If Oranga Tamariki deals with you outside the court system
Family Group Conferences: Official action from Oranga Tamariki
The other types of meetings and agreements we looked at earlier in this section – family/whānau agreements, hui ā-whānau, and agreements for temporary or extended care – will only happen if the the parents and family/whānau agree to them.
By contrast, Family Group Conferences happen after something has triggered Oranga Tamariki’s legal responsibility to call one of these conferences. They’re a more formal step, with a process that’s laid out in detail in the Oranga Tamariki Act. They could result in the case going to the Family Court if the conference doesn’t resolve the issues in a way that Oranga Tamariki is happy with.
What is a Family Group Conference?
If an Oranga Tamariki social worker (or the police) decides after an investigation that your child needs care or protection, a Care and Protection Coordinator from Oranga Tamariki will call a Family Group Conference.
At a Family Group Conference, members of the child’s family or whānau meet with social workers and other people to talk about and plan what needs to happen to make sure the child is safe and well cared for. The conference will make some recommendations about what should happen and work out a plan for the child.
Oranga Tamariki also has the power to call a Family Group Conference in a case where it doesn’t think the child needs care or protection, but it thinks the conference would help.
Oranga Tamariki may also ask the whānau of a tamariki Māori to hold a hui ā-whānau as an initial step to prepare for the family group conference.
Will the case have to go to the Family Court after the Family Group Conference?
It’s quite common for a Family Group Conference to resolve the issues without the case going to court at all. The conference would need to come up with a plan – which might include, for example, the parent doing a drug and alcohol course and taking drug tests. The conference would also need to agree on a time for coming back together (in what’s called a “review meeting”) and checking on progress – in six months’ time perhaps. If that all goes OK, the case won’t need to go to court.
But if the conference can’t agree on a plan, Oranga Tamariki may decide they need to get the Family Court to make some orders.
What does “needs care or protection” mean?
If you’re at a Family Group Conference it will be because Oranga Tamariki thinks that your child “needs care or protection”, as those words are defined in the Oranga Tamariki Act. At the conference you’ll be asked whether you agree that your child needs care or protection, so it’s important to know what that legal definition is. We explain this later in this chapter – see “The judge’s decision: When the judge can make care or Protection Orders”.
Who will or can go to the Family Group Conference?
These are the key people who will be at the Family Group Conference:
- The Care and Protection Coordinator
- they work for Oranga Tamariki and they arrange and run the conference
- they’re also responsible for making sure everyone there understands what the conference is for and that they understand their particular roles and responsibilities at the conference.
- The child
- but in some cases the Coordinator can decide that the child shouldn’t be there, for example if they think the child isn’t old enough and mature enough to understand what’s going on there
- however, the Coordinator is also responsible for making sure the child’s views are heard and taken into account, including about whether the child wants to be at the conference. These are important principles in the Oranga Tamariki Act and the Coordinator is legally required to give effect to them – so challenge them on this if you think they’ve excluding your child from the conference without a good reason. See below, “How children participate in Family Group Conferences”.
- Parents and caregivers, and other family or whānau
- this also includes hapū and iwi members that the whānau would like to attend. The Oranga Tamariki Act uses a wide concept of “family group”, which includes whanau, hapū and iwi, and also any other culturally recognised wider family groupings.
- the Coordinator has the power to stop parents, caregivers or wider family/whānau members from attending if the Coordinator thinks having them there wouldn’t be good for the child or would be a bad idea for any other reason. But the Coordinator doesn’t have unlimited power here – they must have a good reason. If for example they try to limit whānau involvement for no good reason, you can challenge them on this, and argue that having your child’s cultural or whakapapa connections represented at the conference is essential for deciding what’s in the child’s best interests.
- The Oranga Tamariki social worker or police officer who investigated and reported on the case
- A support person chosen by the family or whānau
- the family or whānau can have any other person they want at the conference to support them
- this could be, for example, a community worker or social worker who’s not from Oranga Tamariki but who understands the care and protection system and can explain it to the family or whānau and support them through it. Or the family/whānau might choose to have someone like a lawyer, a teacher, a kaumatua or kuia, or a doctor.
- the Care and Protection Coordinator can’t refuse to let the whānau or family’s chosen support person come to the conference, even if the Coordinator thinks that that person shouldn’t be there.
There are also some other people who can go to the Family Group Conference in some cases. For example, the conference could be happening after Oranga Tamariki has made an urgent application to the Family Court for care or Protection Orders – in that case the judge will have appointed a lawyer for the child and that lawyer will be able to come to the conference.
Family Group Conferences are private
Things said in a Family Group Conference can’t be used as evidence against anyone later on in a court. So if for example you or your child admits at the conference to breaking the law (like illegal drug use), this can’t be used later to bring criminal charges.
Things said at the Family Group Conference also can’t be made public in any way. Anyone who publishes a report of what happened at the conference, or who identifies anybody who was there, can be fined up to $2,000. This includes, for example, putting those kinds of details on Facebook or other social media.
The purpose of these protections is to make sure that everyone at the conference can feel free to discuss the real concerns about the child and their situation.
What happens at the Family Group Conference
Knowing what to expect: Find out as much as possible beforehand
People going to a Family Group Conference often don’t know what to expect there, and that can make it harder. Before the conference, find out as much as possible about how it works – and share this with other family and whānau.
For example, talk to a community worker or social worker who’s not from Oranga Tamariki – someone from your marae for example – to find out about how Family Group Conferences and the wider child protection system works. You could also ask them to come with you to the conference.
The Care and Protection Coordinator is also responsible for making sure everyone understands what the purpose of the conference is and what the process at the conference will be. If you don’t understand something, ask them to explain it to you.
Presenting a united whānau front
It’s also good if your whānau can present a strong united front to Oranga Tamariki at the conference. So talk things through together fully before the conference and try to come to agreement about how to respond there. This includes what plan you’ll put forward to address Oranga Tamariki’s concerns about your child’s wellbeing.
The Family Group Conference is not supposed to be a place where Oranga Tamariki and the police tell family and whānau what will happen – it’s supposed to be a family/whānau-centred way to address concerns about a child’s wellbeing without involving the court system. If you and your whānau believe you have a plan to address Oranga Tamariki’s concerns, then present that strongly to them.
The usual stages of a Family Group Conference
A Family Group Conference will usually include these three stages:
- Information and advice – This involves everyone who’s at the conference. Information is supposed to be shared so that everyone knows why the Family Group Conference is being held, what the issues are, and what help is available to sort out the problem.
- Family/whānau discussion in private – The family or whānau will talk in private about how the child can be cared for and kept safe, who should look after them, and what help can be provided. They will be asked to come up with decisions, recommendations and plans at this stage.
- Decisions, recommendations and plans – The family or whānau reports back its decisions to the whole conference, and everyone has to decide and agree on whether there are care and protection concerns and whether the proposed plan will address those concerns.
The private family/whānau stage of the Family Group Conference
The family or whānau have the right to have their own private talks at the Family Group Conference. They can refuse to let any non-family/whānau person – including the Care and Protection Coordinator – be part of these talks.
It’s important that family and whānau do have this time alone. In practice, though, they often ask the Care and Protection Coordinator to be there at this family/whānau stage because they’re not sure what they’re being asked to do.
It will be better if, at the start of the conference, you get the Coordinator to explain clearly what will be expected of you at the family/whānau stage, so that you understand fully. Then, you can have that family/whānau time alone and in private, so that you can work out exactly what you think should happen on your own.
What will the Family Group Conference’s plan cover?
The plan developed by the Family Group Conference has to deal with things like:
- who’ll be responsible for looking after your child
- where your child will live
- what support services are needed for your child and the family or whānau
- whether and how much money will be needed to support your child
- what (if any) orders from the Family Court will be needed to support the plan – for example, a support order or services order (the different types of orders are explained later in this chapter – see “Care or Protection Orders and plans”)
- when the plan will be reviewed
- what will happen if the plan doesn’t work or it breaks down
- who’ll be responsible for carrying out different parts of the plan.
If your child is going to be with other caregivers for a while, the plan also has to set out in some detail the path for the child to be returned to you. This includes:
- your responsibilities and personal objectives
- the steps each parent has to take or the behavioural changes each has to make before the child can be returned, and when those things have to happen by
- when a decision will be made about whether your child will be returned to you.
Everyone at the Family Group Conference has to be satisfied that the plan is suitable for the child. If everyone can’t agree (called “non-agreement”), the case may go to a Family Court Judge for a decision.
How children participate in Family Group Conferences
Children have important rights here, and the Care and Protection Coordinator is the person responsible for making sure all those rights are put into effect at the Family Group Conference:
- Participating in the conference – The law says the child must be encouraged and helped to participate in the Family Group Conference as much as possible, taking into account how old they are and how mature they are.
- Saying what they want to happen – They also have to be given reasonable chances to say what they want to happen. If they have trouble saying what they think or being understood, they have to be given support so they can express themselves and be understood.
- Understanding what’s happening – They have to be helped to understand the reason for the conference and what the different outcomes might be and how that will affect the child.
- Having their views taken into account – What the child says must then be taken into account when people like judges and Oranga Tamariki workers are making decisions about the child under the child protection laws.
Making the child’s rights real
The Care and Protection Coordinator is responsible for finding ways to give effect to those rights of the child. There are different ways this might happen – for example, they could have a child advocate from the organisation Whakarongo Mai (VOYCE) support the child or speak for them, or a family/whānau member of the child’s choosing.
There are different technical solutions here also if people can’t be at the conference in person – like telephone conferencing or video conferencing.
After the Family Group Conference
What happens after the Family Group Conference?
If people at the Family Group Conference are agreed about what should happen, copies of the plan must be given to everyone affected by the decisions. The Care and Protection Coordinator from Oranga Tamariki is responsible for making sure the plan is carried out and reviewed.
If Oranga Tamariki doesn’t agree with what the family or whānau decides at the Family Group Conference, Oranga Tamariki will be able to apply to the Family Court for care or Protection Orders.
Family Group Conference will review the situation after several months
If the Family Group Conference has agreed on a plan, the plan will normally include a date for the conference to get back together to review the progress that’s been made under the plan. This will usually be for three, six or nine months later. (It has to be within six months if the child is under seven, and within 12 months in other cases.)
When the Family Group Conference gets back together (“reconvenes”) for these reviews, they’re called “review meetings”.
Oranga Tamariki might sometimes call the Family Group Conference back together before the review date if the situation has changed in some way so that the current plan isn’t suitable anymore.
If the review meeting finds there hasn’t been any progress under the plan, Oranga Tamariki may decide to take the case to the Family Court by applying for care or Protection Orders.
Does the Family Court have to go along with what a Family Group Conference decides?
In serious cases Oranga Tamariki can make an urgent application to the Family Court without first going through the Family Group Conference process, but a conference will then still have to be held before the judge can decide the case. If the conference reaches an agreement on what should happen, this will have a lot of influence with the judge – especially if the judge sees that many family/whānau attended the conference and that the agreed plan fully and reasonably addresses all the concerns about the child.
However, the judge – not the conference – will make the final decision.