'I was getting mentally unwell': Oranga Tamariki staff resign over 'toxic', 'abusive' work environment

Social workers at Oranga Tamariki - Ministry for Children claim a "toxic" work environment is forcing them to resign.

Newshub has spoken to former and current employees, who warn caseloads are not manageable and say the stress is negatively affecting their mental health. 

Danielle* worked at the Ministry for less than a year before calling it quits.

"It's something I really wanted to succeed in, but I realised that I was getting more and more mentally unwell myself each week because of the high level of stress and risk I had to carry."

After resigning, the former employee drafted a letter to her bosses at Oranga Tamariki and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, detailing a "toxic" and "abusive" environment.

"I had to go to therapy and get some help and take time off work," she told Newshub.

Figures released under the Official Information Act reveal 14.6 percent of the Ministry's social workers resigned between April 2017 and August this year.

Danielle says more than a dozen colleagues left her office while she was there, and says resigning was the most "freeing thing" she has ever done.

"How can I, in a place where I'm working with families and telling them to do the best for their children, do anything but that for myself and mine."

Oranga Tamariki deputy chief executive services for children and families, Alison McDonald, told Newshub it takes the wellbeing of social workers "very seriously."

"We have an employee assistance programme where staff can get confidential counselling… but we hope it wouldn't get to that."

When asked if Oranga Tamariki was abusive and toxic, Ms McDonald's response was: "I would hope not".

The average caseload for care and protection social workers has reduced from 31 to 25, but the Ministry is aware social workers "carry higher loads," Ms McDonald says.

Lucy Sanford-Reed, the chief executive of the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers, says "bizarre" situations where a social worker is looking after up to 60 cases are too common.

"The workloads and the requirements are excessive."

Children and their families are missing out on "vital" support because there are not enough hours in the day, Danielle says.

"As much as you would try to not take anything [home] with you, you'd still have it in the back of your mind that you had people you should have seen that you just physically weren't able to.

Social workers can only visit all their clients if they put in "ridiculous overtime hours," Danielle says.

Ms Sanford-Reed believes a "significant" shortfall in staff has added increasing pressure on the workforce and results in more inexperienced workers being forced to take on harder cases.

"It's almost like saying a new graduate doctor is going to be doing brain surgery, and they just don't do that.

"They're not at a stage in their career where they're able to work independently on highly complex, highly complicated and vulnerable cases."

She says a union-led programme where new graduates worked under intense supervision for four years "has been compromised".

"They haven't got the luxury...because of the churn rate [and] because of the demands at work."

Professionals have no choice but to resign because the "demands on them are too great," Ms Sanford-Reed says.

Ms McDonald told Newshub the Ministry is "committed" to hiring more social workers to help bring workloads down, but admitted some regional areas were struggling to recruit.

"We are looking at our recruitment campaigns to see how we can beef it up in the areas where we have trouble," she says.

*Danielle is not her real name.