A damning report on Child, Youth and Family says children in state care are being moved up to 60 times between multiple foster carers because the agency is not giving enough attention to their long-term care.

The report by Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills, the first of what he plans as annual reports on Child, Youth and Family, also reveals that 117 children were abused last year while in CYF care.

It says the agency is focused on "front-end" investigations as it struggles with 150,000 notifications of possible child abuse or neglect each year, but does not provide enough ongoing supervision and support to foster carers and staff looking after 5133 children in state care.

"While the quality of front-end social work practice we observed was generally high, this was not the case for 'back-end' practices, ie, the services that CYF provides to children following initial assessments and investigations," the report says.

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"Ineffective case management can lead to care placements breaking down and children having to move ... we heard of children who had had upwards of 20, 40 and in one case over 60 care placements in their short lives. This is not acceptable."

The report says there were 88 cases of substantiated abuse of children by CYF caregivers in 2013-14, plus 25 of children abused while with their parents but still formally in state care, and five abused in unapproved placements.

These figures are much higher than the 23 to 39 children a year abused by caregivers reported by the agency itself in the past four years.

Dr Wills' report says CYF has difficulty recruiting and retaining staff, employs many casual workers in its residences, and staff are "insufficiently trained and supported". "Inconsistent management of young people results in young people acting out, sometimes aggressively," it says.

Two-thirds of the children told Dr Wills' team they were happy with how much contact they had with their families. But a third were unhappy. "I'm one of four but I've never met my siblings. We were separated at birth. They won't introduce you," one young person said.

Maori make up a growing share of all children in care, up from 52 per cent in 2010 to 58 per cent, including 68 per cent of young people in the nine CYF residences, compared with 24 per cent of all children under 15. But only 23 to 24 per cent of CYF staff since 2006 self-identified as Maori. The report adds only 20 per cent of young people in state care, and just 15 per cent of Maori in care, left school with at least NCEA level 2 in 2012. The national average is 75 per cent.

It says 30 per cent of the children in care aged 14 to 16 were charged with offences last year, compared with 1 per cent of that age nationally.

"It is not uncommon for a young person leaving care to quickly end up homeless, jobless and lacking support from a caring adult," it says. "Many will become parents themselves very young. Others end up in prison."

Dr Wills recommends setting targets for NCEA pass rates and other long-term outcomes, putting more resources into ongoing care, boosting staff training, setting up an independent advocacy service for children in care, prioritising Maori cultural capability and iwi links, and raising the care-leaving age from 17 to 18.

Key report findings:

• It is not uncommon for a young person leaving CYF care to quickly end up homeless, jobless, and lacking support from a caring adult.

• Many will become parents themselves very young. Others end up in prison.

• About 30 per cent of children in care between the ages of 14 and 16 are being charged with offences, compared to about 1 per cent of children this age cohort in the general population.

• Of the 1743 children who left CYF custody in 2014, 284 "aged out" of the care system when they turned 17. Of that figure, CYF could not did not know why 1042 had left care.

• In 2013-14, there were findings of substantiated abuse relating to 117 children in the custody of CYF.

• Some CYF residences needed to be upgraded, the report found. "In one residence, a number of young people complained that sleeping in close proximity to their in-room toilet was unpleasant."

• CYF has difficulty recruiting and retaining staff, and capability issues mean some staff do not have the skills and capability necessary to do their job well.

• Many CYF sites have unfilled vacancies. It is challenging for sites and residences to recruit Maori staff.

• Being chronically short-staffed puts additional pressure on existing staff and affects morale.

• Issues with retention of staff were due to people moving into different jobs within the sector or experiencing burnout.

• Some Youth Specialty Service carers characterised CYF's attitude to placement of children as "dump and run."

'This is a challenge for the whole of society'

Social Development Minister Anne Tolley said she was "fine with all his recommendations". She will take a paper to Cabinet next month with a business case developed by a panel led by economist Paula Rebstock to transform CYF from being focused on "transactions" such as investigations to being a "child-centred" agency.

"I'm expecting that the new system will require extra resources in there. We certainly have to lift the capability of our care placements and really get better support," Ms Tolley said.

She said CYF had care agreements with five iwi, was about to start a six-month trial with Tainui, and was seeking deals with all other iwi.

Mrs Tolley told Radio New Zealand she thought the report was pretty grim, but it was nothing new.

"The majority of people in the prison system had been in the care of CYF," she said.

But attempts to improve the system in the past had been nothing more than "quick fixes" and a complete system overhaul was required.

"I'm absolutely determined that we will get a system that does put children at the heart of everything that they do."

She agreed with RNZ's Guyon Espiner when he suggested she'd had seven years in power, yet the situation was getting worse.

"That's why I'm leading a major overhaul."

But Mrs Tolley said she did not want to fall into the trap of throwing more money at CYF and hoping its problems would go away.

Public Health Association chief executive Warren Lindberg welcomed the report, but said the focus should also be on the social issues that underlie why children are taken into care in the first place.

He said the biggest challenge was for society to tackle those issues.

"We're talking issues such as intergenerational violence, inadequate housing, financial hardship, addiction, poor mental health and a lack of extended family/whanau support," he said.

"We need to better understand the reasons why so many kids are unsafe and be much more willing to address the difficult issues that put families under strain and lead to children suffering.

"This is a challenge for the whole of society and not something that should be left to CYF alone."

Mr Lindberg said he understood the importance of getting children in urgent need of protection into safety.

"However, we are troubled at what seems to be lack of planning for good outcomes for children in care and that our systems are not focused on ensuring children are better off as a result of state intervention.

"What is particularly concerning is the larger proportion of Maori children in state care and the lack of cultural capability to adequately ensure good outcomes and meet children's cultural needs."

Opposition calls for action

Labour's Jacinda Ardern also welcomed the recommendations and said Labour had introduced a bill to raise the leaving age to 18 in 2008, but this was dropped by National later that year.

Ms Ardern said the report painted a "terrible picture" of children in care, and fixing CYF should be a top priority for the Government.

"The minister was right to call for a review of CYFs through the expert advisory panel but she is wrong to imply that resources aren't part of the issue.

"This is a department that is doing its best. It is focused on the front end - getting kids out of immediate danger - but what happens to them next is dire. It has been described as 'dump and run'."

Ms Ardern pointed to the report's findings of limited resources and high caseloads, and said the expert advisory panel could not fix everything.

"This is undeniably a department that needs more than advice and recommendations, it needs cross government support. And so do the 5000 children they are caring for right now."

'If CYF was a family, it would have had state intervention by now'

Conservative lobby group Family First responded to the report with a renewed call for an independent watchdog to monitor the policies, procedures and the resourcing of CYF.

"If CYF was a family, it would have had state intervention by now," Family First national director Bob McCoskrie said.

"Despite the important work it does and some excellent social workers, there is increasing evidence of massive systemic failure in the organisation as a whole."

Mr McCoskrie said CYF performed a necessary function but the lack of accountability to its process and procedures, and its overwhelming workload, should concern all families.

"There is no external and independent accountability. We need CYF to get it right, and we need to know that they're getting it right. That evidence is not there."

Unicef NZ national advocacy manager Deborah Morris-Travers welcomed the report and said it pointed to a range of systemic issues.

"It goes without saying that a child taken into state care should never be worse off as a result of that care.

But ensuring the long-term wellbeing of children who may have been traumatised by abuse and neglect, or who have committed an offence, requires skilled, coordinated input by social workers, teachers, health professionals and others.

"The State of Care report suggests the state, as a 'corporate parent', is currently failing to provide this."

Ms Morris-Travers said it was positive to see that CYF had strong intake and initial assessment processes designed to keep children safe.

"This is important, but good practice cannot stop at the front end of the system. Running through this report is a sense that the system, and some of the staff working within it, are not child-centred."

Ms Morris-Travers said that, in addition to the report's 53 recommendations, the Government needed to invest more in the Children's Commissioner to strengthen its monitoring of CYF.

"These issues are too important to be left to chance."

See more: occ.org.nz

Treated like 'dogs' under state's care

Tupua Urlich and Carmel West welcome the commissioner's proposals. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Tupua Urlich and Carmel West welcome the commissioner's proposals. Photo / Jason Oxenham

A teen brought up in the care of the New Zealand Government says he was treated "like a dog".

"The caregivers had their own part of the house, so you felt quite cut off and disconnected from the people," said Tupua Urlich, now 19, who was in state care from age 5 to 16.

"They treated you like a dog, I suppose. You're fed, you're given things to keep safe and clean, and that's about it, that's about all they'll give you."

Mr Urlich was taken from his mother because of drug and alcohol issues. His father, who came from a Mongrel Mob family, was killed shortly afterwards.

Mr Urlich was placed with an uncle, but when the uncle moved to Australia, he was placed in a succession of CYF homes, some housing many young people.

"There were bars on the windows, alarms on the bedroom doors," he said. He was moved many times, attending multiple schools in Hawkes Bay, the Waikato and Auckland.

"It's horrible on your mental health," he said.

Carmel West, now 21, was in state care for her first 18 years and didn't meet her mother until she was 16. She and her brother were placed together for the first six years but then lost touch until Ms West was 14. She was moved several times before getting a stable placement at Dingwall Trust in Papatoetoe when she was 9.

She said she understood why she was put into care, but felt CYF should have kept her in touch with her family. The two young people welcomed the proposals for an advocacy service and for raising the age of leaving care to 18. "The age [currently 17] is stupid," Ms West said. "You can't sign a tenancy agreement, you can't sign a power bill, because you have to be 18 to do that."