Oranga Tamariki revisited

Oranga Tamariki has its troubles; always has had in my experience. The recent Ombudsman’s report, Children in care: complaints to the Ombudsman 2019-2023, calls for change “on a scale rarely required of a government agency”. It is clearly written, concise, and worth a read. I wonder what change of this magnitude might mean under the current hard-right coalition government?

The Report states that over 2,000 complaints were processed in this time period (2019-2023). It is noted that this number is likely to escalate with the Oversight of the Oranga Tamarki Act, 2022 becoming law from May 2023, and the associated development of capacity within the Ombudsman’s Office. The Report includes examples of a variety of complaints to the Ombudsman received from tamariki, their whānau, caregivers and others. Many of the subsequent investigations reveal poor practice judgements and damaging outcomes: some more so than others. The case-study examples provided are scrupulously even-handed, as you would expect from a lawyer of Peter Boshier’s calibre. It seems that the conclusion reached is more a question of all the strands taken together pointing to the need for radical systemic reform.

Most of the substantive ‘wins’ arising from the Complaints process that are detailed in the Report, are concerned with procedural reform and the associated development of ‘practice policy’ guidelines. The wider remedies proposed as a “starting point” (Report, p. 80) are also largely about better administration and procedures – mechanisms for greater internal consistency and accountabilty. However, there is something of an anomaly sitting here. The key criticism within the report concerns Oranga Tamariki’s inability to comply with its own legal duties, processes and guidelines. Necessary as it may be, is more detailed procedural guidance and oversight the whole answer, or are their more wicked problems in play?

All ‘notify, investigate-assess, intervene, review’ child protection organisations are structured as decision-making systems and Oranga Tamariki is no exception (Keddell, 2022). Errors of judgement within this structure are documented in this Report. It is important to realise that state social work practice is riddled with such errors historically. You only have to read past case files, as I have often done, to realise this. And, if you have a lived understanding of how such systems work, as I do, it is not difficult to know why processes are not properly adhered to and damaging outomes are reached. In fact practice may well be generally better and safer than it was twenty years ago and the kind of transparency exemplified by the Report is a very welcome development. And hindsight is 20/20 – as Kierkegaard said, “life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards”. Not that any of this makes poor practice defensible; it just makes it understandable.

What is often missed in reports that look to identify poor practice and go on to recommend structural remedies within the system, is the way in which procedural errors, oversights and the resulting practice outcomes (outcomes which can seriously damage real human lives), occur within a wider political and organisational context. Many critics of Oranga Tamariki are quick to say that a plethora of investigations and reports identify practice failures and that there is still no change. This isn’t completely accurate.

There have been plenty of reports alright, but they are not all the same – there are significant differences (Hyslop, 2022). This is because the political context which sits behind these reports is subject to shifting ideology. The organisational / operational system at Oranga Tamariki is not immune to this and is also subject to its own stresses concerned with staffing, workloads, practice culture and the volatile pressures that accompany this kind of work. The Report at hand makes reference to the now infamous Hawkes Bay Hospital uplift and the associated ‘discovery’ that OT social workers routinely made inappropriate use of ‘without notice’ Section 78 Interrin Custody Orders. Historical perceptions of risk were put before proper assessment of the curent circumstances and wishes of whānau. However this practice of over-intervention and risk-averse child rescue flowed directly from the 2015 Expert Panel Review: safe and loving homes at the earliest opportunity to prevent cycles of harm – and, dare I say it, this particular dogma was ideologically connected with breaking the scourge of benefit dependancy under the umbrella of social investment (Hyslop & Keddell, 2019).

The Boshier Report makes mention of the Malachi Subecz case. This was a situation where Oranga Tamariki failed to accept a notification that it should have investigated. This was undoubtedly a mistake and one with (possibly) fatal consequences, but the context at the time was post-Hawkes Bay and post the raft of subsequent inquiries that were (very rightly) critical of unnecessary state intervention in the life of tamariki and whānau, and all the damage that has resulted from such practice. The ship was turned very quickly away from the care and rescue setting, with all its racist and classed implications (Keddell et. al., 2022).

When this happens the practice designers and the grunt-work sailors naturally run to the other side of the deck. Add to this the smaller picture context of stressed and under-supported workers, a ‘placement’ decision by a child’s mother that could be interpretted as a whānau decision and we have a recipe for the tragic under-intervention outcome that resulted: not an excuse, but a contextual explanation.

Anxiety, according to Tony Morrison (1997, p.196), “…  runs like a vein throughout the child protection process.” Social workers (and the systems that support their decisions) need to be tireless and passionate and also reflective and dispassionate. Conflicting imperatives need to be weighed and balanced – careful engagement with complexity is required. In some of the complaints which Boshier reviews, social workers failed to take account of the needs and rights of children; failed to ‘see’ the child. In others, social workers failed to hear and respect the needs of adults; failed to adhere to tikanga-informed practice with whānau. Getting this right, negotiating this balance, is not easy work and much of it ultimately depends on the skill and knowledge of the social workers who do this mahi.  Oranga Tamariki is under-staffed and workers are tired. They have seen and heard a lot of rhetoric about transformational change – for ten years now – and still the abuse and neglect notifications roll in.

To return to the question posed at the beginning of this piece, we have a new Minister and a new Government, of a minimalist public spending persuasion. I have heard that money at Oranga Tamariki has recently become as tight as it has ever been. The other part about child protection practice is that it is visited on the children of the poor. It is likely to get harder for young parents at the bottom of the heap and we know how poverty is structured by gender and ethnicity. Parents, children and caregivers who are struggling need support and resources to pick themselves up and fight another day: this costs money.

Is there an alternative plan? Will we see a swing back to risk-averse child rescue – this is the easiest course for populist regimes to chart. Chris Luxon tells us he is in favour of devolution and localised authority. Is this code for privatisation, dividing and farming out discrete functions and charging ‘community’ with responsibility without money?

We do know that this Government is not in favour of promoting Māori authority and governance structures. In 2020 the Office of the Commissioner for Children reached the following conclusion in relation to the future of child protection for tamariki Māori:

Our call, and the key recommendation in this report, is for a total transformation of the statutory care and protection system. By that I mean nothing short of a ‘by Māori, for Māori’ approach and a transfer of responsibility, resources and power from the state to appropriate Māori entities, as determined by Māori. 

(OCC, Part 2, 2020, p. 6)

This didn’t happen – the then Government lacked the political will and this one certainly doesn’t have any intention of decolonising child protection. And realising such a vision isn’t simply about ‘giving child protection to Māori’ in my opinion. It involves some thought about what this means and how to achieve it and a process where change management is driven by Māori. This, in turn, involves a power shift predicated on recogntion of te tino rangitiratanga and engagement with wicked problems rooted in the history of our settler colonial capitalist state: recognition of the authority guaranteed in te Tirit and a process for adequately planning, resourcing and developing the sort of genuine transformation envisaged above. But somehow I don’t see Luxon’s idea of devolution panning out this way.

In summary, the reforms which Boshier champions are important. They may help social workers make the right calls more often (provided that procedural compliance and good decision-making aren’t conflated, as they often are) – but unless the wider context described above is understood and confronted I am not convinced that change “on a scale rarely required of a government agency” is likely; at least not change that radically improves the life chances of whānau in the sights of the state child protection system.

Thoughts on this post are very welcome. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. It would be good to hear from OT workers, but of course, they are seldom permitted to speak publicly. Too dangerous, right?

Image credit: lioli


Hyslop, I. (2022). A Political History of Child protection – Lessons for Reform from Aotearoa New Zealand. Bristol: Policy Press.

Hyslop, I., & Keddell, E. (2019). Child protection under National: Reorienttaing towards genuine social investment or continuing social neglect? New Zealand Sociology, 34 (2), 93 – 122.

Keddell, E. (2022). Mechanisms of Inequity: The Impact of Instrumental Biases in the Child Protection System. Societies. 12, 83.

Keddell, E., Fitzmaurice, L., Cleaver, K. & Exeter, D (2022). A fight for legitimacy: reflections on child proetction reform, the reduction of baby removals, and child protecttion decision-making in Aotearoa-New Zealand. Kōtuitui: New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences Online, 17 (3), 378-404. DOI: 10.1080/1177083X.2021.2012490

Office of the Commissioner for Children (2020). Te Kuku O Te Manawa – Moe ararā! Haumanutia ngā moemoeā a ngā tūpuna mō te oranga ngā tamariki (Part 2)

14 replies on “Oranga Tamariki revisited”

With Chappie (Te Kani) to make a big all-OT-staff announcement tomorrow morning (ostensibly about the new operating model), and in light of some of the other announcements made to frontline kaimahi – I *highly* doubt a “change on a scale rarely required of a government agency” is on the horizon. In fact, I fear the changes being announced steer in the very opposite direction.
Effective immediately: all financial requests must have Regional Manager approval (Direct Supervisor and Site Managers are now not enough to approve social workers formal requests for financial support for whanau they are working with) and food vouchers are now not allowed unless OT has legal status with the tamaiti/tamariki in question. So when frontline social workers need to make an immediate safety plan for tamariki (lets say, a sibling set of 5 chlildren) that has the tamariki out of the family home and in the care of say, extended whanau members (a literal *daily* occurance at OT sites nationwide), social workers would normally provide a $150 purchase order for Countdown? Pak n Save? Whichever grocery store closest to the whanau. As anyone who has to feed children in this current cost of living crisis can tell you – $150 is not going to touch the sides in the household budget. And yet – OT social workers are now not even permitted to provide this, the smallest of supports for struggling families.

Do OT social workers stay – and fight? Their own employer? Continue to advocate for the whanau they work with? Do they just keep their head down and survive (spoiler alert: that’s how many make it to the 40 year mark in this ministry!)? OT is short almost 50 social workers in the Tamaki Makaurau sites alone- meaning social workers are just working short, understaffed and with too high – and complex! – caseloads.
What should an OT social worker do? Genuinely – what?

Thanks for this …

I wish I could tell you. This sounds to me like an escalating war on the poor / slashing the safety net and calling it breaking dependency. You no doubt need to pay the rent and got into this work to do it well – resist, speak up, tell it like it is – expose the ideology. Social work has to be a voice for the oppressed if it is to function as it should and could. At what point does that become impossible – how and why? and what are the consequences in an unequal society? We need collective responses – the PSA, the Association? Kia kaha – Ian

And – thinking a bit more about this I do urge you and your like-minded co-workers to get some Union support. There is a legal argument to be made – the OT Act has various generic provisions about the support of whānau and the protection of tamariki. The emotive (and very real) argument to make is that if safety plans are compromised it will place children at risk of serious harm – and this is contrary to the function that the law requires you to perform. Unity is strength – Ian

Hi Ian I did try but can’t seem to take on the big OT corporation. In the end I have to take care of self as advocacy nearly destroyed my career.

Agree, as ex employee I did what was expected in future directions policy followed practice centre to the letter, case noted everything to cover my arse as the saying goes on site. When spotlight is on social workers there’s nothing on management and the upper echelon that hold and control the power. If a social worker advocates for a child and it goes against the managerialism kpi fiscal prudence they’ll go after you all right even when you leave the organisation. They’d rather be right than do right was my experience even if that means breaking multiple laws. The complaints the ombudsman makes are also occurring to social workers going about their duties.

Kia ora Anony,
I literally had to read what you’ve written three times to try to get my head around it.
The changes you described just sound so horrible and so divorced from the reality of the trenches that I wonder how a social worker even survives that type of work environment.
You ask a lot of questions here in that last paragraph which I think deserves some kind of response – purely out of respect for the fact that you had the courage to put pen to paper.
Disclaimer: Before I give you my answers, I am sure its not lost on you that my answers are from the safety of a social worker who works in an NGO. One who (because of the stories you just laid out and others I have been told) has chosen to not work at OT. I take the lower pay but to accept the absolute freedom to be able to speak my mind about practice / societal issues. I do not know what it’s like to work at OT as a social worker but I do know why I chose this profession and what its like to lead an agency as well as work in the trenches.
So here goes:
Do OT social workers stay – and fight? Their own employer?
Yes… but not on your own – it needs to be a collective effort. They cannot discipline most of you / sack the majority of you. Can they? They can though, and I have seen it, pick you off one by one and replace you with the next SW straight out of Uni. If the conditions for both the SW and the client are intolerable, is against best practice, is against our Code of Ethics then SWers need to make a stand.
Continue to advocate for the whanau they work with?
Again, see above, the families that come to us are already broken, need our help and need us to shine a light on a way forward. If OT cannot even help with the staples then what in God’s name is the organisation doing there?
Do they just keep their head down and survive (spoiler alert: that’s how many make it to the 40 year mark in this ministry!)?
I have a lot of empathy for this. I understand that we need to pay the rest, mortgages, food, children, clothes etc etc . We have the same financial pressures as the rest of society, however… we have the added burden of having a moral and ethical connection to the work we do. Does keeping your head down and surviving come with a price? Does it not eat at one?
What should an OT social worker do? Genuinely – what?
We could all just decide that OT is NOT an organisation for social workers. We could, as a collective just say ‘bugger off’ – until the powers make proper change we could just all boycott the organisation. It sounds farfetched but a lot of us that have said ‘Never will I work for them as a social worker because it goes against everything I believe in’. Why not most / all social workers?
Is the PSA and the ANZASW doing enough to protect you? Allowing members (and non-members) the avenue to speak out, create a movement that cannot be swept aside by Government or society. Why doesn’t academia just say to their students – you can go work in OT but be prepared to be ripped asunder? Be prepared to be worked to the bone and not allowed to lift your head above the parapet?
For God’s sake – we’ve read report after report, watch restructure after restructure and come back to the very same place we started – and then we shake our heads and start again.
Anony – change needs to happen from within with support from us on the outside (social workers, PSA, ANZASW, Academia and our clients).

Agree with you Luis. I now believe that to make a stand for social justice in social work is a privilege not an ethical choice. One point that is always missed is the effect of the neoliberal project with its present and most ideological reinvention upon us with the coalition of the 3 ring circus. From a practical and socialist perspective social workers and all workers in fact must regain their power lost in 1991 under the ECA now the ERA. The government departments constructed to assist employment relations are designed to be unequal and justice cannot be found through work safe (broken), and all the other avenues as they rely on self regulated authority to sort issues out. Unfortunately employers are higher up the food chain literally, figuratively, and financially. The neoliberal experiment always was and is a class war. And that’s if you take this view you will see the problem and the answers but or society is fast losing our ability to collectivise and organise. But if it were as easy as working together we would. Unions have minimal power by legal authority and can do little for the individual or collective. As Gramsci showed we must construct a revolutionary praxis of Subaltern hegemony to replace that of our neoliberal times.

Well well well – the pendulum swings.. Less than 3 years ago OT was flying whanau from Northland to Te Wai Ponamu, paying costs of accommodation, food, ferries, rental cars… – whatever it took to comply with 7AA requirements for tamariki to sustain contact with their whanau. Whanau taking in tamariki to care for them when their parents were not safe were provided with weekly food vouchers, petrol vouchers, beds, bedding, wonder where that is at now?

Social Workers working in OT – this is an anomaly – enacting Statutory Care and Protection function on behalf of the State is not social work. Oranga Tamariki’s management structure and practice guidance do not provide Social Workers a safe workplace within which to practice in accordance with their professions Code of Conduct, in particular Principle 1, and 5, 5.3 nor does it support or enable competent Social Work Practice, particularly regarding Competencies 4 & 5.

Options for change – a collective action to call them out – the workplace is unsafe for Social Workers.

Given that we are in a political environment which will involve cuts to services that will impact on social workers – and the people that they serve – it is important to be clear that any past or current social workers who wish to make comments anonymously on this or any other blog post will have their right to privacy respected. IT IS OKAY TO POST COMMENTS ANONYMOUSLY. Comments are moderated by members of our little collective group to ensure expressions of opinion are fair and reasonable (#we don’t all have to see everything the same way) and not focused on personal attacks. We live in challenging times – sometimes the pressures are intolerable, but when we can we need to speak up, have courage and organize collectively when our work is threatened – as it is now. Easy for me to say of course but we are never completely powerless.

Bloody good post Ian.
In response:
I also want to pay my respects to all of you that have commented to Ian’s post. It takes courage and requires speaking truths that are painful. Good on you!
For me, some of the greatest joys of my life and some of the most painful moments have been when I had the honour of working with Whanau and Tamariki going through hard times and struggle. I don’t think it was because I was a social worker though. I think rather, it’s because I’m a human being with the usual human attributes of care of the other and desire for solidarity and making a difference. Social work as a professional job just put food on the table while letting me do what my heart wanted me to do.
I left social work lecturing partly because I was tired and in grave danger of becoming a dinosaur. And, partly because what has been sneaking up on me are real doubts as to the validity of social work as a professional category, particularly a statutory category. To explain a bit: social work arose in response to a particular set of social conditions created by modernity and capitalism at one of its earliest and ugliest phases. As a profession it contained both an earnest desire to help those cast aside by the chaotic conditions of early capitalism, and attempts to control / fix the poor who were seen as unruly and inherently immoral. In a sense, not much has changed other than our solidification as a business that wraps the threadbare cloak of professionality and qualifications around itself in its efforts toward claiming legitimacy. In that sense it has become its own self-sustaining monster: a professional production line.
What will change though are the conditions from which social work arose. Social work exists to both ameliorate the worst effects and support the current status quo of global capitalism. Once capitalism has nothing left to cannibalise it is likely to fracture. That time is coming quite soon. Ecological and societal trends indicate some form of major crash in the near to mid-term. Whether neoliberal global capitalism in its current form will survive that is a question. Whether social work can maintain any relevancy as a profession in future changed conditions is also a very real question.
Some of those clever French philosopher type people said something along the lines of: to attack a structure is not the same thing as to undermine the co-ordinates and myths that support that structure.
I suspect that is why the critiques and pushes for OT reform have failed. Not because they are inaccurate, but because they attack the structure of OT, not the coordinates upon which it relies. Until those coordinates wither away as capitalism fails, are revealed as a fraud to the majority of the population, or something more catastrophic happens, OT will remain much the institutional beast it is today. Self-protective as first instinct, often cruel, sometimes kind and with a twisted love/hate/control relationship with the poor that tends to remain one of the great unmentionables. It will also continue to exploit and use up the goodhearted people who work within it.
What will not wither away even if capitalism, and its loyal supporter social work, withers with it is the need for human kindness, care of the other, and solidarity with those in struggle. And of course the sorts of impromptu structures that arise within small communities to allow these things to flourish.
Te Ao Maori has always had a great deal more to offer in the arts of kindness, care of other, care of place and human solidarity than social work has ever had to offer Te Ao Maori. Perhaps one of the big reasons that institutions like OT smile, nod and pretend to adopt aspects of Mātauranga Māori while in reality doing no such thing is because to truly take on Te Ao Māori would drastically undermine the coordinates upon which neo-liberal capitalism and its shadow social work depend. So, sorry folks. I do not think that agencies like OT will (or can) fundamentally change until there are more fundamental changes to how societies choose to allocate the world’s increasingly limited resources.
That does not mean that what is done by social workers is wasted or worthless. Even within the most self-protective monolithic structures there are cracks, lines, and opportunities revealing possibilities for kindness, solidarity with the people we work with and subtle disruptions of the systems. Human decency is never worthless, whether it calls itself social work or not.
I thoroughly agree with Ian that social work is (more than most professions) at the mercy of ideological swings. What we are seeing the beginnings of now is not the devolution of services, or even the divestment of services to poorly supported NGO’s; but rather an active abdication of responsibility for the well-being of many New Zealanders that will probably use terms such as social investment as arse covering rhetoric. Again, sorry folks but I think that’s what’s coming.
So, what is to be done? – Some don’ts and do’s thoughts:
Don’t – hide behind the rhetorics of practice guidelines and social work professionality if you are asked to do things that offend your own basic sense of what is right and what is wrong.
Don’t – stop doing what you do for the people you work with; they need you and what you do is worthwhile.
Don’t – let the system break you. Find allies, find corners where you can gather and be quietly angry together.
Don’t – put yourself at risk as an individual, if outrage needs to be spoken, find others to speak it with.
Do – keep doing the work while also monitoring your own capacity to do it without harming yourself.
Do – resist stories that blame the poor for being poor.
Do – seek ways to find solidarity with your clients and your colleagues.
Do – keep yourself informed, sometimes there’s not much energy left to take action, but you can always keep up-to-date.
Do – have an out plan if you need it. OT is not the be-all.
Do – be proud of yourselves.
Do – Remember to keep loving and cherishing your Whanau.

Always good Ian, but depressing.
A practical example: I am involved in a case as LFC where we want OT to support a family with a few hours [literally] respite care for a child with special needs. That child has no status. Another child in the family, the one I am lawyer for, is under and order. Request for support refused. I reply saying I will apply for a services order under s.86. in order to support the child I represent it is necessary to support her mother and others in the family. Whether that was the reason, I am not sure, but decision quickly reversed.
There are many instances of children in a family who have formal status and with siblings who do not. This is often in a case of “return”. Those children should not be divisible by virtue of one being under an order and the other[s] not when it comes to supporting that whānau and of ensuring that support is there and the return home [for example] is successful.

Thanks for making this contribution Allan. Somehow I doubt this turnaround you speak of was a coincidence – but, yes the ‘no status – orders = no resources’ stance has always been a paradox when the aim is to support family without a formal child protection declaration etc? The crazy thing is that the Act’s principles are all about whānau strengthening etc // I dunno – it is clear that OT will look to narrow their remit and tighten spending on stuff that helps all the multiply stressed whānau out there who can’t provide for high needs kids – helping the poor only breeds dependancy, right? It is pretty depressing I gotta say – ideology conquers all – very little understanding of how the other half live in this government and even less compassion. But … we can’t let our analysis disable us Allan – you do a great job man. Never let the buggers grind you down as they say!

It’s so great to read all your comments. Where have you been all my life …

Too many stories to tell from my experience and too many gatekeepers to holding the purpose into the Act of care and protection of vulnerable children/youth.

I leave this experience as ex OT employee wiser but more cynical and in the camp it needs to burnt to the ground but thats just my hopeless speaking and the knowledge I wasn’t allowed to help the children under my case loads in specific situations. Bloody proud of how I did a lot though.
Now I take that experience knowing I can’t change what is out of my control. And I step into my future knowing the transformation I can make when I act from my soul place that I treat my fellow humans as human and all the intentions of my being present to my BEING human. It is connection through our humanity that empowers others I do believe we cannot empower others only connect so they find their own power. That is empowerment to me…

Amen Andrew – what a beautiful way to describe the work you do, the way you practice and how it has changed you….. I carry on my work today knowing good about the fact that I have peers, such as yourself, fighting the good fight.
In solidarity.

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