Accepting the challenge – the enhanced children in care oversight role for the Ombudsman
The Oversight of Oranga Tamariki System and Children and Young People's Commission Bill was passed on 23 August. It will come into effect on 1 July 2023 (unless the Governor-General appoints an earlier date). Here's a statement from Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier:
I'm a strong supporter of the changes it will bring for my role. I believe that enhancing my ability to oversee care agencies will put me in an even stronger position to effect change to a system that demands it.
I see this as an extension of the work I am already doing as Chief Ombudsman and in a sense, I have been preparing for it over the course of my entire career.
I was appointed a Family Court Judge at the age of 36 and was Principal Family Court Judge from 2004 to 2012. I understand many of the issues that tamariki in state care and their whānau are dealing with. I also know the pressures faced by many frontline staff.
As Chief Ombudsman, I have conducted investigations into Oranga Tamariki arising from both individual complaints and at my own instigation. My self-initiated systemic investigation into newborn pepi uplifts, He Take Kōhukihuki / A Matter of Urgency, highlighted some real areas of concern which required significant practice changes to be made and I have been working with Oranga Tamariki to make sure this happens.
Some of my most important achievements as Chief Ombudsman relate to issues concerning tamariki and rangatahi. Personal highlights for me include ending seclusion in schools and getting suspended and excluded children back into education.
As an independent watchdog, the Ombudsman has been conducting investigations since being established 60 years ago. This has included investigating complaints about Oranga Tamariki’s predecessors, the Ministry for Vulnerable Children, Child Youth and Family and the Department of Social Welfare.
Managing the workload that will come from this new role
I started planning for this enhanced role some time ago.
As the Ombudsman is an Officer of Parliament, mandate and funding approval for the Ombudsman comes from the whole of Parliament. In 2019 it was unanimously agreed by the Officers of Parliament Committee that an enhanced focus for the Ombudsman should be in relation to complaints concerning children in care and this should be funded specifically. The Officers of Parliament Committee comprises representatives from all political parties in Parliament.
With this approved funding, I created a dedicated Children in Care Complaints Team, to help me deal with complaints about the Oranga Tamariki system under my current jurisdiction. I expect this team will also deal with future complaints arising under the new legislation insofar as it provides for additional powers for my office.
I have a team which assists me in this work by providing early assistance advice, identifying opportunities for resolution of complaints, or if needed support for my investigations.
Over the past three years, the team has assisted me with almost 1,000 complaints and other enquiries, including complaints received from tamariki and rangatahi, and whānau under my current jurisdiction.
I believe I have set up a solid platform but I recognise two important things. Firstly, I have to be ready for an increase in complaints, based on current trends. I am currently receiving more than double the amount of complaints I received about Oranga Tamariki three years ago, when I began building for this role.
Secondly, I recognise my staff need to dedicate a lot of time to these complaints because many of them are complex and often involve multiple issues.
Parliament funding is also enhancing other areas of my oversight work relating to children in care.
There is breadth and depth across a total of eight teams that have a role in assisting my children in care work, including those involved in systemic monitoring and investigations, training, advice and guidance as well as communications.
I will be increasing my monitoring all critical and serious incidents, complaint trends and data about complaints, which Oranga Tamariki will be required to report to me on. I am assisted by specialist teams to work with Oranga Tamariki on systemic improvement, and to undertake investigations into systemic issues where I see the need.
I have teams that provide training and guidance to agencies such as Oranga Tamariki on good practices and decision making, and good complaints handling.
My work overall is assisted by specialist teams focusing on disability rights and Māori and community engagement.
I will need to review staffing levels regularly and I will take into account the volume and complexity of matters that come to my attention, the likely uptake of complaints resulting from my outreach programme, and the travel time and resources to engage with people who complain to me in a meaningful and respectful way - kanohi ki te kanohi.
Ways of working and communicating
My commitment to Te Tiriti o Waitangi means honouring whanaungatanga and making sure my staff exemplify a tikanga Māori approach to my work. Across the office, my staff will always strive to do what works best for tamariki and rangatahi and recognise the importance of their whānau and culture.
My Children in Care Complaints Team is using tikanga, child-centric and trauma-informed practices that promote a culture of empowerment, safety and healing. This means the best interests of tamariki and rangatahi are paramount, their voices are valued, and we deal with their safety and welfare concerns as a priority.
A number of communications tools, services, and products in different languages and accessible formats are being developed, based on first-hand research I commissioned specifically for my work with tamariki and rangatahi in care.
I provide professional development and training for my staff in areas relating to Oranga Tamariki policy, practice and legislation, child protection, trauma-informed complaints handling and child-interviewing.
My new Rōpu Māori Hononga Hapori (Māori and Community Engagement Team) is dedicated to improving te ao Māori practices internally as well as engaging with Māori and Pacific people on an individual, institutional and structural level throughout Aotearoa.
I draw strength from Pūhara Mana Tangata, my panel of eminent rangatira who are helping me make real progress to establish important relationships with Māori and the implementation of tikanga within my office.
I am working on strengthening my relationships with iwi, hapū and Māori organisations, and Pacific leaders and then engaging with the wider community.
I am committed to increasing diversity and reach to communities who need my services the most.
The children in care complaint process
All complaints are immediately allocated to an investigator in my Children in Care Complaints Team.
Below is an overview of what happens after tamariki or rangatahi or their trusted adult have made a complaint to the Children in Care Complaints Team:
- The complainant will receive a reply to confirm that their complaint has been received by me.
- An investigator will make arrangements to contact the complainant in whatever way is easiest for the tamariki/rangatahi to tell their story about what has happened (this might be in person, virtually, by phone or in writing). The investigator will ensure that a support person is there if needed.
- The investigator may ask questions to get information about actions and decisions to help them understand the complaint.
- That information and possibly information from Oranga Tamariki will then be assessed to enable me to decide next steps.
- The investigator will keep the tamariki/rangatahi updated at key stages of my complaint process.
- I will decide if the complaint can be investigated. If it can’t, a full explanation will be given, along with other options that may be helpful. Many complaints can be resolved simply by talking to the tamariki/rangatahi and Oranga Tamariki. If Oranga Tamariki can help to resolve the complaint, an investigation may not be necessary.
- If I decide to investigate, the tamariki/rangatahi will be assigned an investigator who will work with them to find out all the relevant information needed for me to investigate the complaint.
I will then form an opinion about whether Oranga Tamariki’s actions were justified or whether it acted unfairly. I may make recommendations to remedy the matter if I find something of concern.
Children in Care investigation timeframes
For complainants and tamariki in particular, their expectation of time and how long a complaint will take to resolve is fundamental. I have set up a triage system to predict at the outset how long it will take based on the nature of the complaint.
As agreed by Parliament, I am currently funded to ensure that the majority of complaints are completed within three months, and 95 percent within 12 months.
An important part of resolving disputes is doing as much of this work as possible face-to-face (kanohi ki te kanohi). I have encouraged this practice by my staff as it is in accordance with tikanga where Māori tamariki, rangatahi and whānau are involved.
As indicated, some investigations are complex and take time to complete. In the 2020/21 year Ombudsmen Act complaints dealt with by my Children in Care Complaints Team took an average of four and a half months to complete. Sometimes a formal investigation is not required and I can resolve the matter within hours.
Seeing the impact
As at 1 July 2022, I had 81 complaints on hand with my Children in Care Complaints Team, and I had completed 218 complaints in the past 12 months.
The work of this new Children in Care Complaints Team has led to more than 140 remedies over the past three years.
Oranga Tamariki decisions have been changed or reconsidered, and apologies and ex gratia payments have been made to individual complainants. In relation to the system as a whole, Oranga Tamariki has agreed to review or change policies and practices, and to provide guidance and training to their staff. These remedies have arisen from both recommendations and agreed actions by Oranga Tamariki.
Some published examples are set out below.
- In relation to the systemic investigation of removal of pepi, He Take Kōhukihuki / A Matter of Urgency, I made a series of recommendations for Oranga Tamariki to improve policies and practices to ensure without notice applications are reserved for exceptional urgent cases, and to establish timeframes, reporting frameworks, quality assurance and monitoring. I also made recommendations to improve whānau, hapu and iwi engagement, enhance cultural competency of staff, require trauma-informed social work practice and recognise disability rights.
- In relation to complaints, I have recommended:
- Oranga Tamariki develop guidance for staff on working with individuals who are correcting errors in their Oranga Tamariki records, in a trauma-informed manner.
- Oranga Tamariki provide regular updates to a young person in a Residence on progress on a placement for them outside the Residence, as well as fortnightly reports to the Ombudsman until the placement had occurred.
- Oranga Tamariki scope a review of its practices and polices around involvement with disabled parents.
- Oranga Tamariki has also agreed:
- To undertake a full practice review of a case, ensuring a focus on the child’s wellbeing, and looking at whether the decision made had been well supported by the evidence available.
- Not to remove a newborn baby in hospital, and for the baby to go home with the father and other family, pending a Family Group Conference.
I have published a series of case notes arising out of complaints handled by my team.
Strengthening the function of system oversight
This new legislation embeds an enhanced function for the Ombudsman, which will capitalise on the broad lens that I already have over all government agencies.
The enhanced role will give me more opportunities to use my extensive knowledge and insight to systemically and thematically monitor and investigate areas of concern.
My role as Ombudsman is to examine what’s really going on for people inside the system and point out the remedies I think are needed and what needs to change to prevent the same thing happening to others in the future. I will follow through on this work by providing policy and practice guidance and training - working alongside agencies to support them to introduce any changes needed.
To do this, my culturally appropriate practices, processes, and infrastructure must be sound.
I am working hard to meet this challenge and am making sure I have the right culture, practices and people to be able to meaningfully work together on this oversight function, and connect and engage with the community.
Kaitiaki Mana Tangata