Oranga Tamariki has just released a review of its secure facilities and community homes for youth and children. This followed allegations of inappropriate staff behaviour in June 2023. Shedding light on what drove such an incident:
"In the cases we heard of harmful behaviour, such as allegations about staff providing young people with vapes or other contraband, allowing inappropriate movies or standing by during fights, the prevailing driver was surviving the shift safely."
The report is damning and sad. Staff morale is clearly very low as they struggle with, amongst other challenges, 'review fatigue'. It would seem the only constant in their environment is change.
Like other front line agencies they do not have enough workers. Youth justice facilities should be able to take 171 residents but can only staff 133. Demand is increasing. While overall youth offending is declining, the seriousness is not and the report refers to an "uptick since 2022". Demand is forecast to rise to 225 in 2024.
Just under half of those in secure residences are aged 16-19 and three quarters of the youth justice residence population identify as Māori. Many have mental health challenges.
"...there appears to be a greater proportion of youth crime committed by so-called ‘life-course persistent’ criminals: chronic offenders whose anti-social behaviour is rooted in an early childhood of trauma and abuse, and who offend well into adulthood. This is a group whose offending is more entrenched and at the severe end of the spectrum."
Children and youth of different age cohorts - and reasons for admission - are getting mixed despite the practice being one that "should be avoided at all costs."
Staff are relatively unskilled in respect of the complex resident needs they face. Many are low-skilled and unqualified youth workers. They are "often left to interpret policies or make up processes and standard operating procedures for themselves." Their work environments are "dangerous". Bullying and harassment - which appears to not only flow between staff, but between staff and residents - is relatively common. The staffing structures are overly hierarchical with too much middle-management. The physical residences themselves are "tired" despite having been purpose built in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Some safety issues are created by legislation, for instance, "Because regulation prevents rangatahi from being locked in their rooms at night, children in a wing or dormitory can move between rooms if they want to (or are threatened). Along with blind spots, this creates an environment at high risk for sexual violence, assault, nighttime escapes and grooming in regard to gangs or higher end offending." Lack of radios, poor wi-fi, security camera blind-spots, old-fashioned keys, and smuggled contraband all contributed to increased danger for staff and residents.
All in all the residences feature a lack of leadership, clarity of purpose, transparency, accountability, trust, and fear of retaliation. The report paints a bleak picture.
Oranga Tamariki was established in 2017 and there have been several reviews since: "Taken together, the litany of reviews makes for confronting reading. They paint a picture of poor agency and system performance, sometimes at odds with Oranga Tamariki’s core mission of being child centred in all it does."
The current review is no less confronting. Middle-management are fatigued by the reviews and have lost faith. “Oranga Tamariki only ever reacts”, said one respondent, “and then generally in an ad hoc and panicked fashion.” “There is no time to embed changes”, said another, “because there is never a considered implementation plan, showing how all the pieces fit together.” Front-line staff are described as "overwhelmed by the constant parade of reviewers." One worker describes how the constant change is "... exhausting and, frankly, it's cynicism inducing."
In the last two years all Youth Justice residences have moved to adopt Māori values working in collaboration with Māori academics and Māori practitioners. There does not appear to be any direct criticism of this approach but the reviewers insist, " Ideologies, catch phrases and lists of projects are not a substitute for a properly considered strategy, operating model and outcomes framework for the secure residences and community home portfolio." A comprehensive reset is called for.
The many recommendations all sound energetic and purposeful but are far too numerous to summarise. I am afraid I got weary reading about what the reset would require and found myself sympathising deeply with those who will be tasked with its implementation. Once more into the breech.
Perhaps though this singular list of failure is just one of many that a new government will have to confront. In the following summation 'Oranga Tamariki' could reasonably be substituted with other public agency names:
"...Oranga Tamariki has lost trust and confidence: the trust of many in the community, of other agencies, of its tamariki and rangatahi, and in some cases, of its own staff."
Lindsay Mitchell blogs here