Māori have a long history of the removal of tamariki from whānau to be placed in the ‘care’ of the state, as have indigenous peoples around the world. It is a practice that has been one of the key tools of colonisation: a critical part of systemic attempts to wipe out indigenous culture through assimilation and destruction of whakapapa and cultural connection.
For decades the state would purposefully place tamariki Māori with Pākehā whānau to try and stamp the Māoritanga out of our babies.
We know that thousands of tamariki in this country were abused as wards of the state, adding trauma on already traumatised and disconnected kids. Shamefully the government still refuses to even hold an inquiry into that abuse or formally apologise for it.
Those who were abused in state care are among the strongest voices calling for whānau and extended whakapapa connections to remain a priority when placements of tamariki Māori are made.
Theirs are the voices Michael Coote needs to listen to, who erroneously claimed in the National Business Review last week that these priority placements are increasing abuse of tamariki Māori.
As the Government is implementing its review of Child, Youth and Family (CYFs), it is of fundamental importance that we highlight that Māori have the answers and solutions for the care and wellbeing of our own tamariki.
The whānau, hapū and iwi-first placement provisions need be strengthened, not removed and weakened.
Whāngai has been a customary practice in te ao Māori for much longer than the state has been taking our tamariki away from us. It is a tikanga that goes back hundreds of years, and is a strategy for strong, healthy and connected whānau and community systems. It recognises that tamariki are at the very centre of whānau.
Whāngai was often where a couple’s first child was brought up by grandparents or raised by the child’s aunty or uncle. Traditionally the child was raised by people within the wider whānau context, and would know who its blood parents and immediate whānau were, unlike a closed adoption. There were many purposes to whāngai—to link whakapapa to whenua rights, to provide a whakapapa for barren couples, or to assist in caring for a child where the blood parents needed support.
Today in a modern context this practice continues. There are examples all around me where my friends and family have taken on the role of raising tamariki within a much wider whānau context. My friend is raising her whāngai daughter who is a blood sibling to my other friend’s whāngai daughter. Both friends keep their respective whāngai daughters connected to their sibling. Other friends are raising three young whāngai that happen to also be blood siblings. My cousin gifted her first-born child to her sister and brother-in-law who were yearning for another child. My parents-in-law raised a sick baby to wellness, and keep him connected to his blood mum and blood siblings. My own family have over the years all pitched in to raise my teenage nephew in our various households as our own. Grandparents throughout my whakapapa have raised mokopuna as their own, essentially in a sibling relationship with their own parent. This particular example is very common.
Māori have always done this. We have stepped up, shared the privilege of nurturing tamariki, and have strived to keep tamariki connected to their whakapapa. It is a practice which encapsulates the whakataukī ‘matua rautia – the many hands that raise our mokopuna’. It is a practice which upholds the importance of whakapapa to the wellbeing of tamariki Māori.
In their drive to reform CYFs to create a “child-centred model” the government are trying to remove and amend critical and hard fought-for provisions around prioritising the placement of tamariki Māori within their own wider whānau, hapū or iwi.
What the Government, and Michael Coote, clearly don’t understand is that a truly child-centred model would recognise the paramount importance of tamariki remaining connected to their whakapapa and their culture.
Any system that allows for the removal of tamariki Māori by the state needs to have tikanga Māori and the concepts of whanaungatanga and mana tamariki at its foundation. It needs to be structured so that the state works with the child’s wider whānau, hapū and iwi to find the best placement that will ensure all of our mokopuna are able to live good, happy and prosperous lives.
Because there’s nothing more important than our babies.