Understanding harm experienced by children and young people in care during 2015/16: Research report

28 Nov 2017

Executive summary

In order to improve the safety of children and young people in care, insight into the extent of harm, how this manifests, and the nature of children/young people’s experiences is essential. By generating this understanding, Oranga Tamariki can undertake more focused and effective work to prevent future harm, and improve the safety of children/young people in care.

Both internationally and within New Zealand, past approaches to measuring ‘harm’, or the safety of children/young people in care, have relied on findings of substantiated maltreatment. However, this approach is increasingly recognised as limited, as some forms of harm may be excluded. Given these constraints, New Zealand and other international jurisdictions do not currently have an accurate understanding of the harm experienced by children/young people in care.

The harm experienced by children and young people in care is complex, and presents in diverse ways. Children/young people may experience a broad spectrum of harm, ranging from emotional distress to severe physical injury. This harm may be physical, emotional and sexual, or involve neglect, and can occur either within a caregiver’s home (or in a residence), and in the community. Harm can also be perpetrated by a range of people, including parents, caregivers, and other children/young people.

In response to these issues, throughout 2016/17, an exploratory research project designed to better understand the safety of children/young people in care was undertaken. The project began under Child, Youth and Family, and has since been completed by Oranga Tamariki. The research involved reviewing the case notes of a representative sample of children/young people in care during the 2015/16 financial year. The research also applied a broad definition of harm. These innovative methodological improvements were designed to provide a more accurate and complete understanding of safety in care.

The research found that 85 children/young people in care experienced an incident of harm during the 2015/16 financial year, out of the total sample of 698. As a representative sample, this overall extent of harm can be extrapolated across the full population of children/young people in care during 2015/16. Due to methodological improvements, the extent of harm identified within this research is higher than in historically reported rates.

The research found that the number of Māori experiencing harm was higher than non-Māori, and that most children/young people were five years and older at the time harm was perpetrated. The research also found variation in the types, perpetrators and context of harm, and that children/young people’s experience of harm differed across placements. Due to the sampling approach used and the nature of the research, these findings only relate to the 85 children/young people identified as experiencing an incident of harm and cannot be extrapolated to the full 2015/16 care population.

While this research is historic in nature, reviewers followed a process to ensure the safety of children/young people identified as being at risk of harm. This process involved safety checks examining changes in circumstances, and whether continuing perpetrator risk was present. These reviews did not identify any immediate safety concerns relating to caregivers or children/young people in the study.

This research has identified the need for a different approach for measuring and reporting on the safety of children/young people in care. As demonstrated by key research findings, past measurement approaches are likely to have under-reported the extent of harm, and failed to capture the broad range of harm experienced by children/young people in care. Oranga Tamariki will establish an expert group to discuss the findings and implications of this research, and propose a sustainable and robust future measurement and reporting approach. It is important to recognise that future use of a new measurement approach, along with practice improvements and an increase in the statutory care and protection age, is likely to identify an increased rate, at least in the short-term.

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