No easy fix…  

What should an Oranga Tamariki social worker do (when uplifting a Maori child) to help the child’s parents feel better about themselves? I pose this question after reading the Commissioner for Children’s report on the practice of ‘uplifting’ children and failing to make the parents feel better about themselves.

The judge should know there is no credible answer to this question. Just as he knows that in the eyes of society, parents whose children are removed for safekeeping are seen as unfit to parent.  One hopes that as well as feeling anger towards the people taking their child, these parents also feel shame and humiliation. That would be a health emotional response.

Yet under his name, Judge Becroft allowed a blatantly biased report to enter the public domain, a report based solely on the feelings of parents who have had considerable dealings with Oranga Tamariki and its predecessors. There is not an inch of the report given to a balancing view, or for that matter, the needs of children. It is all about the aggrieved parents.

There has to be a good reason why a respected judge allowed such an unbalanced report to see the light of day; a report that screams of parental anguish and the anger of Maori in general who are sick of feeling denigrated. Perhaps the judge thought the outpouring healthy. I don’t.

I think misdirected anguish and blaming encouraged by Maori and European academics is a waste of time, energy and opportunity. For the truth is this: The number of Maori children neglected, abused and even murdered by Maori parents is shameful. And shame hurts. That these crimes are committed by the poor, substance addicted, poorly educated, and largely unintelligent segment of the Maori community; who have themselves been raised by inadequate parents, is not sufficient reason for pointing the finger elsewhere.

However, the scream is not all about shifting blame. It is also directed at real as well as perceived social work insensitivity and incompetence. Yet the judge has enough experience to know that Oranga Tamariki and its predecessors, unlike a research-based unit like the Law Commission, for instance, is an in-your-face enforcement agency dealing with angry people every day. Think traffic cop x ten. It is a far cry from university social work courses and a long way from being first choice for most graduates. Despite what Oranga Tamariki may claim, a fully professional staff is, and will remain, wishful thinking. And the continuing lack of bi-cultural competence is largely a result of rapid staff turnover. The mystery is that a core of first class social workers remains and that good people are still being recruited.

Nevertheless, even with a Maori chief the impasse would remain. Usually desperate for staff, the department is often reduced to taking on people with a one-year certificate in community work, and although expected to undertake further study to become qualified, the work is punishing and many will leave for jobs less likely to keep them awake at night.

In the meantime Maori and Pakeha academics repeat ad nauseam that a Maori child is indivisible from its whanau, hapu and iwi, and that all are diminished if the child is removed and separated from its identity in the name of soulless, individualistic European culture.

All of which is backed by a good deal of truth, of course. And reinforced by the indisputable, continuing negative affect of colonialism on Maori development. Oranga Tamariki and its antecedents have been familiar with this truth since at least the nineteen-eighties. They have battled valiantly to implement bi-cultural practice and their efforts, if not success, should be applauded.

Yet what Oranga Tamariki workers know better than anyone is this: In addition to the trauma of being separated from all that is familiar, a child taken into care may be further abused in foster care, which is at best a substitute for genuine, decent parents. That is why, time after time, the following question is asked by experienced social workers: Is this intervention likely to be more harmful in the long-run than leaving the child at home?

Time sometimes suggests the intervention may have been more harmful. Yet sometimes removing a child from its parents and its whanau, is a life-saver. So the question can never be satisfactorily answered. However, the decision to place a child in care is based on the belief that adults have a duty to protect children. Leaving a child in an abusive home suggests the needs of the child are subservient to the needs of the whanau, hapu, iwi. And that argument will continue.

Some are calling for devolution. Would abused children be better off with a statutory Maori agency? Possibly, although from time to time as many as 25% of Oranga Tamariki social workers are Maori.

Devolution has a mixed history. In 1988 Titewhai Harawira, who was head of the Whare Paia Maori mental health unit, was found guilty, with others, of beating a Carrington Hospital patient. She was jailed for nine months. There have been other examples. However, the Maori unit for alcohol and drug addiction in Queen Mary Hospital at Hanmer Springs had an enviable record.

Nevertheless, accepting that violence is not what the advocates of devolution have in mind, there are complicating obstacles to the ‘Maori way.’ Not least the disputed border between cultural, spiritual, and legal methods. How to reconcile the attitudes of ‘cultural support’ workers and clinical, or statutory workers? Who should make the decisions? Other troublesome borders exist within Maoridom.

Take the case of the Maori grandparents who took a child away from the parents because they objected to the parents’ behaviour. I have no argument against this swift, practical, traditional Maori approach to the problem. But in this case, although the parents were intimidated and released the child, they were not sufficiently intimidated to let the matter go. They involved Child, Youth and Family and the police on the grounds that their child had been kidnapped. The border between generations, particularly when rural and urban is added to the mix, will not go away with devolution.

And yet more and more Maori children are being abused and neglected while New Zealand’s   child protection agency loses ground. Recriminations, as the Becroft report illustrates, show no sign of decreasing. To move on, the state must concede that the 1989 recognition of whanau, hapu, and iwi was a first step, and that it is time Maori agencies accepted responsibility for a statutory role in the care of Maori children.

Share this:
Chris Horan

Chris is a former social worker, probation officer and Family Court counsellor, living in Hawea in the South Island.