New team of social workers dedicated to child protection in joint approach to police among changes following death of Isaiah Neil.

An extra team of social workers to solely focus on child protection has been established to work alongside police in the eastern Bay of Plenty.

While staff from the Ministry for Children and detectives have worked together in the same building in Whakatane for several years, the new team is the first to be ring-fenced and specialise in child abuse.

This means police in the child protection team now work with the same social workers on a daily basis, rather than trying to liaise with different staff who might not be available on a particular day.

Allegations of child abuse or neglect are now being investigated more quickly, say police, often with experienced detectives and social workers speaking with the children and their families together.


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The Bay of Plenty has one of the worst records of child abuse in the country.

If proven to be successful, the specialist teams could also be established in Tauranga, Rotorua and Taupo by the Ministry for Children, Oranga Tamariki.

The new team in Whakatane comes after a Weekend Herald investigation last year which revealed shortcomings by Child Youth and Family - the predecessor to Oranga Tamariki - after repeated red flags about the dysfunctional family of Isaiah Neil.

The 8-month-old boy died in November 2015 after being left in a car while his mother and grandmother smoked synthetic cannabis inside their house.

His father failed to ring 111 when he discovered Isaiah limp and lifeless, instead putting him in a cot.

A review by CYF found a number of shortcomings including how staff in Whakatane were routinely opening "assessment" records when safety concerns were raised about children, even if the assessment was not completed.

This was to meet internal performance timeframes, but often meant there was no urgency for social workers to finish the safety assessment.


"Unfortunately these shortcuts become 'normal practice' very quickly and there was resistance by some to return to best practice," the review author wrote.

Staff at the Whakatane site were told in September 2015 to stop opening assessment records early and clear the backlog of cases, according to a practice note obtained under the Official Information Act.

A number of changes had taken place at the Whakatane office since Isaiah's death, said Tayelva Petley, the regional manager for Oranga Tamariki in the Bay of Plenty.

Among other improvements to monitoring and assessment of cases in Whakatane, the review of CYF under the previous National Government identified the need for more staff across the country in the new Oranga Tamariki.

So Petley made a successful application for more staff in Whakatane in order to create the specialist team.

"I went for gold, thinking it would be great if we get silver, but we got gold," Petley said of her proposal for more staff.

"I'm extremely satisfied with the resources and now we are Oranga Tamariki, we can be more creative with how we put staff in the right places, to get the best results.

"The police have wanted [a dedicated team of social workers] to happen for quite some time, to give them credit they suggested it, they are absolutely over the moon."

While the police child protection team had been based inside the ministry's office for five years, Petley said the detectives had been dealing with different social workers which could lead to delays.

"It helps with our timeframes. Under the old way, any social worker could be responsible and they might not be available [to police] depending on how busy they were," said Petley.

"Now, the police have 'go to' staff with whom they can build relationships, rather than dealing with everybody. And this frees up the other teams to do other work - and there's plenty of that."

Having staff dedicated to child protection also builds expertise and skills, said Petley, particularly in interviewing children who might have been traumatised.

Specialist child abuse teams in Rotorua, Tauranga and Taupo were now "on the table" after hearing positive feedback from Whakatane.

"That's music to my ears and it's definitely something we are considering."

Detective Sergeant Ant Hay, in charge of the six-strong police child protection team for the eastern Bay of Plenty, was also enthusiastic about the joint approach.

"It's already made a big difference. Having to work with one team allows us to deal with matters in much more timely manner," said Hay.

"Safety of children and prevention of harm are our number one priorities; prosecution comes under that and we don't always have enough evidence.

"But working together allows us to make quicker decisions about families and children who come to our attention."