Can a 'rotten system' be repaired?

Children’s Minister Kelvin Davis has accepted the recommendations of a ministerial advisory board that inspected Oranga Tamariki.

EDITORIAL: Can Children's Minister Kelvin Davis​ do a convincing impersonation of a bulldozer? That will be required if the beleaguered child protection agency Oranga Tamariki is not to be dumped and replaced entirely.

No-one imagined for a second that the ministerial advisory board’s initial report, which was released on Wednesday, would be an endorsement of Oranga Tamariki. Davis set up the high-powered board, chaired by Matthew Tukaki​ and including Sir Mark Solomon​, Dame Naida Glavish​ and Shannon Pakura​, after numerous reviews and inquiries, and stories of traumatic child uplifts, poor relationships with Māori communities, and social workers who were not adequately trained and resourced.

Children’s Minister Kelvin Davis is promising real change.
Children’s Minister Kelvin Davis is promising real change.

Should they have abandoned Oranga Tamariki and started from scratch? The Waitangi Tribunal​ thought so, after it found the Crown’s removal of Māori children into state care, and the structural racism of the agency itself, were an ongoing breach of the Treaty.

The Māori Party agrees, arguing that ” this is an institution whose entire system was rotten to the core”. After 19 reviews, which are “more of the same”, the party believes it should be immediately dismantled.

* Māori Party says 'rotten to the core' Oranga Tamariki should have been disbanded
* Oranga Tamariki: Government again directs overhaul after report criticises 'weak, disconnected and unfit' agency
* Children's Minister Kelvin Davis condemns Oranga Tamariki as 'broken system'

Starting from scratch may not achieve the necessary changes. Oranga Tamariki was only established four years ago, after Child, Youth and Family was scrapped in the wake of a series of public failures. Instead, we have to hope Davis is up to the task the advisory board has set. His political credibility depends upon it.

He told media he’s “going to be a bit of a bulldozer” and force the board’s recommended changes through. But advice has piled up since 1988’s landmark Puao Te Ata Tū report provided a much-needed Māori perspective on what was then the Department of Social Welfare.

A key recommendation is to move the agency from being reactive to preventative. The board cites figures showing that, over the 12 months from April 2020 to March 2021, the agency received 77,500 reports of concern, which led to 41,300 assessments and 8500 family group conferences, with more than 800 children entering care.

There is a clear sense that it is adapting too slowly. The Crown has both “assumed the lead role in supporting tamariki and whānau without really knowing how to be effective”, and “undermined the role of communities and particularly of hapū and iwi in leading their own communities”.

Oranga Tamariki, they found, still does not engage effectively with Māori communities. Stronger relationships with iwi are vital.

The report takes a long view, back to a time before European contact when “tamariki were the centre of the community, where every individual was responsible for ensuring each tamaiti was loved, nurtured and taught to be a proud, knowledgeable and connected member of their wider whānau and hapū”.

While some Pākehā will struggle to accept a view that colonisation is the sole or even leading cause of child neglect among Māori, who make up 58 per cent of children in care, this is important cultural and historical context.

The same sceptics will be more persuaded by arguments that social workers are underprepared and overloaded, and rarely heard from at a national level. After talking to more than 750 staff, the board found that “the uneven and inconsistent workload is not seen to be understood by decision-makers in national office​”.

It is not unusual for social workers to have a caseload of 25 or more children each. Whānau need better support than this. More broadly, even Oranga Tamariki’s basic purpose needs to be clarified.

But for now, this is yet another review by yet another government-appointed group. People will be watching to see if Davis can deliver.