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Its time to move Oranga Tamariki forward; to get the job done

The Board of Oranga Tamariki at the farewell ceremony of outgoing Chair, Matthew Tukaki.

Today I took part in a handover ceremony as the Chairman of the Ministerial Advisory Board of Oranga Tamariki to my friend and colleague, Sir Mark Solomon. Just over a year ago the Government asked me to serve and review a Government Department that had been reviewed many times over the course of the last century mostly responding to events involving the most vulnerable in our society, Children.

Whether it’s the current incarnation known as Oranga Tamariki, the previous known as Child Youth and Family or the previous Department of Social Welfare the truth is that hundreds of thousands of New Zealand children and their families have been through the system over many decades. Looming front and centre for me was a report often talked about and often aspired to, Te Puao-te-Ata-tu”. Written in the eighties at a time when Maori were demanding more of a say in our Tamariki were being handled it was a landmark report but sadly not fully implemented. I was determined that would not happen in this case and front of centre was the desire of the Minister, Kelvin Davis, to see it through. Coming in alongside me was a formidable Board in Sir Mark Solomon, former Chief Social Worker and Maori Leader, Dame Naida Glavish. Each had a specific role to play if we were to deliver our findings and recommendations on schedule. Why was that important? Because any changes we recommended needed to be ready for implementation ahead of 2022.

Each play a key role with Sir Mark’s vast background in data, operational management and infrastructure, Shannon and her intimate knowledge of front line, social work practice and workforce and Dame Naida with her vast knowledge of Te Ao Maori, whanau, Iwi, Hapu and Maori communities. With more than 60% of children in the care of the State being Maori that was fundamentally important. There was also an addition to that team in Sir Wira Gardiner coming in as acting CEO. Long respected for his ability to grapple with complex problems and Kaupapa, relationships and navigate difficult landscapes Wira would be a welcome addition – a man I respected. Sadly, it would also be his final commission. The work got under way and a series of conventions were established. The first is that we were doing this during a global pandemic, during lockdowns and as new variants emerged. We had to move quickly but also carefully.

To enable the work effort, I established that two Board members with an official would travel together and that would enable us to cover multiple groups and communities in quick stead. The next convention was one whereby I as Chair would meet with senior leaders alongside an official and if it was judged that no further evidence or insights were deemed necessary, they would not need to move to a two-board member intervention and of course the use of teams and technology that enable us to connect with organisations even during lockdown. That process led to more than ninety engagements in a relatively short period between March and the April 2021.

From Iwi and Hapu to service providers, representative groups, and Government organisations – no stone was unturned when reaching out. Running alongside that process was the establishment of a feedback loop whereby whanau and young people could also be in touch with us and, in some cases, that saw the Board refer cases back to Oranga Tamariki for review. It was important for the Board that if whanau wanted to korero, we would listen. By April 30th of 2021 a range of themes had already emerged and insights were given to the Minister in what is called a letter of transmittal. It was also another convention however called my policy of no surprises. If I knew something my Board knew it and if we knew something so did the Minister. Over the course of the following eight weeks my team validated what we were told, cross checked statements, poured over thousands of pages reports and documents going back decades as well as data covering all aspects of the Departments work. By the end of June the stage one report “Te Kahu Aroha” was ready to be given to the Government with more than twenty recommendations covering the terms of reference.

Importantly though the job was not done – the report and its recommendations needed to navigate its way through Cabinet and, in what I would argue was lightening speed, all of the recommendations were endorsed. A new date was set by me that was very much about now preparing the organisation for what I have called stage two. By this stage we farewelled our good friend Sir Wira Gardiner due to illness and welcomed Chappie Te Kani in as acting CEO in his place. A career Public Servant with a significant track record Chappie joined the ranks that would see him lead a change and transformation program, organisational restructure of the senior leadership team and recalibration of the organisation to fit with what is now know as the Future Direction Plan. With a lot of work to do internally what we were all trying to achieve is to reengineer the operating environment of a broken entity because at the end of the day the only thing that matters is our children and whanau. To also prepare for stage two the Minister agreed to expand the Board to include three new key roles. Each role was born from what we saw as specific and clear needs in our stage one review – our children and Rangatahi in the system now or recently departed, our Tamariki and Rangatahi with a disability and our Pacifica whanau and Tamariki (seen as an emerging and concerning trend). The Minister agreed to the recommended appointments of Ruth Jones (Disabilities), Mana Williams Eades (Young People) and Alf Fillapaina (Pacific). For me personally it was important that gave voice to those three groups in stage two. The scene was now set to move into stage two – implementation.

A significant amount of change has occurred in stage one of what is a significant reform process because you must set the scene for change and clear the decks as much as possible for implementation to be successful. That is why I was adamant since December of 2021 that Sir Mark Solomon should succeed me as Chair and as it happened the Minister agreed. That saw me introduce yet another convention, that of transition and succession. What I knew Sir Mark knew and together we began to plan for the months ahead.

That is why today I have drawn a line under stage one of this part of the journey of Oranga Tamariki, the Ministry for Children and my role as Chair. We would though, be kidding ourselves, if we believed that the job was done, and all was well. Of course, its not.

Implementation of the Future Direction Plan and the recommendations of Te Kahu Aroha are now to come and ultimately the aspiration that we will significantly reduce the number of children in State Care by using what I call the Arc of Prevention. For too long we have attempted to solve the problem when children are in our care – the pointy end of the work of the Department. But if I am blunt about it we received more than 70,000 notifications in Aotearoa of children that might be at risk.

They come from GP practices, schools, police, neighbors, whanau and the community. From there we deal with more than 40,000 reports of concern that turn into more than 8000 family group conferences and around 5,000 children in care. And yet its at that 70,000 number if we better understand what is going on and where we are better positioned to prevent children going through what I have just described. And, more importantly, it’s also about all of us working together to achieve the result. Government Departments bringing down silos and walls, service providers leaning in, communities being resources and all of us being ok to devolve to a point where prevention is our cornerstone. Sir Wira Gardiner once said that he took on the job because he wanted a world whereby mokopuna had the same opportunities as his own. I remember a cup of tea I had with my old mate at the IBIS Budget Hotel, where we both often stayed, one morning over eggs on toast.

That is how we would often meet. He said to me “boy why this job?” – I said because everyone said I couldn’t do it. Here is the thing – I want every New Zealand child no matter their background to have the confidence to be who they want to be no matter how much life might be against them. I want every New Zealand child to have a fair crack at the game of life but also want children not to be adults before their time. I want children to be children and adults to be responsible. We all have a role to play. In the end the reason Sir Wira and I worked well together is we are cut from that same cloth of a little bit of fight and struggle with two parts aroha and four parts whanau. Ultimately it takes a village to raise a child and every single New Zealander no matter their belief system or political persuasion has a role to play.

Stage two will be hard but I am confident that there is an ingredient that was not present at the time of the Rangihau report, “Te Puao-te-Ata-tu”, and that is a what next moment. That what next moment is in train, it has left the station. It takes people who are bold and brave to get things done and without the support of Kelvin Davis and his dogged determination I dare say this Kaupapa would have drifted for longer.

To my secretariat team – thank you. Now its time for stage two to being in earnest and my final mihi to Sir Mark Solomon; a man I have every faith in to carry us forward.


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