Harmful sexual behaviour among children in care rising fast

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Harmful sexual behaviour among children is rising fast and many cannot get the help they need.

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Children and teenagers in care displaying harmful sexual behaviour grew by 50 percent in the last five years, according to a new report. Photo: 123RF

A report to Cabinet about the rollout of new or expanded sexual violence services shows the extra government funding is helping, but is still not enough.

The report does not mention that Oranga Tamariki (OT) failed to spend $4m of the $11m it budgeted to expand its programmes.

But it did say the number of children and teenagers in care displaying harmful sexual behaviour had grown by 50 percent in the past five years.

“Actual demand is likely much higher as there are significant waitlists with all providers,” said the 26-page report, released this week and provided to Cabinet by the Minister for the Prevention of Family Violence and Sexual Violence Marama Davidson.

While it is a progress report, it provides no figures to actually measure the progress of OT.

The agency received $16m in the 2019-20 Budget for its harmful sexual behaviour work for the next four years.

Two years on, the Cabinet report lists just two achievements – that “more” children were being helped, although it did not say how many, and a pilot project for intervening with schoolchildren that was being worked on, to begin next March.

An Official Information Act response showed OT spent just $2.6m of its $4.46m budget for harmful sexual behaviour work last year – with 40 percent left unspent.

The Cabinet progress report also gave no figures for the other sexual violence programme led by OT which delivers crisis support services.

There was “no dedicated and sustainable government funding” for such crisis support when OT was set up in 2017, it said.

Up to 1700 children and teenagers were getting adult services, despite these not being “specifically tailored to children’s needs”.

The 2019-20 Budget gave OT $25m over four years to fix that.

The report lists its achievements so far as:

  • updating the funding model to alleviate cost pressures on community service providers and ensure pay parity at the frontline
  • tailoring services for children and teenagers
  • being more flexible

While there were no figures, other parts of the report which detail achievements by the Ministry of Social Development do, including the number of 1760 men who had survived sexual abuse getting help, and those services expanding from just six locations to 11.

OT had $7m to spend on crisis support services in 2020-21, but spent only $4.47m.

Davidson said all questions regarding OT operations were best directed to Minister [for Children, Kelvin] Davis. His office said this was an operational question for OT and the first he knew of the agency’s underspend was when RNZ approached him last week.

Davidson said in a two-line statement: “It is disappointing that that the total allocated has yet to be spent, however it is important that we ensure we have the right capacity to deliver this specialist work.”

Māori are particularly hard hit by the service shortages, her Cabinet report said.

It stated that ministers were collectively accountable for the overall outcomes of the joint venture which aimed to eliminate family and sexual violence.

The government’s national anti-violence strategy launched this month and will be implemented by the joint venture of 10 core agencies and Davidson said it “sets up accountability to work towards the goal of workforce and community capacity”.

A new board of public service chief executives would create “greater accountability”, she said.

The new board replaces the old board set up in 2018 to oversee the joint venture. The old board told RNZ that Oranga Tamariki’s progress on its sexual violence programmes was satisfactory.

OT put its underspending down to having to move at the slower pace of the Māori community providers it funds, as it put more focus on designing services with them, instead of for them.

RNZ approached five providers of OT’s sexual violence programmes. Only one – HELP Auckland – replied, saying it struggled to get extra staff.

A source close to the sector told RNZ providers could be reluctant to be seen to criticise Oranga Tamariki, and “biting the hand that feeds”.

About $131m was budgeted through to 2023-24 to expand specialist sexual violence services for children and adults – $41m for Oranga Tamariki, and $90m for MSD.

The Cabinet progress report said this was “not sufficient” to provide the required 24/7 year-round services. That required at least four staff per provider, it said.

Its solution is to get regional providers to tap into the ‘Safe to Talk – Korero mai ka ora’ service.

The cost of sexual violence to the country has been estimated to be $7 billion a year, and with child abuse costing the country $4b.

Demand for services was rising as they became more accessible, the Cabinet report said. Some providers had been able to hire more people, or get more phones, laptops or cars.

“The workforce increase has meant the workload is shared between staff to avoid stress and burnout. Reduced caseloads are allowing support workers to spend more time with service users.”

By shifting to longer, four-year contracts, the funding had cut anxiety about poor job security, it said.

The joint venture had hired 14 independent advisers to help design services. Annual progress and “learning hui” starting in July 2022 would help fill the gaps, it said.

The 25-year national strategy is to be reviewed every five years.

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