Oranga Tamariki: Facility at centre of whistleblower controversy closing while investigation underway

Oranga Tamariki is closing the care and protection facility in Christchurch while an investigation is underway into staff behaviour. 

Footage, provided to Newsroom by a whistleblower, shows staff at the residence - run by Oranga Tamariki for youths put in state care by the Family Court - using unapproved restraint techniques on a child, including tackling him and putting him in a headlock.

Kelvin Davis, the Children's Minister, has tasked his independent ministerial advisory board with getting to the bottom of what's happened, while the agency has triggered its Child Protection Protocol - involving police - and stood down several staff members. The behaviour has been described by the Prime Minister as "totally unacceptable".

Sir Wira Gardiner, the acting chief executive, announced on Thursday morning the facility is being closed for an unknown period of time as an investigation occurs. He informed Davis on Wednesday night.

All current staff have been put on leave and new staff will be brought in over the next few days. Those stood down earlier in the week after the video emerged won't be on full pay.

"This decision comes after a number of serious issues involving staff and tamariki have come to light over the past week," he said. "My absolute priority is the tamariki currently staying at Te Oranga."

"I believe that closing the facility while the multiple investigations are underway is the safest option for the children and young people."

Ten children, aged up to 14 years old, will be transferred to other arrangements.

"I expect all my staff to meet a high standard of care across the board. Our first priority must always be the wellbeing, safety and care of tamariki and rangatahi.

"Oranga Tamariki is undergoing a period of extensive change. I am doing everything possible to right the wrongs and fix the hurt."

He said final decisions about the facility "will only be made once all reviews and investigations are completed". One of the questions he has is "why our processes didn't work".

Sir Wira was asked if he thought there may be other cases of children being inappropriately handled at the facility, but said he wanted to wait for the police and internal investigations before commenting on that. 

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft is calling the closure a new dawn.

"Strongly welcome it, deeply relieved, it's an appropriate thing to do."

But he's concerned this isn't a one-off incident.

"As a statutory monitor, we visit the residences, we get reports from children of this happening. We know that it does, we've reported it to Oranga Tamarki time and time again," he says.

Children's Minister Kelvin Davis believes there could be more videos out there.

"Look I wouldn't be surprised. The more we scratch away, the more that comes up," he says.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says what has happened at the facility and what they've seen to date is "sufficient to demonstrate that rapid change is required". Even the Opposition agrees.

"I think there may be merits in closing it down, but there may also be a signal that there's further things we need to be looking at," says National Party deputy leader Shane Reti.

Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers chief executive Braden Clark also backs the move but believes the decision has been made in haste.

"We really need to be making sure that we're making informed, slow decisions rather than reactionary decisions so that we get things right," he says.

He's also questioning whether telling 60 staff to sit at home on full pay is actually any good for the children.

"From Sunday at midnight, they're going to have people that they've never met before caring for them all of a sudden. That's hugely disruptive to anyone and so I don't know that it's necessarily the right approach."

Sir Wira Gardiner, Oranga Tamariki's acting chief executive, told a parliamentary select committee on Wednesday morning that it is 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. 

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."

"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."

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.

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."