially, but after six months I'd turned them around."

This is, perhaps the kind of comforting story you tell yourself in the mirror each morning when you've just swapped being boss of a private sector company to running a ministry whose public failures tend to involve dead children and front page headlines. But Moss says she's ready.

"I'm very happy with ambiguity. I'm very happy with the unknown, and I have great resilience and perserverance.

"I have a strong moral compass. I have significant experience of running big organisations that care for people – both at Bupa and in big hospitals. And the complexity of human frailty – I've been up close and personal to that throughout the majority of my career."

Not just in work hours. Not long ago Moss saw a woman on the street with her two small children. The woman was busking, but really it was begging.

"I sat down and spoke to her, and chatted with the kids. We had a good discussion, I checked that she was accessing the kind of support she was eligible for."

At the afternoon meeting with a dozen staff and board members at Youth Horizons, which provides services for children and young people with serious behavioural and mental health problems, Moss displayed the same mix of big picture and fine detail that would impress the staff at Otara CYF later in the day.

She talked about how there was now a determination, from politicians and the public and from the sector, for the vulnerable children ambulance to start making its way up from the bottom of the cliff.

There need to be faster interventions, provided at a younger age, and in such a way that things got fixed before they went seriously wrong.

Outfits like Youth Horizons were getting things right, so she was picking their brains. There were discussions on how to improve foster-parent recruitment (better pay helps, but so does word of mouth); on the pitfalls of the short-term funding regimes that hinder NGOs (perhaps it'll help if the bigger fish start swallowing some of the smaller fish); on the referral delays that mean psychologically damaged children are getting treatment years after it would be most effective.

Moss spoke of how she felt she'd had to fight especially hard to get this job so had put in a huge amount of research at the outset, because she knew she'd be up against applicants from inside the sector who'd have more directly-relevant experience. 

Big system changes take time, says Moss, but she was determined to stick at the job long enough to achieve that.

She was with Bupa for nine years, and reckons you could see the good stuff happening after four years, "and we'd cracked it at about seven".

"I have," she said, "a track record of staying."

For the Oranga Tamariki job, she'd "asked for the longest contract I could get, which was five years.

"I'm not a bureaucrat, and I've been given a mandate to do things differently. If we fail to move the ambulance up the cliff – if I come back in five years' time and there is no activity in the preventive space – I will have failed.

"I hope you'll like me, because you're stuck with me."

 

 - Sunday Star Times

Comments

Ad Feedback
special offers
Auckland

Poi dancing good for elderly

Poi, a traditional Maori dance, involves weights on the ends of cords being spun in circular patterns.

The Maori dance can help seniors improve their balance and memory, according to a new study.

Wakeboarder towed by seaplane

Brad Smeele, Brant Hales and Jesse Cassrels set new standards to raise awareness.

Wakeboarder Brad Smeele injured his spine three years ago. His friends are going to extremes to help raise awareness.

Auckland teacher shortage will get worse

More than two thirds of Auckland's new primary and intermediate teachers are thinking about leaving the city, a new ...

More than two thirds of Auckland's new primary and intermediate teachers considering moving due to cost of living, survey reveals.

Digger flips, driver trapped

Emergency crews are working to free the driver after his digger flipped over in Flat Bush on Monday afternoon.

Emergency crews are working to free the driver after an incident in Auckland's Flat Bush.

Wellington

Capital's cycle lanes a Kiwi-first

A proposed new contra-flow bike lane on Wellington's Cuba St will allow people to ride both ways along part of the ...

Proposed new lanes will allow Wellington's cyclists to ride against the flow of traffic.

Ticketed in free park

Shane Leach has been parking his motorhome in the free car park since November, but has been ticketed twice by Wilson ...

The tiny car park is a "hidden gem" in the capital. That didn't stop Wilson Parking.

Celebrations timed rugby team out

Masterton Red Star have received a valuable reminder about converting tries in a timely fashion.

With seconds to go, they scored a try. But their celebratory high-fives came too soon - and went on too long.

Do we have hazard fatigue?

Civil Defence says it's important to follow a trusted source for official warnings.

Study finds widespread scepticism of official disaster warnings.

Canterbury

Huts near lake still underwater video

Questions have been raised about Lake Ellesmere not being opened ahead of floods that inundated Lower Selwyn Huts over ...

Questions are being asked about why Canterbury's Lake Ellesmere was not opened to the sea ahead of the weekend's flooding.

Anger at flooding

Southshore's estuary frontage at the weekend.

Southshore residents are angry homes flooded due to lack of flood protection.

Man with a flood plan

24072017 Photo: John Kirk-Anderson/Stuff

. Flooding

When a flood looks likely, Hugo Young starts raising all his belongings off the floor.

With a whisker to spare video

Some of the cats at the planned cafe will be available for adoption.

Plans to open a Christchurch cat cafe are purring along nicely.

Waikato

Parents sell up to treat child video

Moana Forbes admits that Ka'iulani's illness has changed their lives, but they couldn't live with themselves if they ...

A Hamilton couple are selling their home to give their first born a fighting chance.

Death a 'homicide' video

Police tape guards the scene in North Street, Te Awamutu.

Body discovery scream startles couple as they nestle in for prime time telly. 

SH25A closed for days

The slip occurred near Kitahi Road, close to the summit.

Main road over Coromandel Peninsula won't be clear until at least Thursday, though one lane may open sooner.

NZ's worst footpath?

Te Ranga Memorial Drive has an unusual footpath design.

Ten steps forward, one step sideways. Tauranga City Council left defending flexible path twisting up users.

Taranaki

Faull family success

06042017 News Photo ANDY JACKSON/Fairfax NZ.   Saturday big read,  Faull Farms at Tikorangi is one of Taranakis biggest ...

Gavin Faull is one of two Taranaki entries on the latest NBR Rich List.

A virtual remedy

Digital health deputy Janine Maruera photographs Makaiah Nui's tummy as she is held by cousin Tesha Whakatutu,  during ...

A combination of local gumption and modern technology is bringing health care to a town with no doctor.

'Moonshine' madness 

Drunk on home brew whisky or "moonshine" a South Taranaki man assaulted his partner and drove dangerously. (File Photo)

 A South Taranaki farmer was so drunk on moonshine he had little memory of assaulting his partner.

Something beginning with C

240717 News Photo. SIMON O'CONNOR/STUFF
Central School in New Plymouth has had the 'C' stolen from its front entrance. ...

Be on the lookout for a missing C. It belongs to Entral School, formerly known as Central School.

Manawatu

Last supper for church video

Bishop's Warden Steve Fowler outside the church building.

Earthquake prone Levin church has been part of the community since the 1890s.

Another gorge slip

A new slip has fallen on the already-closed Manawatu Gorge road.

The closed Manawatu Gorge road is blocked by a third slip that came down this weekend.

Win for developer

Palmerston North courthouse.

Property developer wins case after High Court incorrectly interprets the law.

Flood-damaged paths repaired

Fresh erosion on the Mangaone Stream has exposed more stormwater pipes.

Paths have been left sodden, silted and damaged by floods.

Nelson

Recyclable cups end up in landfill

Smart Environmental manager Yuri Schokking with recycled plastic at the Richmond Resource Recovery Centre.

Almost all our disposable coffee cups are going nowhere near the recycling plant.

Weekend crime spree

The door at the Milton Street Store in Nelson was replaced with a sheet of plywood after a ram-raid attack on the store ...

Another dairy raid caps a spate of crimes across Nelson on a busy weekend for police.

Cadets' voyage of discovery

The Nelson Sea Cadets with LTCOL Josh Wineera, New Zealand Defence Advisor to Fiji and LT Sam Wilson, Military Liaison ...

It was hardly smooth sailing, but Nelson's young sailors learned plenty about theimselves.

Pain relief battle

Yvonne Gill has been using opioid painkillers for 10 years to manage pain from a medical mishap.

 A Nelson woman is angry at doctors for stopping access to strong painkillers.

Marlborough

First look at Kaikoura village video

The North Canterbury Transport Infrastructure Recovery Accommodation Village.

Mark von Huben​ normally wears a tour guide's hat when he visits Kaikoura - now he's behind the wheel of a dump truck carting rubble away from slips blocking SH1.

$231m boost for SH1

A slip on State Highway 1 after the 7.8-magnitude earthquake.

New cycleway announced for 60km section of quake-hit highway north of Kaikoura.

Cats suffer anxiety too

Vet Centre Marlborough senior veterinarian Mark Wiseman says some cats have to take anxiety medication long term.

Some of our feline friends are so stressed they need anti-anxiety pills, just like humans.

End of the Manhattan

23072017 News Photo- RICKY WILSON/STUFF
The Manhattan Cafe has been sold after 28 years of ownership by 
Murray and Mary ...

Blenheim's longest-running cafe calls it a day.

South Canterbury

'Lake' consumes farm

Farmer Geoff Wallace on his Hook Swamp Rd property, which is still inundated with water.

Rapidly rising water in a flood-prone area meant a South Canterbury farmer ended up with a trailer load of dead calves.

$500k clean-up bill gallery video

Ashbury Mowers & Heating business in Washdyke had to get rid of chainsaws and line trimmers that had water damage. ...

Cleaning up the Timaru District aftermath storm will come with $500k price tag.

'Tough as teak' ex-AB dies

Tom Lister played eight tests as an All Black against, Australia, France, Wales, South Africa and the 1971 British and ...

South Canterbury's most-capped test All Black Tom Lister dies, aged 73.

Chainsawing through

Ricky Hunter had no way out of his Bouverie St property other than on foot, after a tree fell down onto the driveway ...

In a bid for freedom after the weekend's storm, Ricky Hunter picked up a chainsaw.

Southland

"The culinary world has just lost a gentleman"

Scott Richardson, pictured here in 2015, in his role as a catering and hospitality teacher at Southland Boys' High School.

Well-known Invercargill chef Scott Richardson died this morning in Dunedin Hospital.

'Business as usual'

Aparima College principal Kaye Day. The latest Governmental report on the College said "urgent" improvement in ...

A troubled Southland secondary school is to continue as usual, despite its leadership coming under fire.

Hotel facing potential delays

Invercargill Licensing Trust general manager Greg Mulvey in front of the proposed site of the ILT's new multi-million ...

The Invercargill Licensing Trust has unearthed some speed bumps in its plans to build a new inner city hotel.

Defending champions on fire

Wensley's Fire cyclists from left to right, Nick Barclay, Marty Jillings, Ben Coley and Tai-Anne Blair set off in the ...

The fire service team has confirmed its the fastest emergency service in Invercargill.

Ad Feedback