Oranga Tamariki staff are dangerously overworked and under-resourced. Last week Public Service Association organisers spoke to an Auckland social worker responsible for 93 children at once.
The PSA supports calls to empower Māori through a deeper partnership between government agencies and iwi organisations, and the union notes any reforms to Oranga Tamariki must urgently address unsafe and unmanageable social worker caseloads.
"Systemic racism is a reality Māori and other groups face every day, and this requires more than symbolic change to address. Mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, crowded and unhealthy homes, low paid insecure jobs and intergenerational unemployment place incredible stress on families who do not always have the tools or support to cope," says Public Service Association National Secretary Kerry Davies.
"Social workers and other Oranga Tamariki staff want to help people, and they want to be part of an agency that makes that possible. Any new systems must be co-designed by clients, families, communities and workers."
New Zealand’s horrific rates of child abuse, violence and neglect require a well-resourced and fully staffed government agency devoted to the protection of children, and the PSA urges the media and the public to remember Oranga Tamariki’s work does not take place in a vacuum.
"Whatever else changes at Oranga Tamariki, there is nobody alive who could simultaneously give 93 children the time and care they deserve. Families in need deserve better than being lost in the crowd," says Ms Davies.
"Our members have been ringing the alarm bell for years. Social workers need time to listen deeply, investigate thoroughly and build genuine relationships, but extreme caseloads make that almost impossible."
Manu Hunter convenes the PSA Rūnanga among Oranga Tamariki staff, and works in Dunedin at a community residence for children in protective care.
"Even if we have policies that are very Māori focussed, we still need the resources to put them into practice. As much as it’s cultural, it’s also about time frames. Good social work practice requires sufficient time and staff to deal with high caseloads, emergency cases, court reports and an ever-increasing pile of paperwork," he says.
"There are no top down solutions, only ones built on partnership and solidarity. We need space set aside to develop strong trust-based relationships with at-risk families, iwi, community groups and our colleagues, because we genuinely want to get it right every time."
Rob Teppett is National Convenor of PSA delegates at Oranga Tamariki, and is now a Senior Advisor after beginning work for the Ministry in 1986.
"This is an incredibly rewarding profession, a chance to save lives and help people recover from terrible experiences. I’m hopeful about the good we could do with more qualified social workers in the community, both working for Oranga Tamariki and for the iwi providers and NGOs we partner with," he says.
"Too often we are the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, desperately trying to intervene in complex, dangerous and tragic situations. We all deserve to live in a society that doesn’t push people to the edge of that cliff in the first place. It’s clear Oranga Tamariki must change, and we need this country to change with us as well."