Our director David Hanna says it’s not Oranga Tamariki that’s broken, it’s the whole public service system which is now past its use-by date – and he has some suggestions about how to fix it
We all hear that Oranga Tamariki is broken – but is it really?
Regular media stories of organisational failures and horrific stories of child abuse perpetuate this view across the population. This cycle powerfully reinforces and undermines initiatives to bring about change before they even begin. Brave leaders are drawn into trying to fix it, only to be burnt up and ceremonially spat out after failing. We even have a Royal Commission highlighting that it has been broken for many years.
Does being fixated on the system being broken help? How do we heal the trauma that exists both in whānau and in the system itself?
As someone who has been an often-critical voice within this system for many years I will be brave (silly) enough to share some thoughts on a possible way ahead.
I offer three touchstones to guide the process.
- Learning: Creating and growing a body of knowledge is essential to a healthy system. Effective learning is carried out by the people who are the actors in their story. Institutions or corporate agencies with centralised power structures are dangerous. They stifle the local insights knowledge is built on. A large body of analysts in a central system studying data that they are not involved in or attached to, is not conducive to learning. In fact, if there is the no capacity to capture and share local learning, it can be anti-learning. Our current system kills learning – while worshipping evidence. This leads to the second touchstone.
- Being whānau- / community-led: People who are the subjects of the story need to be acknowledged as the actors in their story. Everyone brings something to offer to help shape a future that is better. The manifestations of past and current oppression and trauma such as anxiety, violence, self-harm, addictions, and social withdrawal, are all responses that people have used to cope – to survive. Being whānau-led involves affirming people’s capacity to survive horrendous experiences and walking along side as they imagine what better could look like. At times this involves courageous conversations and action as the lives of vulnerable children are at risk. However, this can be done within an honest whānau-led approach. New government language such as ‘whānau centred’ and ‘locally led’ risks sugar-coating the toxic nature of existing thinking without making the fundamental shifts needed to reflect the intent of these phrases.
- Mātauranga Māori: Indigenous knowledge has survived in Aotearoa despite the onslaught against it. Te Ao Māori holds human knowledge and understanding that proceeds the dominant binary mechanical world view, which is now out of balance and destructive. Te Tiriti O Waitangi is an invitation to rebalance our society. The original Children, Young Persons and their Families Act 1989 was one positive example of Te Ao Māori shaping legislation. Sadly, the introduction of this Act was closely followed by the 1991 ‘mother of all budgets’ – the neoliberal approach on steroids – and this gutted its implementation. The process of rebalancing a system that was intentionally used to assimilate (colonise) Māori is complex. It requires a stable, negotiated and tailored approach over time. This journey is fraught with risk, though solid progress is happening in this area – this is something to celebrate.
Returning to the starting question – is Oranga Tamariki broken?
This is the wrong question to ask. OT is one government agency embedded in the wider social services system of the public sector, which is accountable to our binary Parliament. As the agency that must respond daily to the cumulative effects of oppression and trauma, OT struggles to stay healthy and grounded. Any centralised organisation set up to deal with this level of trauma will struggle. The three touchstones outlined apply to the whole public service system. This is the system that is broken and past its use-by date.
Just as the abuse of children shines a light on dysfunction within a family system so do the problems within OT shine a light on the level of dysfunction within our public service system.
David Hanna, March 2022