Closing an ugly chapter in our history

In a remarkable reversal by the government, Māori children taken from their families by the state may yet win back the right to be re-homed with whānau, hapū or iwi Māori. The priority to consider Māori whānau when rehoming Māori children uplifted from unsafe homes had been a central feature of Child, Youth and Family protocol for over 30 years. 

This priority was dropped when the Children, Young Persons, and Their Families (Oranga Tamariki) Legislation Bill was presented to Parliament. As recently as Waitangi Day, Prime Minister Bill English was immovable on the issue, asserting he had no problem with the wording. But last week Social Development Minister Anne Tolley agreed she is open to reinstating this important right. Due to the unusual coverage of the issue in the media (Māori issues aren't typically given prominence in non-Māori media unless there's a crime or expensive Treaty claim involved) the topic came up in conversation frequently in the past few months.

"But Māori children are more likely to be abused when they're put in Māori homes, aren't they?"

"Why do Māori want to put kids in unsafe homes, just because they're Māori?"

"Shouldn't the safety of children be the most important consideration?"

Child, Youth and Family (CYF) has been broken for a long time. The Government's own report from 2015 confirmed this, citing fragmented, difficult-to-navigate services which lack accountability. The Confidential Listening and Assistance Service chaired by Judge Carolyn Henwood reported on decades of abuse and mistreatment of children at the hands of the state. A new Ministry was proposed and the Ministry for Vulnerable Children (Oranga Tamariki) opens in April, under new legislation.

Debate about the legislation continues this week. The Social Affairs Select Committee is hearing from submitters who were so numerous and vocal that the deadline for accepting submissions was extended by two weeks.

The questions above have been put to me in recent months by people who have been confused about the passionate opposition to this proposed legislation. Not bad people. Not racists. Just people who haven't been given the complete picture.

On the surface these questions represent entirely reasonable concerns. If Māori children are more likely to be further victimised when placed in Māori homes compared with non-Māori homes, as government data suggests, the solution is surely to remove the provision from the original Act that prioritised placing Māori children with whānau, hapū or iwi. Māori children go to Māori homes and get abused. Stop sending them to Māori homes. Problem solved.

Unfortunately, this interpretation doesn't stand up to scrutiny. We're talking about a government agency which has the power to uplift children from unsafe homes. The decision about where to put those children sits with the administrators of this system, the social workers. Who then has the responsibility for ensuring the homes children are placed in are safe? After giving the power and resourcing to a government agency, we turn around and blame Māori whānau. Does that seem fair?

This isn't hyperbole from some Māori radical writing from a bunker in Te Urewera. You can read a range of reports resulting from the Government's own analysis to confirm this. This from Judge Henwood's report: "There was a view that Māori children were put with Māori families, whether they were suitable or not, which often resulted in unsatisfactory outcomes”. This does not simplistically demonstrate a failure of Māori whānau but points to a workforce without appropriate levels of cultural engagement and professional training to identify the right whānau for children to be placed with. As Dame Tariana Turia said recently, the idea that there are no suitable whānau to place a child in within a wider iwi is ridiculous.

 "I'll use my own [Whanganui] iwi as an example," she said. "You can't tell me that within 8000 people connected by our river, you cannot find someone to care for a child."

The Government decided that the cultural identity of Māori children should not be given priority as a fundamental right, based on this one-dimensional interpretation of the history of its own system. Even though the rights of children to an identity and to learn about and practise their culture are enshrined in the United Nation's Convention on the Rights of the Child, which our Government ratified in 1993. But who reads those things once we've signed them anyway, right?

"We need to hold a full independent inquiry into historic abuse in state care."

I need to make an important point about responsibility here. There is no doubt that the abusers in these cases bear responsibility for their actions. This movement of people who believe the state can and should do better for Māori children is not about absolution for abusers in Māori whānau. To remain silent or tacitly condone abusers is to be complicit. This has been clear throughout the hui I’ve attended on the issue.

This misinterpretation of the circumstances of abuse in state care could inflict enormous harm on Māori children in the future. By seeing all the bad and none of the good that comes with a strong connection with one's identity through being with whānau is ignorant and dangerous. It also directly contradicts tino rangatiratanga, guaranteed by Te Tiriti.

You might be reading this thinking, this is great but isn't it yesterday's news? Isn't this a triumph of the democratic process and we can all sit back and be pleased the system works? Yes and no. Yes it’s great that reason has prevailed and that Māori perspectives will be considered by the Minister. And no, it’s not over.

I don't believe anyone, of any political colour, would wish to perpetuate the abuses of the past on the children of tomorrow but this legislation, no matter how well conceived, will not advance the change we all desire until another important issue is addressed.

We need to hold a full independent inquiry into historic abuse in state care. Why? Because without a full investigation of exactly how, and for whom the state got it wrong in the past, we risk making the same mistakes again. Just as important, there are many victims living with the effects of their horrific experiences who are calling for meaningful acknowledgement of their pain and suffering. The Confidential Listening and Assistance Service and government review of Child Youth and Family were important steps in this process, and a full inquiry will demonstrate the commitment of our elected leaders to making amends and closing this ugly chapter in our history.

To all those who educated, agitated and enabled people to submit on this issue and ensure adequate representation - kei te mihi nui ki a koutou. We're not done yet. 

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