Q & A - Safety of children in care report

Published: November 28, 2017

Questions and answers prepared by Oranga Tamariki in relation to the report titled 'Understanding harm experienced by children and young people in care during 2015/16'.

1. Why did Oranga Tamariki undertake this work?

Oranga Tamariki is responsible for the day-to-day care of children and young people within its legal custody. Despite this duty of care, past reviews have highlighted a small number of children and young people who experience further harm while in our care.

In the past, CYF reported on the rate of children and young people in care who were seriously harmed using a measure of ‘substantiated maltreatment’. This measure captures instances where allegations of harm are made, a formal investigation is undertaken, and maltreatment is found to have occurred.

Internationally, this approach is increasingly recognised as limited, as some forms of harm may be excluded. This means that New Zealand – along with other jurisdictions using this approach – does not have an accurate understanding of the harm experienced by children and young people in care.

Better understanding the nature and extent of harm is essential for improving the safety of children and young people in care. Oranga Tamariki is committed to generating new insight into this issue, so that we can undertake more focused and effective work to prevent future harm, and protect the wellbeing of children and young people within our care.

2. How did you decide that a child/young person experienced harm?

This research used case note review to determine whether children and young people experienced an incident of harm. ‘Case notes’ are content created by social workers and other professionals as part of their day-to-day work with children and young people. These notes were manually reviewed by an experienced social worker to determine whether harm occurred.

If a case note included sufficient evidence that an incident of harm occurred, then Children or young people were recorded as having experienced harm. Reviewers used existing guidance relating to definitions of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, or neglect, when making this determination.

Children or young people were assumed to be safe when case notes included no evidence that harm occurred. In some cases, it was difficult to determine conclusively whether children or young people were safe, as limited detail was included within case notes. In these instances, a team of reviewers examined the case and decided whether the child or young person experienced harm.

3. How representative are these findings?

The finding relating to the overall extent of harm can be generalised to the wider population of children and young people in care during financial year 2015/16. All other findings cannot be generalised beyond the group of children or young people identified as experiencing an incident of harm.

4. Do these findings differ from previously reported rates of harm?

Yes - the extent of harm identified within this research is higher than in historically reported rates.

5. Does this mean that more children and young people are being harmed?

No – the higher extent of harm identified within this research does not mean that more children and young people are being harmed. Methodological improvements associated with this research – specifically, the use of case note review and the application of a broader definition of harm – mean that a higher number of harm incidents were identified. This finding does not mean that a higher level of harm occurred.

6. Does this mean that Māori children and young people are at greater risk of harm?

No – while the proportion of Māori children and young people who experienced harm was higher than non-Māori, this does not mean that children and young people who are Māori are at a greater risk of harm while in care. Rather, the high proportion of Māori children or young people experiencing harm is likely to be associated with several other factors, e.g. their over-representation within the care population generally or greater exposure to risk factors associated with harm.

7. Are caregivers most likely to be the perpetrators of harm?

Within this research, caregivers were identified as the largest group of people perpetrating harm. Within some placements types, a high number of harm incidents were also perpetrated by caregivers. However, it is important to note that this finding cannot be generalised to the nature of harm across the full care population, and it is not possible to state that caregivers are most likely to be the perpetrators of harm.

8. Does this mean that some placement types, particularly whānau care, are more unsafe?

No – while a higher number of harm incidents occurred within some placements types, this does not indicate they are more unsafe. This research investigated the most significant harm incident for each child and young person, which has limited the ability to directly compare the extent of harm across placement types. Further, these findings do not account for the duration of each placement type, or allow for comparison against the rate of children and young people who spent time within a specific placement type and did not experience harm.

9. How did you ensure children/young people were safe during and after the research?

Throughout the project, the research team was conscious of a need to ensure that children and young people were safe. While this review was historic in nature, the research team developed a process to ensure the current safety of any at-risk children or young people. This process was not required at any point during the research.

Following the project’s completion, the research team completed safety checks on those children or young people identified through the research as being at risk of harm. These checks examined changes in circumstances, and whether continuing perpetrator risk was present. This review did not identify any immediate safety concerns relating to caregivers or children and young people.

10. What are you doing to improve the safety of children in care?

The on-going Oranga Tamariki transformation programme includes a core focus on strengthening the delivery of statutory care and protection services. This work includes a number of initiatives to address drivers of harm and enhance safety in care. This work includes regulatory efforts to improve the quality of care, enhanced support for caregivers, caregiver recruitment, strengthening social work practice, improving the suitability of care placements, and enhancing the quality of residential care.

11. Are you proposing to repeat this measure in the future?

This research used an exploratory approach, designed to provide a better understanding of the extent and nature of harm experienced by children/young people in care. While key findings of this research further highlight the limitations of past measurement approaches, Oranga Tamariki is not currently proposing that this measure is repeated in the future.

While this research used one method for understanding and reporting on harm, other approaches may provide an equally appropriate or stronger measure. Further, it is essential that any measure of harm is sustainable and repeatable. A key limitation associated with case note review is its resource intensive nature, which may undermine the value of using this approach long-term.

12. What will be the role and composition of the proposed expert group?

Oranga Tamariki has previously committed to establishing a new appropriation measure relating to the safety of children/young people in care. The proposed expert group will be established to inform this process. The role of the group will be to examine the findings of this research, discuss its implications, and propose a new measurement approach.

Through this work, the group will address several key questions, for example, what is an appropriate methodology to use, and how to define harm.

While the composition of the group has not been determined, it is anticipated to include expert internal advisors, public academics, and other key representatives from the care and protection sector.

13. Who reviewed this work?

This report has had external technical peer review to ensure the methodology and sampling approach used were robust and defensible. The report has also undergone significant internal peer review by subject matter experts, including social workers, to ensure the validity and accuracy of research findings and interpretation.

14. Will findings from this research be considered within the Inquiry into the Abuse of Children in State Care?

Once government has decided how it wishes to approach the inquiry, we will support the process in any way we can.

View the media release