In the second of Judge Andrew Becroft’s five addresses reflecting on his time as Children’s Commissioner, he argues that tinkering with our care and protection system over the last three decades has failed our children and young people. He believes nothing short of radical transformation will enable it to offer genuine care, protection and hope.
“1989’s potentially game-changing report Puāo-te-Ata-tū invited radical change of our care and protection system”, Commissioner Becroft says. “But successive governments have resisted transformation, instituting only incremental change. Sadly, that has ended up serving the protection of the system rather than the needs of children and young people – especially mokopuna Māori.”
Te Kuku o te Manawa
Te Kuku o te Manawa, our inquiry arising from the uplift of Māori children in Hastings two years ago, revealed distressing experiences of state intervention in the lives of mothers and whanau. These included:
- A lack of transparency, and in some cases social worker dishonesty
- Rushed decision-making and pre-judgment
- Over reliance on “without notice” removals
- Inadequate support before and after removal
- Racism from some social workers, and structural racism within Oranga Tamariki
“This reflects a system that has failed, and is failing, too many children and their whānau/families”, Commissioner Becroft concludes.
“For too long Oranga Tamariki has had insufficient social workers and patchy service delivery. There is not enough long-term engagement with families and community organisations. Short-term risk-averse approaches predominate. Removals without notice, that too often cause long term inter-generational trauma for tamariki and whanau, are far too common.”
“Of course, family or whānau strengthening is expensive. It is time consuming and requires highly developed skills. Perhaps as a result it is under-resourced.
“But the genius of investing in whānau/family strengthening is that it secures both the safety of the child and it enables the child to remain within their own whānau. And this must be our goal, rather than the state “rescuing” the child and placing them in non-kin or stranger care.
“The child rescue model misses the point that, like every child, mokopuna Māori have a right to be both safe and with their whānau, connected to their whakapapa. It’s not one or the other.
“And the best mechanism for family or whānau strengthening is the community itself”, Commissioner Becroft says, “communities with by Māori, for Māori approaches.”
“We have learned that, unquestionably, Māori must be recognised as those best placed to care for their own children.” By Māori, for Māori approaches, enabled by the transfer of power and resources from government to whānau, hapū, iwi and Māori organisations, is both consistent with Te Tiriti, and it reflects the vision of 1989’s Puāo-te-Ata-tū report.
“This is a truly radical move, properly speaking. It is the cornerstone of transformative change. It can offer care, protection and hope.”
Along with this visionary change, Te Kuku o te Manawa recommended three actions that would make an immediate difference. Oranga Tamariki and the government were asked to:
- make urgent changes to social work policy and practice to stop continuing harm
- work with iwi and Māori organisations to begin a transition to ‘by Māori for Māori’ approaches
- quickly overhaul aspects of current legislation such as s7AA. (See Recommendations 2, 3 and 4 of our second Te Kuku o te Manawa report.
Lessons from the death of “baby Moko”
Every commissioner has been confronted by a sentinel child death. The death of “baby Moko” in 2015 was ours. The Coroner invited our Office to provide evidence at the inquest and that evidence, Commissioner Becroft says, continues to offer lessons we seem unwilling to learn.
Where is the Core Competency Framework?
“We recommended the need for a core competency framework spelling out the skills, values and knowledge essential for those working with children. Among those skills is the ability to engage those families and whānau who find engaging us difficult. The framework was drafted but never implemented. It urgently needs to be updated, to be Te Ao Māori centred, and to be embedded in the training of the children’s workforce.”
Where is the Code of Information?
In the case of “baby Moko”, different agencies held different pieces of the puzzle, but this information was never joined up. A Code of Information was to be developed. It was to identify when information can and should be shared between Oranga Tamariki, the Police and NGOs. But the idea seems to have fallen off the agenda. “We must find a way to ensure that information critical to supporting children and young people can be pooled”, the Commissioner says.
Well Child Tamariki Ora programme needs to be extended
Our submission also explored the need for an assessment of children in Aotearoa, in particular vulnerable children. We now have a tool to enable this, the Well Child Tamariki Ora programme.
“While it is an excellent programme, it reaches only 89% of New Zealand’s children”, Commissioner Becroft says. “And the 10% it misses are those most in need of support and assistance. We should broaden the scope of this programme and provide resources for it to work closely with Iwi, Māori organisations and NGOs to gain the trust of those families who presently do not want to engage.”