State care expert hits out at 'prison-like' Oranga Tamariki care and protection residences, backs call to close all facilities

A state care expert is backing the Children's Commissioner's suggestion to close all Oranga Tamariki care and protection residences as soon as possible, saying they're "prison-like" and are "far from therapeutic".

It comes after footage provided to Newsroom showed staff at an Oranga Tamariki care and protection residence in Christchurch using unapproved restraint techniques on a child. The video prompted Oranga Tamariki to trigger its Child Protection Protocol - which gets police involved - stand down staff members and, on Thursday, announce it was closing the facility.

Care experience consultant Tupua Urlich says the care and protection facilities "have no place in Aotearoa".

"They're prison-like, they're far from therapeutic, and as we saw on camera last week, abuse is taking place," he told The Hui on Monday.

"But this is not a one-off incident, that's really what I need to emphasise here, this is not a one-off, this is just the first time it's been caught on camera."

Urlich says it isn't just Minister for Children Kelvin Davis who is "guilty" of seeing children in state care as "less than children", New Zealanders are too.

"We are talking about children here, and it's not just the minister who's guilty of it, our whole country is guilty of looking at children in state care as less than children, and accepting that they are treated like less," he says.

"Number one - wake up, take full ownership and responsibility of these young people. We now have a system that knows it's not working, and it's willing to chat with other people but not give any power to their words."

Social worker Paora Crawford Moyle, who appeared alongside Urlich on The Hui, says while it's easy to say children will go to "forever loving homes" or "loving environments", it's harder to make that a reality.

"We all want our children to be safe, but how you make that happen is really, really important. I have to remain optimistic because our children are at stake and survivors are at stake, and I wouldn't be doing what I do if I didn't have their best interests at heart," she says.

"That's another thing that's easy to throw out, 'we have children's best interests at heart'. The proof is in the pudding."

Tupua Urlich.
Tupua Urlich. Photo credit: The Hui

Davis has tasked his independent ministerial advisory board with getting to the bottom of what has happened at the Christchurch facility.

"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," Davis said on Wednesday

"Today, I am not here to defend the indefensible. Oranga Tamariki has made some serious mistakes and there is no hiding away from them. Uplifts, social workers under pressure, a lack of training, and just recently, care and protection residences displaying unacceptable behaviour."

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."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern watched CCTV footage showing the Oranga Tamariki staff tackling and head-locking a child in care and described the behaviour as "totally unacceptable".

"No question that from time to time there will be issues that escalate that staff have to deal with. Most social workers would have been appalled by what they saw on that video."

She said a child sustaining injuries from restraint in care wasn't acceptable. 

"What we have seen, the video that has been produced in the last couple of days, clearly not meeting our expectations," Ardern said. 

"We have asked Oranga Tamariki to look at the practices within those facilities. Our goal is not to have facilities like this. We are working towards group homes which we hope will be a better environment for these young people."

Sir Wira Gardiner, the agency's acting chief executive, told a parliamentary select committee on Wednesday 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.

State care expert hits out at 'prison-like' Oranga Tamariki care and protection residences, backs call to close all facilities