New Zealand's child protection agency Oranga Tamariki is back in the spotlight following fresh allegations of systemic problems from past and current social workers.
Published in a story by Newsroom, the accusations highlight an alleged culture of bullying, overloaded social workers, children being misrepresented in court documents, superficial and unhelpful understanding of te ao Māori and inept senior management at the agency.
It is frightening reading and offers insight into why problems in the care of our most vulnerable children continue.
Less helpful was the response from NZ First's Tracey Martin - the minister in charge of Oranga Tamariki. In an interview on Auckland station bFM last week, Martin spent 15 minutes deflecting any substantive discussion on issues raised in the Newsroom article.
While that in itself is not entirely surprising or unexpected, it is the underlying nature of Martin's critique which is particularly worrying. Rather than attempt to understand or even consider the alleged problems, Martin takes aim at social workers who have spoken out, appears annoyed at having to "follow up" on the concerns raised, undermines the investigative reporting involved over six months - stopping just short of rolling out the "fake news" label - and prioritises her own interest in dealing with problems at Oranga Tamariki.
It is worth examining some of her comments to understand how they distract from the real issues at Oranga Tamariki, which must be properly examined by the agency if it is to improve.
On the social workers, past and present, who spoke out regarding an alleged culture of bullying and problems within senior management, Martin said: "If a group of anonymous people complain about you, where is the natural justice for you? Where is the natural justice for you? You now have to defend yourself against people you don't know who they are. That's the tricky spot I'm in now."
By focusing on the anonymous status of workers who raised concerns about the culture at Oranga Tamariki and its contribution to unsafe social work practice, Martin shifts the blame away from the operational problems being highlighted. Instead, she uses the individuals' lack of identification to cast doubt on the legitimacy of complaints. The underlying assertion: If they're telling the truth, then why don't they put their name to it?
On alleged problems at Oranga Tamariki not being raised within the organisation's complaints channels: "I've been into Oranga Tamariki offices. I've sat with social workers. People know my email. I've never had any of these issues brought to my attention by social workers inside of Oranga Tamariki. I have personal friends, really good friends - my matron of honour is an Oranga Tamariki social worker on the frontline. She knows how to get hold of me."
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Martin puts herself at the centre of the process, glossing over the difficulties of speaking up in an environment which workers have already said is not accepting of criticism. The underlying assertion: The concerns raised cannot be true because I, or other management staff, would know as there are fair processes in place to address problems.
On the reporting of the story, which also examined Grainne Moss' role as chief executive: "There is a human being here … . This country seems to be really keen to see people fight and see people ripped down. And it affects [you]. And I tell you what, the very reason we've got children that need to come into care in this country is because this country seems to like to see people fight."
Martin flips the alleged problems around Oranga Tamariki's leadership by framing it as a personal attack on Moss, linking it to a wider, national culture of blame. Interestingly, she also links in the pathway of children into state care. The underlying assertion: The reporting of this story is personal - an attack on one person. Therefore, it is not about wider, systemic and cultural problems at Oranga Tamariki.
On the small number of Oranga Tamariki staff who are Māori, compared to the high number of tamariki Māori in state care (only 20 percent of senior Oranga Tamariki staff are Māori, while about 70 per cent of children in state care are): "If I ticked a box to say what my ethnic background is, I tick Pākehā. So, the assumption that you're [bFM] giving me is that because I'm Pākehā, I don't understand other cultures."
She continues: "What I'm arguing is to just take a percentage and decide you know by the colour of somebody's skin, or their ethnic background, who they understand and who they don't understand, there's a name for that … it's racism."
This is a difficult one to untangle because Martin's comments are not entirely incorrect. Yes, assuming you can only understand someone because they are the same ethnicity as you is wrong. The world would be pretty bleak if that was the case. However, her framing of the question around the contrast between the numbers of Māori Oranga Tamariki staff and tamariki Māori in the department's care as "racist" completely minimises the necessary and unique value and contribution Māori social workers have. The underlying assertion: Tamariki and whānau Māori do not have needs which can be better met by Māori social workers. Highlighting the relatively low number of Māori Oranga Tamariki staff is racist because it implies Pākehā staff cannot cater to the needs of tamariki and whānau Māori.