Friday, September 01, 2023

What's happening to at-risk children?

Police recorded 175,573 family harm investigations in the June year 2021/22 – a 47% increase from 2017.  That’s just under 500 a day. Children are present at around half. 

According to the latest NZ Police Annual report"Assault on a person in a family relationship now represents around 66% of reported serious assaults and family harm calls for service are increasing at greater rates than others."

Police manuals repeatedly stress the critical importance of ensuring the safety of children present at a family harm incident. 

This all creates an expectation that reports to Oranga Tamariki (formerly CYF) would follow suit. They don’t. In fact, Reports of Concern (ROC) from ‘Police-Family Violence’ fell between 2017/18 and 2021/22 from 7,455 to 1,013. Unsurprisingly entries into care (whereby a child’s situation is deemed dangerous enough to place him or her under the guardianship of the state) follow the same trend:

When asked why reports from Police-Family Violence to Oranga Tamariki had fallen so sharply OT responded:

“A number of new cross-agency collaborations have been set up to triage and respond to episodes of family harm, such as Integrated Safety Response in Canterbury and the Waikato, and the Multi-Disciplinary Cross-Agency Team in South Auckland. This has been coupled with evolving practices within existing family violence inter-agency response models. These initiatives and changes are likely to have contributed to the decrease in Police family harm reports of concern since 2017/2018 by ensuring the response is directed to the right agency or NGO quickly, which in many cases negates the need for a report of concern to Oranga Tamariki.”   

Oranga Tamariki suggested that I might, “also wish to enquire with the Police, who may be able to provide additional insights into the reduction in family harm related reports of concern."

The response from Police was similar in that “procedural changes” were primarily offered as reasons for the statistical drop. It would appear that “safety triage” meetings now occur before a report of concern is made, if at all. Oranga Tamariki might or might not attend these meetings. The next reason was rather more definitive though.

“Police previously had the ability to generate a ROC either on a Police desktop, or a button function within the 5F application for reporting Family Harm on Police mobile phones. The button within the 5F application was removed in 2019 for several reasons, mainly the procedural shift mentioned above.”

This rather begs the question, why was it there in the first place? To assist and ensure quick and certain action on the part of Police? Is it better to over-report than under-report?

Questions aside, on their own, changed procedures tell us nothing about what’s actually happening to at-risk children's outcomes.

Then earlier this week Oranga Tamariki published a chart at their website showing that the number of children and young people subjected to acts intended to cause injury have increased over recent years.

Once again flags are raised.

I’m not alone in asking questions of Oranga Tamariki. A Stuff reporter was dismayed that even OT's chief social worker could not tell him how many children have died from abuse or neglect since 2019. He describes Stuff’s coverage of “three child homicide trials in the past few months – in the Auckland courts alone.”

In fact, the best source of statistics for child deaths from abuse or neglect is the Family Violence Death Review Committee (FVDRC) – not Oranga Tamariki. But their data dissemination also leaves a lot to be desired. Deaths from 2021 will not be available until December 2023 and then the data must be requested. In the introduction to their Seventh Report the chair of the committee acknowledges a "continued move away from reporting statistics". When I queried this and asked for an alternative source, the following answer returned:

"The FVDRC decided to move away from data reports as there were a number of tables with empty cells, limiting the conclusions which could be drawn."

I find this very disconcerting. Data can always be released with caveats and cautions.

And like Oranga Tamariki, the Health Safety and Quality Commission (which oversees FVDRC) suggested I refer to police data. No surprises to find that extends only to 2020. Around in circles we go again.

New Zealanders want to have trust in the Police, Oranga Tamariki and associated entities, but when sets of data seem so glaringly at odds – or hidden from view - it is difficult to maintain confidence in any of the institutions.

There is ample evidence – including from the Police themselves – that family violence is increasing. Consider that the National Gang List, “increased from 4,361 in February 2016 to 7,722 in April 2022 with the majority Māori. Figures increased in all Police Districts except for Northland.”The Ministry of Social Development has previously revealed that, “Almost half of the serious offences committed by gang members are family violence-related. A high proportion of gang members’ children experience multiple incidents of abuse or neglect.”

Yet when I asked Oranga Tamariki to provide “any documents” that relate to referenced parliamentary research papers detailing increasing gang membership the answer came back:

“Oranga Tamariki does not hold any information within scope of this part of your request, therefore this part of your request is refused under section 18(e) of the Act.”

That New Zealand’s primary child protection agency is paying no attention to the growth in gangs is also surprising and disturbing.

The dwindling number of children being notified to and put under the oversight of Oranga Tamariki worryingly resembles the falling prison population which looks good on paper but comes with consequences, some of them, as we have witnessed, quite appalling. The Auckland murders of two construction site workers couldn’t have happened if the perpetrator’s sentence had not been discounted away from one served in prison to a stint on home detention.

One final question. Is it a coincidence that ‘Corrections’ and ‘Children’ share the same Minister?