Time for Oranga Tamariki to rise to the challenge of Te Mātātaki 2021? By Kath Harrison, Kaitohutohu Matua (Senior Advisor) – Evaluation and Research VOYCE Whakarongo Mai
On 28 May 2021, Oranga Tamariki (OT) released findings from their first annual survey, Te Tohu o te Ora, designed to hear from tamariki and rangatahi about their experiences in care. The questionnaire was designed with input from tamariki and rangatahi to ensure it was “engaging, accessible and focuses on aspects of care experience that are important to them” (Oranga Tamariki, 2021a, p.7).
OT published the survey findings in a report, Te Mātātaki 2021, as a statement of their “commitment to listen to the voices of tamariki and rangatahi in care and [their] accountability to act on what [they] hear” (Oranga Tamariki, 2021a, p.7). In what could be described as a seismic shift from within an otherwise risk averse and closed system, both the co-design of the survey and the proactive dissemination of the findings offers some real hope of a genuine desire for transparency and transformation.
The survey was rolled out between March 2019 and September 2020, administered in hard copy by social workers at each OT site. The target population was tamariki and rangatahi aged 10 to 17 years, in the Care and Protection custody of OT for at least 30 days. Of the 2,327 eligible tamariki, 1,847 (79%) were offered the opportunity to complete the survey, and responses were successfully gathered from 1,545 participants (66% of eligible population and 84% of those offered) (Oranga Tamariki, 2021b).
The survey findings highlighted some positives, with the majority of respondents indicating they feel loved, settled, accepted and well looked after, and have a sense of belonging and friends to talk to. However, results also highlighted six ‘priority areas for action’:
- Supporting contact with whānau
- Enabling participation in decisions
- Strengthening relationships with social workers
- Providing opportunities to learn about whakapapa and culture
- Supporting tamariki and rangatahi to have confidence in the future
- Improving experiences for tamariki and rangatahi who identify as Māori and Pacific
(Oranga Tamariki, 2021a)
The six priority areas come as no surprise to those whose personal or professional lives intersect with the care system. Each area is a basic right for tamariki and rangatahi in care, enshrined within the legislative reforms of 2017 and 2019 (Oranga Tamariki Act 1989; Oranga Tamariki (National Care Standards and Related Matters) Regulations 2018). Indeed, the right to participate (Article 12, UNCROC) is provided as one of the very reasons for the survey, that is “everyone under the age of 18 has a right to have a say about things that affect them and for adults to listen and take their opinions seriously” (Oranga Tamariki, 2021a, p.16).
Ironically then, I find myself wondering why tamariki aged under 10 years were excluded from this survey, along with tamariki and rangatahi subject to Youth Justice orders. While the report acknowledges that “34% of the eligible population did not take part” (Oranga Tamariki, 2021a, p.64), there is no acknowledgement or rationale provided for the exclusion of approximately 61% of the total care population. I would also question the assumption that “the results are a good representation of the most common views of 10 to 17 year-olds in care” (Oranga Tamariki, 2021a, p.63); instead, I suggest that the 782 eligible tamariki and rangatahi who were either not offered the survey or chose not to complete it, are more likely to be facing complex challenges in their living situations or interactions with Oranga Tamariki.
All participants were “deemed competent to provide their own informed consent to take part in the survey” (Oranga Tamariki 2021b, p.15) in an effort to uphold their right to participate. However, some tamariki and rangatahi were considered unable to complete the survey without support, suggesting capacity to provide informed consent might not be assumed across the board. The nature of the support available is unclear, however the social worker (who remained present throughout) was able to be asked by tamariki and rangatahi to “help them understand and fill out the survey” (Oranga Tamariki, 2021b, p.14).
While the intention of having a social worker remain present throughout appears geared towards providing support and minimising “respondent distress” (Oranga Tamariki, 2021b, p.13), I would suggest this approach is naive to the inevitable power dynamics of statutory service provision. It is, in fact, a legislative requirement that independent services are available to tamariki and rangatahi “to support them to express their views” (Section 7(2)(bb), Oranga Tamariki Act 1989). This does not appear to have been made available to participants.
While the progression of this survey is to be celebrated, the findings and methodology provide an opportunity to do considerably better for our tamariki and rangatahi in care. As eloquently stated by the youth advisors with care experience who provided the foreword to the report:
“there are great risks that go along with asking tamariki to divulge their knowledge and experiences to the very institution that is responsible for causing so much harm... it is therefore incumbent upon the Minstry for Children to now respond to Mātātaki – He mānuka takoto, kawea ake. Otherwise the collection of data is simply an excercise of surveilllance and re-traumatisation”
(Oranga Tamariki, 2021a, p.3)