Oranga Tamariki still not meeting 'minimum standards' for children in care, scathing report finds

Oranga Tamariki is still not meeting minimum standards for children in care, a scathing new report has found. 

The report from Aroturuki Tamariki, the Independent Children's Monitor, shows there has not been a significant improvement in outcomes for children in care or their whānau. 

The annual check looks at whether agencies with custody and care responsibilities, such as Oranga Tamariki, Open Home Foundation and Barnardos, comply with the National Care Standards (NCS) Regulations.

The (NCS) Regulations came into effect in 2019 and set out the minimum standard of care that must be provided when the state has custody of a child.

Aroturuki Tamariki executive director Arran Jones said the report was the first opportunity to see whether agencies have done what they said they'd do, and most importantly, whether the quality of care has improved since the first report from 2020 and 2021. 

But Jones said unfortunately Oranga Tamariki is "still not meeting the minimum standards for tamariki in care". 

"While it has made progress on its work programme, we are yet to see meaningful improvements in its data, or in the experiences of tamariki and others we heard from," Jones said.

Key findings from the report include the need for social workers to spend more time with children and caregivers, more support and access to information for caregivers, and better collaboration and communication between government agencies.

The report showed 65 percent of children in care were visited by their social worker in accordance with their assessment or plan, and only 53 percent of children are registered with a GP or medical practice - a drop from  60 percent in the previous report. 

"Social workers need support to spend time with tamariki and rangatahi in care. We heard a range of reasons why this wasn't happening including workload, staff turnover, availability of resources and leadership. Spending time with tamariki and building stronger relationships will help address the needs of children, their caregivers and whānau and importantly, keep children safe," Jones said. 

Another issue the report found was a lack of access to mental health services. Of the 756 files analysed, only 21 received "substance and choices screens", 18 received suicide risk screens and 25 received wellbeing consultations.  

"Given concerns raised about the psychological health of tamariki and rangatahi, the level of screening by Oranga Tamariki of children in care for substance abuse, psychological distress or risk of death by suicide appears low," Jones said. 

"Oranga Tamariki was not able to provide the number of tamariki and rangatahi that needed to be assessed. Without this information, there is no way of understanding whether tamariki received the assessments they needed." 

It also noted Oranga Tamariki was unable to provide data to determine whether the health and education needs of tamariki are being met and caregivers are not always fully assessed before children are placed with them. 

Jones said while police vetting and identity checks for caregivers were completed in almost all cases, 32 percent of tamariki were placed before all parts of the assessment were completed or before the caregiver was provisionally approved.  

Additionally, only 26 percent of the necessary caregiver reviews were completed in the two-year timeframe, while 50 percent were late and 25 percent were not yet completed.

"Considering the impact that a change in care placement may have on tamariki and rangatahi, it is critical that Oranga Tamariki has assurance in all cases that the home they are going to is safe and suitable for every child, and that they can report on every child in care," Jones said.

Support for caregivers is also lacking with just 48 percent of the reviewed cases showing social workers were carrying out planned actions to meet the caregivers' needs.

"There has been some improvement in support for caregivers but we continue to hear about the need for respite care, better information sharing about tamariki and rangatahi in their care and more frequent visits from social workers."

Jones said the report found continued issues with communication and collaboration between government agencies.

"Quality care for tamariki and rangatahi requires the help of other agencies, such as health and education. With cross-agency commitment to the Oranga Tamariki Action Plan, we will be looking for a positive impact on what occurs on the ground, and if there is a corresponding change in what we hear in communities over the next year," Jones said.

The report also highlighted Oranga Tamariki's inability to provide data requested. Of the 348 measures the report requested data on, Oranga Tamarik could only provide data for 181 measures. Of those 181, case file analysis (samples) was used for 110 measures.

"It remains difficult to measure and understand if Oranga Tamariki is making meaningful change in meeting its regulatory obligations to tamariki and rangatahi in its care," Jones said. 

"To learn from past mistakes, it is crucial that Oranga Tamariki close these gaps in knowledge as quickly as possible. Oranga Tamariki need to self-monitor and collect data in a way that fulfils its regulatory obligations and commitments to tamariki and rangatahi, and their whānau, whose lives are impacted by being in care," Jones said.