Oranga Tamariki: Concerns raised about another facility as Children's Commissioner pushes for closures

The Children's Commissioner is pushing for Oranga Tamariki care and protection residences to be closed as soon as possible, releasing reports showing concerns about a Lower Hutt facility.

The agency has spent the week addressing footage provided to Newsroom by a whistleblower showing staff at a Christchurch residence using unapproved restraint techniques on a child. 

The video prompted Oranga Tamariki to trigger its Child Protection Protocol (involving police), standing down staff members and, on Thursday, announcing it was closing the facility.

The Office of the Children's Commissioner - who has long called for the residences to be closed - on Thursday night released two reports into the Epuni facility in Lower Hutt. They were written after officials visited the site in 2019 and 2020 as part of their monitoring mandate.

The most recent report, dated March 2, 2021, about a September visit said there were three areas of "very good practice" at the facility - the kawa of holding a muhu whakatau on admission and poroporoaki on departure from the residence, young people are able to participate in cultural activities, and that they are involved in their All About Me plans.

However, there are two areas the office said required "urgent attention" - that children do not feel safe from others and/or themselves and that the facility is run down and not fit for purpose. 

"These areas were identified as 'harmful' because they have a significant impact on the safety and wellbeing of children and young people," the report says. 

One of the areas for development listed was that young people say staff "use force inappropriately".

"Most of the children and young people we spoke to said they did not feel staff were adequately trained in the restraint process," it said.

"We spoke with children and young people who described feeling 'manhandled' and who had observed staff members picking up' children or young people when using force. Staff told us they have been restraining children and young people less than in the past and there is now a greater emphasis on de-escalation as an alternative to using force."

The Epuni site has the capacity for 10 children. There were nine there at the time of the 2020 visit, aged between 12 and 16.

"A number of the children and young people had been in the residence for significant periods of time due to long delays in securing community placements. The longest placement for a child or young person at the time of our visit was 817 days."

Andrew Becroft.
Andrew Becroft. Photo credit: Newshub.

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft said on Friday the reports, along with the video footage of behaviour in the Christchurch facility, show the need for the residences to close as soon as possible. 

He said staff told his office serious self-harm was widespread among children and young people at Epuni. One staff member said they were worried there could be a 'sentinel event' meaning that a child would die or be seriously harmed.

"We welcome the fast and serious response to the video showing a boys' treatment at Te Oranga, in Christchurch," he said.

"However, enough is known already about the unsafe situation in other residences to urgently accelerate efforts to close these, in favour of small home-like places where young people are cared for by people they trust, close to home."

Trish Langridge, the deputy chief executive of Care Services at Oranga Tamariki, said the Epuni facility "is being refurbished and maintained currently to improve the environment and make it more comfortable for the children and young people staying there". 

"The intention is to be able to transition out of Epuni over time by increasing and improving options for residential care, though our first priority will always be for tamariki to return to whānau where possible."

"We have many procedures to protect children, and for them to raise complaints. However, as [acting chief executive] Sir Wira pointed out yesterday these do not always seem to be working, which is why we've started urgent investigations across all the residences."

Langridge said the safety of children was the highest priority and the managers of the residences have the ability to bring in more staff if necessary. 

"Oranga Tamariki intends to close all four care and protection residences and replace them with smaller purpose-built houses. These will allow more effective one-to-one care for the children currently in residences, who are those with the highest needs and are most deserving of protection. 

"Following the incident at Te Oranga investigations are beginning immediately at all four care and protection residences, including social workers interacting with all the children there. The results of these investigations will help determine which residences will be closed first, and when. Sir Wira has made it clear that he will accelerate the closures if he needs to.

"The Government has provided funding for ten houses to replace the care and protection residences. Construction on the first is due to begin shortly in Auckland and a site has been identified in Claude Road, Manurewa."

At a parliamentary select committee on Wednesday attended by Sir Wira and Children's Minister Kelvin Davis, one of the main areas of questioning was why it took a whistleblower for the staff behaviour in Christchurch to come to officials' attention and whether the internal complaints system was up to scratch.

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".

Sir Wira 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."