Children’s Commissioner: NZ’s second chance for Māori

Children’s commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft hopes systemic failings in New Zealand’s care and protection system, which enabled further marginalisation of Māori children, are never repeated. Teuila Fuatai reports.

It was a stark lesson in New Zealand’s race relations, delivered by a Pākeha man to a sea of brown faces.

With a starting point of 1989, former principal Youth Court judge and current Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft reflected on how the judicial system had once come so close to doing right by Māori children.

“After enormous community dissatisfaction in our system in dealing with children and young people... the charter for a revolution was laid down in 1989,” he told the audience at this year’s Te Hunga Rōia Māori o Aotearoa (New Zealand Māori Law Society) annual conference on Friday.

That charter was supposed to be the old Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act - since updated and renamed Oranga Tamariki Act.

When it was passed nearly 30 years ago, it made it a requirement that the whanau, hāpu and iwi of any child either removed from care by the state, or arrested, be consulted.

And for a few short years, this happened, Becroft remarked.

We practised with a half-baked, twinked-out [CYFs] Act, that never, ever delivered on its promise.

- Judge Andrew Becroft

He even told the story of siblings, removed from their parents care by CYFs, in the early 1990s to prove it.

“The social workers first went to the Far North and met with hāpu and iwi.”

Following that, a busload of 40 family members travelled from Whangarei to where the children were staying to meet with social workers and work out where they should live. The meeting took place over three days at a marae and was paid for by CYFs, Becroft said.

“I thought what a great model….but would that happen now? I’ve asked so many Family Court lawyers and advocates and they said that you wouldn’t see that now.”

Currently, the budget for those meetings - known as family group conferences - was capped at $50. On average, $22 was spent. “[That] would pay for a packet of Malt Thins, some sandwiches and tea and coffee.”

Furthermore, by 2010, at least 75 per cent of family group conferences were held in CYFs offices. “The average attendance was three - the young person and two family members. There was negligible hāpu and iwi involvement, let alone facilitation or delegation to hāpu and iwi to run family group conferences.”

How was it that legislation which referenced whanau, hāpu and iwi 26 times failed to consider all those crucial groups, settling instead for immediate family members as the status quo?

“If I’m honest, like everyone else in the system, I read that provision as if it stopped at whanau,” Becroft said. “No one talked about it in that language [of whanau, hāpu and iwi]. By 2001, you could have just about twinked out those words in the legislation.

“And I stand condemned because I’m one of the lead judges that had responsibility for the [CYFs] Act. And throughout all my time, we practised with a half-baked, twinked-out Act, that never, ever delivered on its promise.”

The disproportional amount of Māori children in CYFs care - and overrepresentation of Māori in the wider judicial and prison systems, reflected that failure, he said.

“[However], this generation, especially the law students and young lawyers, you have been accorded a second chance that we blew.” The new Oranga Tamariki Act, implemented in July, had an even stronger focus on whanau, hāpu and iwi.

“The revolution is available,” Becroft said. “It’s not usually for a judge or commissioner to talk revolutions, but that’s what it is - it can’t be seen in any other way.”

And in keeping with the outspoken tone of his address, Becroft also offered an interesting framework for a future New Zealand:

“I often thought if a visitor from Mars came to New Zealand and looked at our care and protection system [for children], they would say there’s no sign of intelligent life on Earth - because it is a Pākeha system with Māori add-ons, sadly for a clientele - 63 per cent - who are Māori.

“Surely, we should have a Māori system with some clip-ons who are Pākeha?”

“This [new legislation] provides the basis for it.”

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