31 Mar 2017

'Now we will really see if they do care' - youth advocate

8:42 am on 31 March 2017

People should not dismiss the new ministry for the country's most at-risk children as just a rebrand of Child Youth and Family (CYF), a youth advocate says.

Tupua Urlich

Youth advocate Tupua Urlich said the new ministry was supposed to provide hope, and being negative towards it removes a bit of that hope. Photo: supplied

Oranga Tamariki, the Ministry for Vulnerable Children, launches today.

The complete overhaul of CYF and creation of the new minitsry has been years in the making and follows a comprehensive review by an expert advisory panel.

The state care agency has been the subject of 14 different reviews since its inception in 1989, so the stakes are high for the new ministry.

Youth advocate Tupua Urlich, 21, who spent much of his childhood in foster homes, was one of a group of young people who had been in state care who were consulted as Oranga Tamariki was being set up.

The government had an obligation to get things right this time, he said.

"Working with the government, we've shared our stories, so in a way they owe us this change because we've dug into our pasts and emotions, into things that aren't easy and we'd rather avoid," he said.

"We've instilled a whole lot of trust in these people, so now we will really see if they do care."

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft said the public should not expect immediate changes.

"I am confident, in the long run, that we will get there, but it won't be overnight and there won't be instant success.

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft.

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

"It would be absurd to think that would ever be the case, given the way the agency has been set up so quickly, given the legislation is still happening."

Judge Becroft said a massive culture change was at the heart of what was needed, so that putting children first actually became a reality.

Part of that was making better resourcing, and standards for social workers, a priority.

"I think you could say the quality of social work goes from the good, the bad and the ugly. There is some excellent social work and there is some very poor social work," he said.

"I think perhaps there's been a culture of mediocrity in too many places, too often."

Oranga Tamariki chief executive Grainne Moss said there were good social workers, but better resourcing was more than just dollars and cents.

She said social workers needed to continually increase their skills in areas that would make a difference to young people.

Grainne Moss, CEO of The Ministry for Vulnerable Children

Grainne Moss Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

"We need to look at the resourcing - we've got some additional resources, then we need to look at the tools, and then we need to look at how people are spending their time and are we putting people in the right place, at the right time, for the best outcomes."

Minister for Children Anne Tolley said part of the problem was social workers were having to deal with children and families with complex needs that pushed them beyond their skills and experience.

She said one of the issues the new ministry needed to tackle was making sure there were more high-skilled, specialised people in its workforce.

"In some areas, the cases are so complex that we cannot rely on social workers' skills alone. We do need the help of other professionals like child psychologists and therapists."

Mrs Tolley said there has been a shortage of them, and they have made up less than one percent of Child, Youth and Family's workforce.

Despite the concerns, Mr Urlich said people needed to give Oranga Tamariki a chance and they should not dismiss it as just a Child, Youth and Family rebrand.

"A lot of society has labelled CYF and they have their thoughts about it, but I'd encourage them not to," he said.

"If they are going to negatively attach a label to this new system that is supposed to provide us with hope, it just removes a bit of that hope that we'll have."

Today also marks the start of a new independent youth advocacy service, Voyce - Whakarongo Mai. Other changes include allowing children to remain in state care until they turned 18, ahead of further changes to raise the age to 21.

That change, along with other changes to the youth justice system, were part of more legislation currently before Parliament.