Boss of vulnerable children uber agency vows to halt New Zealand's roll call of shame
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.
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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.
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.
As it struggles to mitigate this rolling tragedy, Child Youth and Family has repeatedly been found wanting. Critical reports have been appearing for decades.
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.
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.'
"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."
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.
"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