Kelvin Davis blunt saying Oranga Tamariki 'failing', wants to ensure effective internal complaints process after whistleblower video

The Children's Minister says there's no doubt Oranga Tamariki has been "failing to live up to their name", calling the use of unapproved restraint techniques by staff "unacceptable". 

Newsroom on Tuesday published footage provided by a whistleblower showing staff at Care and Protection facilities - run by Oranga Tamariki for youths put in state care by the Family Court - using unapproved restraint techniques, including tackling and head-locking them.

Children's Minister Kelvin Davis and acting Oranga Tamariki chief executive Sir Wira Gardiner have expressed concern about the practices. The agency triggered its Child Protection Protocol, meaning the police are now involved, and several staff members have been stood down.

Both Davis and Sir Wira appeared before the Social Services and Community Select Committee on Wednesday morning, with Davis quick to acknowledge Oranga Tamariki's issues, that "mistakes have been made" and that "the system is broken". 

"There is no doubt the work has been difficult. Oranga Tamariki has been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. It is our frontline staff who feel those difficulties, the pressures the most."

He said previous iterations of the agency had been flawed, as was the idea that bundling them together and giving them a new name, as was done in 2017, would lead to better outcomes. 

"I think we can all agree over the past few years that it's obvious that Oranga Tamariki are failing to live up to their new name. Today, I am not here to defend the indefensible. Oranga Tamariki has made some serious mistakes and there is no hiding away from them."

Oranga refers to the wellbeing desired for all children, while Tamariki "reminds us that children are descended from greatness" and "born with an inherent mana that can be damaged by abuse and neglect", as the agency's website says. 

Davis listed recent incidents involving Oranga Tamariki: "Uplifts, social workers under pressure, a lack of training, and just recently, care and protection residences displaying unacceptable behaviour."

One of the main areas of questioning was why it took a whistleblower for these practices to come to officials' attention and whether the internal complaints system was up to scratch. The whistleblower gave the footage to Newsroom on the condition of anonymity, saying they feared the consequences of Oranga Tamariki finding out what they had done.

Davis thanked the whistleblower for coming forward and reiterated he had sent members of his independent ministerial advisory board to the facilities "to get to the bottom of what is going on because what we say was unacceptable". He wants to ensure there isn't a system-wide issue.

"It shouldn't take whistleblowers to draw it to people's attention… Oranga Tamariki needs to put in place systems that mean that when they see unacceptable practice, they have an avenue to go to report it and feel safe in the job," the minister said. 

"There is no hiding from it. It was unacceptable. What we have got to do is now fix the system."

The advisory board has three main areas of focus - relationships with families and Māori, the professional practices of social workers and organisational culture. It's expected to report back in August. 

"If there is a culture where staff feel that they can't complain or they feel they may be targeted, that is unacceptable," Davis said. "We want staff to feel safe to speak out about unacceptable behaviour."

That point was repeated by Sir Wira, who said there are internal processes, but the question was how effective they are in addressing the complaints. 

He said in the months since taking on the role - the previous chief executive Gráinne Moss resigned in January - he had given out his private mobile number to allow staff to get in touch with him directly. He is meeting with people who say they have been frustrated by internal processes. 

"When people get frustrated, as with this video, then they take the path that they take. It is regrettable. I would prefer that the internal system works. But if it didn't work, and I was in the same position, I would have probably taken the same path."

Kelvin Davis blunt saying Oranga Tamariki 'failing', wants to ensure effective internal complaints process after whistleblower video
Photo credit: Newshub.

Davis said the "vast majority" of those working in residences are "doing a great job", but in an organisation of thousands, "there will always be someone, unfortunately, who does something they shouldn't".

"We want to eliminate that behaviour as we want to make sure all children are safe. We are not going to stand here... and defend the indefensible. It is about understanding what the problem is, the extent of the problem and then fixing it."

He told the committee he was committed to fixing the system and seeing power transferred to those on the ground in the regions. 

"I expect Oranga Tamariki to be that enabler that allows the regions to decide what is right for their particular area, to empower communities and Maori to help children and their families in a way that suits them and not us here in Wellington," Davis said.

"The move will see the decentralisation of Oranga Tamariki and the handing over of trust and power to those at the frontline."

Sir Wira said the agency was moving away from large facilities to smaller ones being built over the next three to four years. They want to replicate a homely environment and allow those in case to have one-on-one attention. With investment, Sir Wira said there are ways to improve the current facilities in the meantime. 

The officials also noted the establishment of the Independent Children's Monitor, which says it will "monitor the system of State care" to ensure those agencies tasked with looking after children "are doing what they need to".

Following the committee, ACT's Social Development spokesperson Karen Chhour said nothing had changed in the system over the last four years. 

"I grew up in the Child Youth and Family system. I was bounced around between different family members and foster care. I know the pain and suffering these kids are facing more than most," she said. 

"It doesn’t matter that the name has been changed from CYFS to Oranga Tamariki, children are still being failed. It’s heartbreaking for me that nothing has changed since I was in the system."

Chhour said there had been multiple reviews into Oranga Tamariki and ACT would be holding the minister to his promise of action. 

The Office of the Children's Commissioner has repeatedly called for the closure of the residences. 

"In my view now there's a one-word solution: bulldozer," Commissioner Andrew Becroft told Newshub on Tuesday.