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ACT proposes reform of children's ministry Oranga Tamariki

ACT Party MP Karen Chhour flanked by leader David Seymour
ACT's leader David Seymour and its Children Spokesperson Karen Chhour. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

ACT would restructure social worker roles, add new requirements for the head of Oranga Tamariki, and power up the children's watchdog if elected.

Party leader David Seymour is promising such an overhaul would eliminate "the 'sweep it under the rug' attitude which has been so pervasive in the state care system".

The party released its Oranga Tamariki (OT) policy on Wednesday morning, saying the children's ministry was failing to meet the needs of kids at risk.

The policy includes:

The party noted a third of children were being placed in homes before the home was even assessed, saying it was no surprise one in 10 children placed into care was harmed in their new home.

They quoted ICM studies showing 42 percent of allegations did not lead to reviews of caregiver support plans, and rates of timely investigation when concerns were raised were also falling. OT's policy is to have such reports investigated or assessed within 20 days.

"The latest Independent Children's Monitor report found that only 22 percent of cases are meeting the standard, leaving almost 80 percent of children who are the subject of concern at risk," policy documents said.

The party also decried OT's finances, saying reports by KPMG and Treasury had found the agency lacked any credible form of fiscal forward-planning and discipline.

ACT's children spokesperson Karen Chhour went through the care system as a child and said despite the name change OT was no better than its predecessor Child, Youth and Family had been.

"I came to Parliament to make a difference for kids like me going through the state care system," she said.

Party leader David Seymour said the policy was the result of three years of hard work from Chhour, and shifting the culture of OT should start with accountable governance.

"I sat around the Cabinet committee table with Anne Tolley when Oranga Tamariki was conceived. National want to do better at this but what they've put in place has failed. I think ACT and Karen Chhour have the motivation, the knowledge and the ideas to make this organisation ... actually work properly.

"There is no silver bullet that works on day one, but if you get the structure right then you can have the right culture and then you can pursue a strategy."

He said the Labour government had let children down with its "appalling" reforms to OT oversight last year, which moved the ICM from the Ministry of Social Development to the Education Review Office.

Giving the chief executive of OT key performance indicators - targets largely monitored by the ICM - would ensure public accountability for the whole agency, "and will put an end to the chain of finger-pointing whenever a failing is identified within OT," he said.

The organisation itself also needed to change.

"Sometimes Oranga Tamariki has to be tough, it has to go into tough environments, say it's not in the kid's best interests to be here right now. Other times they have to be nurturing and help vulnerable kids who've been severely damaged ... those are two totally different roles."

The party would gradually devolve full responsibility and accountability for support services and case management to community groups and iwi, in a model resembling Whānau Ora, Seymour said. These groups would assume custody, with the state only doing so as a last resort.

The funding for these groups would come with an accountability framework, which ACT said could include factors like prevention of harm, time taken to find a permanent home, caregiver satisfaction, and child wellbeing as reported to the ICM.

ACT would also give caregivers full decision-making rights by default, unless other arrangements were made with the birth parents in Family Court or a Family Group Conference. Adoptive parents would get full decision making with no recourse for the birth parent.

"I hear time and time again that OT makes being a caregiver difficult and unpleasant. Decisions about the child's life as small as whether they can get a haircut or go to school camp cannot be made without approval from OT and the birth parents," Seymour said.

The party on Sunday had proposed bringing 17-year-olds back into the adult justice system - a reversal of a policy the party helped National implement in 2016.

However, youth advocates argued such an approach would cause only more harm and was out of touch with the reality young people faced.

Seymour suggested shifting Oranga Tamariki's youth justice responsibilities to Corrections would help.

"While it is true that many children who go through youth justice are known to OT, not all children known to OT go on to be criminals. The decision to put state care and youth justice under the same roof is admission of state care's failure, and reads like an expectation that these vulnerable kids will go on to offend."

The party in May announced a policy to spend $500 million on building new youth detention centres.