Writing as a grindstone. Finished writing, unfinished writing, writing ideas, things that I'll never get round to writing, other things. Grinding it out, grinding away. Writing some more.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

The NZ state, making children vulnerable since way back

I’m going to talk about the proposed changes to the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act, but before I do, I want to give a quick background. The context is necessary for understanding why the changes are so upsetting.

Traditionally, Māori society is whānau centred, and Māori whānau are child centred. Whakapapa is at the heart of our philosophy, the relationship between tūpuna and mokopuna is especially celebrated in our literature, and our metaphors for identity and belonging are all about mothering. When Europeans arrived, some were appalled enough that they wrote about what terrible parents Māori were, especially Māori men, who were far too loving and attentive to children, not at all manly behaviour. (If you are interested in traditional Māori parenting, Mana Ririki produced a fantastic report)

Over the next several decades, Europeans got stuck-in, teaching Māori parents good Christian spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child parenting, and teaching Māori men patriarchal family values. At the same time that the Crown took Māori wealth and resources, it imposed capitalism—the combined effect was impoverishment and chasing wages for survival (when my iwi, Ngāi Tahu, signed Te Tiriti they were responsible for almost all of Te Waipounamu, Rakiura and surrounding islands; between 1844 and 1860, they were forced to sell effectively all that land for less than £9000. In that short time, thousands of people who had been collectively self-supporting and self-determining became politically and financially dependent on the Europeans who had taken everything. Can you imagine how that felt?). Europeans introduced diseases that killed thousands (in the first 100 years of contact with Europeans, the Māori population fell from around 200 000 to 42 000. Can you imagine that—losing 80% of the population? How did whānau function?). The Crown dismantled Māori law and systems that kept whānau safe and healthy, criminalised tikanga, locked people up for trying to hold on to their land, banned te reo Māori from schools to stamp out not just te reo, but all the mātauranga that it carries. And Māori were still expected to fight for Britain in two horrific world wars.

After a hundred years of this, Māori were still resilient. In the 1940s, research on Māori mental health focused on why Māori were so much healthier than Europeans (one third the incidence of mental disorder).1 Pākehā researchers’ explanation was that the whānau was such a nurturing mechanism that it was protecting Māori mental health from even the ongoing violence of colonisation. They predicted that as whānau structures were dismantled, Māori mental disease would increase to Pākehā rates. This could have been a turning point for Māori and Pākehā—where would we be if Pākehā had paid attention to their own researchers saying whānau are a healthier institution than nuclear families? Instead, the Crown has continued with policies to dismantle whānau, and privilege small family units that provide a dependent, mobile workforce.

What I’m trying to show is that colonisation has treated generations of Māori to continuous violence, trauma after trauma after trauma. At the same time, the Crown has been dismantling our mechanisms of wellbeing—disconnecting us from our whenua, our whakapapa, our whānau. These experiences have created the situation we are in now, where some Māori whānau aren’t coping. That problem was clearly described in the 1987 report Puao-te-ata-tu commissioned by the Minister of Social Welfare. Already, Māori made up the majority of Social Welfare institutions’ clientele. Puao-te-ata-tu reported that institutional racism in the Department of Social Welfare, the Children and Young Persons Act and the courts made it impossible for those institutions to achieve their goals, and made recommendations that would have transformed those institutions from their philosophical foundations to their practices. Their recommendations included incorporating Māori values in all policies, and working with whānau, hapū and iwi for good outcomes. 30 years ago, Puao-te-ata-tu gave the Crown advice that could have turned this crisis around. One of the few recommendations that survived into practice was the priority in the CYPF Act 1989 for Māori children to stay within hapū or iwi. This is based on a Māori understanding of well-being, which recognises connectedness to whānau, whakapapa and culture as sources of wellness. It needs to be understood in the context of generations of Māori exposed to Crown policies and practices breaking those connections.

Last year, the Crown appointed Children’s Commission published a report, State of Care 2015, looking at the performance of Child, Youth and Family. They say “We don’t know if children are better off as a result of state intervention. . . . the limited data we do have about health, education, and justice outcomes is concerning.” As bad as it is for many children in their care, Māori children are worse off. Again, although the majority of children referred to CYF and in care are Māori, CYF does not have and does not value the knowledge, skills and experience to work with Māori. Again, they recommended transforming CYF, including focusing on building cultural capacity and partnering with iwi.

Since then, Anne Tolley has announced that CYF is broken, which I will come back to, and that it will be replaced by a Ministry for Vulnerable Children. From the moment she announced the name of the Ministry, it was clear she was not taking advice from people you might expect her to, like the Children’s Commissioner, who said the name was ‘stigmatising and labelling’ (Vulnerable Children's Minister Anne Tolley: 'I'll call it, 'my ministry'). Given that the State of Care 2015 report found CYF’s ability to provide for Māori children such a concern and recommended working with iwi, you might expect that would be prioritised. Given that we know the importance of culture and connectedness for well-being, you might expect that whānau would be prioritised. Instead, one of the first legislative changes is to remove two clauses, one that prioritises Māori children staying within their hapū and iwi, and another that considers the effect of decisions on the stability of Māori children’s whānau, hapū and iwi (Turia blasts 'racist' children's law). These two changes together take away all protection for connections to whakapapa. It’s as if Tolley is trying to alienate Māori. When I heard, I was so shocked I thought it was a mistake.

I don’t understand it. CYF are bad at caring for children, and particularly bad at caring for Māori children. The majority of children in their ‘care’ are Māori. Two reports tell them to work with iwi, one tells them to ditch the monocultural approach and include Māori values at their heart. I would expect that to be the direction the Minister would move towards, even if glacially and superficially. Instead, she seems intent on pushing Māori away. Is this assimilationist step just monocultural arrogance (which Puao-te-ata-tu called institutional racism) and incompetence—importing models from overseas and ignoring history?

The other possibility is that it is ideological.

Tolley reacted strongly to the State of Care 2015 report—the system was broken and we needed to start again (eg, CYF system is ‘broken’, ‘It’s time for a clean break – CYF is gone’ says Tolley, ‘Horrifying’ outcomes for CYF kids warrant ‘a whole new model’ – Tolley). We don’t usually see ministers so scathing about their departments, even after bad reports. It’s uncommon enough that it reminded me of the time 5 years ago when we were told that ACC was broken, just before the announcement that private companies could compete for its work. Is it possible that this government is using the State of Care 2015 report as an excuse to remodel so private companies can contract to care for our children? Remember last year when Anne Tolley said she’d be happy for Serco to run social services for children (Anne Tolley still happy for Serco to run social services for children)? Or when she denied that Serco visited CYF facilities and had to apologise (Anne Tolley apologises over Serco link to Child, Youth and Family)? She then stated that “I'm not talking about putting any part of CYF's statutory responsibilities over to a private company” (Tolley: ‘No way’ Serco would run CYF), but something is going on.

I don’t know why Tolley is proposing something so divisive and counter-productive. What makes it even stranger to me, is that the clauses she wants to remove are so weak. Social workers have told me that the clauses are largely ignored, but that they are important because they are the only tool whānau can use to fight bad decisions.

I want to be clear, removing children from their whānau is violence. Sometimes, children’s parents aren’t coping, and children need to be protected. But the state has shown that it is not qualified to care for Māori. Iwi are putting their hands up (Iwi Leaders first to sign NZ covenant for children, Vulnerable kids win iwi, CYF pact), and have been for a long time. The authors of Puao-te-ata-tu argued that iwi should be making decisions for Māori children. Instead of setting up this strange new monocultural model, Tolley could be working out how to support iwi to take on that role. Whatever her reason for what she’s doing, whether it’s stupidity or ideology, the consequences are appalling—if we continue to fail Māori children in state care, we will continue generations of horrible outcomes. The thought of it makes me sick.

(for more information, check out the Hands Off Our Tamariki facebook page)

1 Beaglehole, E and P Beaglehole 1947 Some Modern Maoris, New Zealand Council for Educational Research Series (Whitcombe and Tombs, Auckland)


  1. Wow! Hard hitting! Love this.

  2. Excellent read. On the button. Thank you for the links. I look forward to reading Mana Ririki's report.

  3. Tautoko but needs to be put into action how can this be best achieved. I doubt whether it will occur through appealing to any current governing body nor do I think through protest. Most Maori do not possess the same high level academic skills and achievements as you clearly do nevertheless they know what's right from wrong and will tautoko the korero. You have a great depth of understanding of the problem which I have not witnessed anywhere previously whether among Maori or European. I am wondering how this matter can be accelerated so as bring immediate relief to many Maori families suffering from the ills which you have touched upon. I fear if the situation is not addressed immediately if not already too late it may be many more years of grief and turmoil before the matter gets raised again. In a simple Maori approach what happens if you bite the dust what then are they to wait for another Kim Mcbreen to come along.