Children's Commissioner Russell Wills is calling for immediate change in the treatment of children in state care, saying they cannot afford to wait for government reforms to be pushed through.
In his second State of Care report, released this morning, Dr Wills said a culture change was needed inside Child, Youth and Family.
Last year, the government announced a major overhaul of the agency, including becoming more child-centred and contracting out to outside organisations. The new system will be in place by the end of March 2017.
But Dr Wills said the changes, while positive, would take some time to get into place.
"I'm critically aware that with such major change comes risk. Reforms are known to cause a dip in performance - but we are talking about kids' lives here - not profit margins.
"There needs to be a plan to ensure they are not negatively impacted during this transition phase."
He called for a plan to ensure children already in the system were not disadvantaged further while the reforms were implemented.
He said there was scope for a culture change to begin now, as most of the staff would remain the same after the reforms.
Dr Wills said Child Youth and Family must be child-centred - a widely used, but often misunderstood term. The key was asking a child what they needed, explaining what was happening to them and working with them on a plan.
"It means prioritising their needs over paperwork or other demands. Of course a child's needs must be assessed in the context of their family and whānau and after using professional judgement. But above all, being child-centred is about genuinely listening to the child," he said.
Dr Wills said his staff were constantly blown away by the wisdom and insightfulness of the children they visited as part of their monitoring of Child Youth and Family.
"Children have some clear messages. They want to feel like they belong to their culture and their family and whānau, they want to be involved in decisions about their lives and they want social workers to respect them and treat them well," he said.
"The success of these reforms, however, depends on building a good platform now. That way staff can not only provide a better service for those children in the system right now, but also be in a good position to work in child-centred ways when the new system is up and running," Dr Wills said.
Children 'uppermost in our minds' - Tolley
The government said the children currently in Child Youth and Family care were getting their usual support as the agency underwent its major overhaul.
Social Development Minister Anne Tolley said she had seen no evidence of any drop in the agency's performance, and there were systems in place to ensure children in care remained a priority.
"The Children's Commissioner has been taken through all those processes and I can assure him those kids that are currently in care are uppermost in our minds.
"There is a transition team that is focussed on designing the new system that is completely separate."
Ms Tolley said any culture change within the agency would not happen overnight but would take time.
Read the State of Care report here.
The report has three major recommendations:
- Plan to reduce the risk to children and young people of a dip in performance during the transition period.
- Develop a clear understanding of child-centred practice in the particular culture and organisational context of the New Zealand care and protection and youth justice systems.
- Empower and support staff now to strengthen their child-centred practice.