Extraordinary report demands action

Newspapers have a regular store of adjectives to dig into when describing a highly critical official report: damning, slamming and scathing to select just three.

But a whole new adjective will have to be found to summarise the quite extraordinary report issued by Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier into Oranga Tamariki on Wednesday.

Mr Boshier’s report is a simply astonishing litany of adverse comments on a government department whose staff, in some instances, appear utterly unwilling to comply with their legal obligations.

"I regret to say I cannot yet provide reassurance that Oranga Tamariki’s practices and processes are consistently operating as they ought to," the Ombudsman said as he called on the government to step in to make wholesale changes in the way the department operates, a review on a scale seldom — if ever — seen in the public service.

The Ombudsman, who is the public’s watchdog to ensure government interacts fairly with its citizens, seldom shies away from making adverse comment, but this report and Mr Boshier’s supporting public comments are more than mere scrutiny and oversight: they are a clarion call for immediate, unprecedented action.

They cannot, and must not, be ignored.

Just three weeks ago we editorialised on the latest Safety of Children in Care annual report, which showed that 9% of all children in care had findings of harm compared with 5.65% in the first such report in 2019.

Ombudsman Peter Boshier
Ombudsman Peter Boshier
Mr Boshier has kept a watchful eye on Oranga Tamariki since his 2022 investigation into how the service handled the case of Malachi Subeczs, a child whose death at the hands of his caregiver spawned two highly critical reports into OT’s dealings with the family.

His latest report examines the steady rise of complaints to his office about Oranga Tamariki and its management of children in care.

About 100 complaints and queries regarding OT were received by the Ombudsman in 2017, which off a short-time frame and in just its first year seems high enough. But the figure has barely stopped climbing annually since then, and in 2022-23 crested the 700 mark.

Of a total of 2237 complaints and queries from 2019 to 2023 the Ombudsman resolved 86 complaints and completed final opinions in 117 investigations — which is a high proportion of complaints to be deemed necessarily serious enough for his involvement.

A total of 42 decisions by Oranga Tamariki were changed or reconsidered as a result of Mr Boshier’s investigations, and he made 13 recommendations for financial remedies for complainants.

Of those overall complaints, 95 were from Otago, Dunedin and Southland — that 4.2% share offers some hope that the southern offices of the ministry might be among its better performed divisions, but also offers no room for complacency given Mr Boshier’s overall findings.

"Although it has, through many positive outcomes and the compassion of some of its social work, shown it [OT] is capable as an agency of supporting whānau, tamariki and rangatahi, it is often undone by underlying culture and practices which are not flexible or of good quality, which are not child-centric, and which are not culturally sound," his report said.

Oranga Tamariki had lost the trust of the people it was meant to serve, he said — and it needs to be remembered that it was only set up seven years ago in recognition that the previous system of dealing with children at risk was failing and needed improvement.

Regaining that trust will not be easy, and cleaning this particular Augean stable is a labour worthy of a political Hercules.

Whether the newly-appointed Minister for Children, Karen Chhour, is of that stature remains to be seen, but as one of the few politicians to have experienced being on the receiving end of inadequate state intervention into their childhood, any edicts issued from her office come backed with the weight of lived experience.

Mr Boshier noted Oranga Tamariki had made changes for the better and stressed many devoted staff were doing good work.

But his overall, unprecedented portrait of a public service which is failing the people who fund it and who should be able to place their trust in it, is shocking and distressing, as are many of its stories of children and parents failed by the system.

Mr Boshier has called for "profound change" to the way the ministry operates. He, and the public, must see evidence of nothing less than that, and the sooner the better.