Meet some of the people behind VOYCE – Whakarongo Mai

In the latest episode of our online radio show – ‘The Carecast’ – we meet some of the people behind VOYCE – Whakarongo Mai – a new connection and advocacy service for care experienced children and young people.

Our communications advisor Alistair Wilkinson compiled the report. Here’s what he found:

Saturday the First of April 2017 saw the launch of the new charitable trust. VOYCE is an acronym – which stands for “Voice of the Young and Care Experienced – Whakorongo Mai translates to “listen to me.”

The launch was held at WHOA Studios – a new entertainment complex in the West Auckland suburb of Henderson.

Zak Quor

Amongst the crowd – 24 year old Zak Quor – from the board of VOYCE. For Zak and the other young people involved in developing the service – it is a momentous day.

Zak was taken into care at the age of seven – when Social Workers arrived – at school.

“Two suits showed up, said ‘pack your bags. You’re going home.” I’m like, ‘OK, sure.’ And then once we got home, Mum was there. She was crying. That’s the last time I saw her for about a year and a half. And then yeah, from 7 till about 17, I was in foster care,” he says.

“I went through a few different care experiences myself. I had my ups and my downs, and things got really good at certain times, and things got really terrible at certain times. And just being handled by CYFS over the course of my childhood and my teenage years, I’ve taken all I’ve learned from that. And I don’t just want to move on from it. I want to go back and make sure other people have better experiences than I did.”

It is an experience of growing up that Zak has become used to sharing – over the last two years as part of a group of eight care-experienced young people who have been working with Social Development Minister Anne Tolley – and her officials – to redesign the sector.

“Basically our job was to sit together, talk together. And we were taken care of quite nicely by some people from the Office of the Children’s Commission. To brainstorm pitches and ideas that we could give to different departments of the current CYFS. And say, ‘we like this,’ or, ‘we really don’t like that.’ And it’s sort of the first time some of those people have ever heard a care experience story, you know.”

Which goes to the heart of the problem with the old system – too much distance between the people making decisions – and the people whose lives those decisions turn upside down. That’s why it was important for Zak and the other young people on the panel to find a way to have a greater voice in the new system.

“So during that process of just sort of getting this new organisation setup, Oranga Tamariki, it sprung up that we need a separate organisation who’s completely not run or controlled by the Ministries of Development or the Government or anyone like that. And it’s the primary role to have children’s interests at heart.”

Tracie Shipton at the launch of VOYCE – Whakarongo Mai

So – VOYCE Whakarongo Mai has been designed by young people with the support of adults in the system – rather than the other way around. One of those adults is Tracie Shipton. She’s been the director of the Dingwall Trust – an Auckland community of caregiving residences – for the last 17 years. She’s also a qualified social worker and an experienced foster parent.

“I’ve seen the hurt that’s happened with children in care over a long period of time. The biggest one is isolation. Young people feeling really different to other children. It’s what foster parents struggle with too. And I just, we can’t have broken children in a broken system. It’s got to, we have to do something to change it. I’ve just heard, talking to young people over generations now, the same thing. ‘I feel different. I feel different to other people.’ This is about sameness. This is about uniqueness. This is about developing a really good sense of identity, and that that carer identity not be a negative one,” she says.

The model is based – in part – on a Scottish Organisation called “Who Cares.” Founded in 1978 – it has a proud record of advocacy – including a pivotal role in a campaign which saw the age of leaving care raised to 21 in Scotland two years ago.

That battle has already been won in New Zealand – with the Government introducing similar legislation last year. But – Tracie Shipton has no doubt VOYCE has the potential to effect powerful change.

“I think part of the build in leadership too, is about compassion and community, is about identifying what young people might be able to do that would make a difference for other young people. You know, I’ve seen huge generosity when I’ve worked throughout the country in co-designing this with young people, how generous they are towards others. They might not want the label of being a foster kid, but when they know there’s a whole lot of other foster children and that they can show them that their sense of identity’s good, I think it would be a powerful incentive for them to be involved,” she says.

The project brings together young people – non-government organisations – philanthropic funders and central government. One of the things that makes it unique – is that the government has guaranteed its core funding. John McCarthy is the Manager of the Tindall Foundation. He chaired the steering group for VOYCE – Whakarongo Mai.

John McCarthy

“The funding from government will step up over time. The overall operating budget in about year four is about $12 million dollars. It’s a reasonably substantial amount of money, so this can be done properly. To give some credit to the government, that’s a useful amount of money. They haven’t looked to underfund us,” he says.

John’s been involved in the project since it was first discussed at a workshop in Auckland – convened by the Tindall Foundation, The Todd Foundation, Foundation North, and the Vodafone Foundation. John knows the team will have a big job on their hands. They are building a service – the likes of which we’ve never seen in New Zealand – from scratch. VOYCE  will start small – with just three permanent staff members in Auckland – and build over time.

“We’re trying not to over-promise. The first few weeks or so will be a small staff team, and there’ll be connections through a website, and so on. They will be based in a temporary Auckland office that will relocate to its permanent Auckland office, at some stage this year, hopefully. The idea is to build a bit of a home base for the organisation. I use the word home in that sentence, advisedly. Again, some of the feedback that we’ve had from young people is that they want the office to feel like a place that they can come to and feels homely to them. Given that these are children and people who don’t always have a stable home, that seems to me to be a fair ask and a fair concept to start with. There’ll be an Auckland base, and largely it’s been decided to base this in Auckland, given the large number of children and young people, proportionately in care who are in the Hamilton North area, so just kind of a pragmatic approach.”

“Over the course of the next 18 months or so, the service will develop to about six or seven regional sites across New Zealand. There’ll be staff based in those sites, so that children and young people in those areas, and carers too, to some extent, can connect into that service and be connected to each other, and experience and benefit from the advocacy and connection, and so on that the service will provide. We’re hoping that those regional services will be co-hosted by other sympathetic organisations, maybe organisations that work in the care area, or youth development area somehow, so that VOYCE can become part of the wider youth development network, and also maybe some of the ways in which VOYCE wants to influence practice around social work, or practice generally with children and young people in care. They can have a bit of influence at that local level, perhaps on those organisations, too. That’s the plan.”

Tracie Shipton says she thinks caregivers will love it.

Caregivers, as you know, you’re not separate from the needs of a child. You’re part of the need of a child, and one of the things that’s been really highlighted for us, is that children need to feel connected. They need to feel connected to systems that are bigger than what we have. Your care as a parent is going to be, as a foster parent, is going to be made so much easier if they feel a strong sense of connection and positive identity. So I know some things can be really threatening when you’re trying to do the very best you can for young people up against the system. You’re an advocate for a young person. This is an advocacy service. We work together. This is about strengthening, adding to, and, you know, we welcome that partnership.

For his part – Zak Quor hopes – in time – the service to give children like him – the voice he never had.

“With me personally, I never went to any of my court cases. Like, I was invited, I guess, or I was supposed to be there or something. But I was never really involved in the decisions that were being made about where I lived, where I stayed, what school I go to, all that sort of stuff. Although I did personally have that choice because no one was making that decision at the time, but if they did, then I wouldn’t get to choose that. All of my primary schools were chosen by someone else and decided for- You know, if I got kicked out of one, they say, “Where does he go next?” But they never asked me where I wanted to go.”

“VOYCE will have advocates assigned to a child. Once these advocates know what the child wants, or they know that there’s a decision coming up about them, they will take that voice that the child has. And if they’re not present at the court hearing, they will go on their behalf. Well, this is what we have in mind. This is our ideal. They will represent the child in places that children cannot be represented accurately without their presence. To have their voice carried through the system, through the bureaucracy, through all the paperwork, which the child has no idea about.”

“VOYCE is there to help you, help your child. Voice is there to listen to what they want, tell you what they want, and help you make it happen.”

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