It was no surprise the initial report of the Oranga Tamariki Ministerial Advisory Board found there was much wrong with the four-year-old ministry.
In the last couple of years there have been a series of scandals involving the fledgling agency which, ironically, was set up in 2017 because it was recognised the system of child protection needed to change. These concerns were not new, dating back at least as far as 1988.
The advisory board, called for by Oranga Tamariki minister Kelvin Davis in January, found an organisation with systems that were weak, disconnected, and unfit for the tamariki it serves. It lacked strategic direction, was not visionary but self-centred and constantly looking to itself for answers. There was no workforce strategy, nor a strategy for partnering with Maori and the community. The advisory board was told OT staff had different priorities, depending on the part of the country staff were in or the part of the agency they worked in.
"It is an agency that is vulnerable to being blown off course by the headwinds it inevitably encounters over time."
Mr Davis, who described the report’s findings as confronting, says the changes proposed by the board and accepted by the Government involve a fundamental rethink.
The Government has stopped short of setting up a new Maori authority as the Waitangi Tribunal sought. Its emphasis will be on strengthening and resourcing collective Maori and community authority and responsibility to lead prevention of harm to tamariki and their whanau.
As Mr Davis puts it, this will be a shift away from Oranga Tamariki being the centre of power and Maori having to fit into "Fortress Oranga Tamariki" to the agency being part of the community.
As well as devolving power to communities, establishing the purpose and functions of OT and improving social work practice, there will be increased emphasis on the collective responsibility of government agencies for improved outcomes for children, their whanau, and their communities. Getting government agencies to work together always seems fraught, as silly as that seems to those looking on, but in this case at least the governance board to be established to oversee the changes should be able to keep the pressure on. Even so, it is not clear this all-of-government approach will deal with the nitty gritty of issues including poverty, limited employment, poor housing, or the fallout from inadequate alcohol licensing laws.
One aspect of the new approach which will be scrutinised because of past controversy will be the plan to stop most child uplifts, or without notice orders, limiting them to occasions when there is clear evidence "solid engagement" or attempts at engagement with whanau to establish a workable safety plan have failed. Critics have pointed out the legislation under which the controversial uplifts have been occurring already specifies they should only happen when it is not possible to make suitable alternative arrangements for the custody of the child.
Also, within six to 12 months, the plan is for OT to close all four care and protection residences, replacing them with a model enabling " tailored care for tamariki with high and complex needs". The Christchurch facility was closed earlier this year after a whistle-blower released security camera footage to Newsroom showing young people being restrained with excessive force. This timetable seems ambitious, even though there were already plans to replace the centres with 10 smaller houses within a few years. It will be vital the changes do not add to the trauma of the vulnerable young people affected.
Mr Davis is determined there will be real change for the better and that he will be the bulldozer pushing it through. The bulldozer blade will need to stay sharp to convince those who fear the changes do not go far enough or will be difficult to implement.