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What is Whanau Ora and how does it apply to the Family Court

Hon Tariana Turia
Minister Responsible for Whanau Ora

Copthorne Hotel, Oriental Bay, Wellington
Thursday 4 August 2011, 11.30am
'National Family Court Judges Conference: What is Whanau Ora and how does it apply to the Family Court?'


I thank you for your interest and your initiative in being open to the connection between Whanau Ora and the Family Court.

It is also a great pleasure for me to be here today in the company of so many great minds from home and abroad.

If this conference was taking place in another 36 days time, I might have thought there was an ulterior motive for so many international celebrities within our midst! But no – clearly all of you are here because of your commitment and your passion for the realm of the family court, and I commend you all for that.

It is an excellent time for us to learn from your experience, and for us to share, to reflect and to critique the story of the Family Court in Aotearoa, as it has evolved over the last thirty years.

Three months ago, the Minister of Justice, Hon Simon Power announced a review of the Family Court. The focus of the review – amongst the obvious expectations of accountability, efficiency, cost-effectiveness and sustainability – also includes the goal of improving the Family Court so that it is

“responsive to those people who need access to its services – particularly children and vulnerable people”.

If we are to talk about responsiveness, I commend to you the Whanau Ora approach as a source of inspiration, of support and of reference for the Family Court.

In the very early days of the Family Court in Aotearoa, a ground-breaking report into the activities of the then Department of Social Welfare was released.

That report, Puao-te-ata-tu; literally the heralding of a new dawn, commented on the need for change in the operation of our courts, our policies and practices concerning the care of Maori children and of family case work.

The report concluded, and I quote,
“at the heart of the issue is a profound misunderstanding or ignorance of the place of the child in Maori society and its relationship with whanau, hapu, iwi structures”.

I would hope we have come some way forward since then.

Yet if I look at the data around Maori involvement with the Family Court, I cannot help but be distressed that some 47% of children in care and protection cases are Maori.

We have a collective interest in getting it right, in enabling all of our tamariki to thrive and to grow into contributing, effective members of our society; and to free our whanau from state care. We must restore to ourselves, our responsibilities and obligations to our own; believing whanau are the best people to take ownership of their solutions.

I want to revisit some of the recommendations relating to the Family Court in Puao-te-ata-tu; recommendations which helped to shape the internationally recognized framework for change outlined in the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act of 1989.

It was recommended that in the consideration of the welfare of a Maori child:

• it was desirable to maintain the child within the hapu;

• the whanau/hapu/iwi must be consulted and may be heard in Court on the placement of a Maori child;

• Court officers, social workers, or any other person dealing with a Maori child should be required to make inquiries as the child’s heritage and family links;

• the process of law must enable the kinds of skills and experience required for dealing with Maori children and young person’s hapu members to be demonstrated, understood and constantly applied.

• This will require appropriate training with regard to customary cultural preference and current Maori circumstances and aspirations;

• and that prior to any placement the Court should consult members of the child’s hapu or with persons active in tribal affairs with a sound knowledge of the hapu concerned.

I would really love to know how these principles are maintained by Judges working in what is acknowledged is an extremely busy Court – dealing with over 67,000 new applications last year.

Do you have the cultural competency; how can you place the orders you give out within a context of whanau capability, how do we take into account whanau well-being?

Every judge who sits in the Family Court must be culturally competent to make decisions of such long-lasting impact.

And I want to pose a particular challenge this morning. I am of the view that it is totally inappropriate to place Maori children outside of their own kin – whether that be with an iwi that is not of their own whakapapa – or whether that be with another culture altogether.

The decisions that are made in court, if they are genuinely in the interests of our tamariki, must be ones which enable our children to flourish and thrive – and to do that, they need to understand the essence of who they are.

It is totally unacceptable – and indeed damaging - to deculturate our children by placing them outside of their genealogical links. Despite the very best intentions in the world it has every possibility of causing long term harm.

And I say this as a grandmother, an aunty, a whanau member who has experienced the impact of too many children cast adrift from their own tribal roots.

I know that none of this is easy. I acknowledge what Judge Peter Boshier has described as the Court of Raw Emotion – there is nothing quite as agonizing as the situation some of our children experience. Your ability as the Judiciary to demonstrate compassion, while at the same time exercising the duty of care, takes an enormous toll and I would never under-estimate the strength it takes to do what you do.

Ultimately you are charged with the responsibility of fair and just decisions about the care and protection, the safety and welfare of our children – in my mind there is nothing more important.

How then, can Whanau Ora influence the work of the Family Court?

In essence, Whānau Ora places whānau at the centre of our gaze.

Yesterday a Samoan man shared with me the concept his father instilled in him, that his sisters were the pupil in his eye. This was to ensure that he understood his responsibility as a brother, to always ensure that they were protected and nurtured.

It resonated with me – when our eyes look out into the world – our horizons are viewed also through the eyes of our whanau. We bring with us our nieces, our mokopuna, our grandparents, our children. They frame our vision; they define us, we are who we are because of them.

Such thinking requires a new approach to the design and delivery of government funded initiatives and services to whānau.

And I have to say, it sets up challenges for existing legislation around privacy and confidentiality in particular.

Being whanau is to take a new interpretation to the phrase, mind your own business.

As I have always told my children – and now my children’s children – and their children after them – their wellbeing is intregal to mine. Minding my own business means I am wrapped up in their lives.

I do not seek permission from the Courts to do this – these are rights instilled in me through the gift of whakapapa.

Over successive generations and state administrations, our whanau have been disempowered of the rights they have to be self-managing; to take responsibility for their own future.

Whānau Ora reinstates our collective capacity within all whānau to problem solve, to nurture each other and to realise aspirations.

It is about working in a way that recognises and builds on the strengths and leadership in whānau - rather than focussing on individual problems or individual interactions with services.

This does not mean that individuals and immediate crises are not dealt with to ensure safety. However, a Whānau Ora approach goes beyond a competent crisis response, to ensure whānau are supported to move into a positive and self managing space.

I am a firm believer in an approach that focuses on ‘what is good’ about a whānau and their ability to care for their own as being able to have a greater positive impact on whānau wellbeing compared to an approach that focuses on addressing negative aspects.

A major drive in advancing Whanau Ora has been through the leadership of 25 collectives (consisting of 158 providers) across ten regions of New Zealand. These groups have been resourced to develop a Programme of Action to enhance their capacity to work in a whānau-centred way.

Whānau Ora is not about designing a whole new series of programmes or establishing a new branch of providers.

I cannot emphasize enough that no-one else – the state or the providers it funds – can fix the issues that confront whanau. Only when whanau can recognise what they need to do for themselves, will we ever see the transformation that will result in positive outcomes.

The relevance of Whānau Ora to the day-to-day work of the Family Court is immediately apparent. The Family Court is dealing with the sharp end of family issues: relationship breakdown, family violence, and the care and protection of children.

In every one of these situations, whether it is being managed through an early intervention process, mediation or in the Court, there are opportunities to recognise whānau strengths, leadership and capability and to engage with wider whānau, beyond the household or immediate family, to resolve disputes and build lasting solutions.

The legislation and many of the developments in the Family Court processes and practices over the last ten years have created opportunities to recognise the unique role of whānau.

The increased emphasis by the Family Court on early intervention, mediation and problem-solving also creates opportunities to incorporate principles and practices consistent with Whānau Ora. Through this work, the Family Court provides more opportunities for whānau to strengthen their own ability to be cohesive, nurturing, and self managing.

Of course, I am well aware that a whānau-centred approach is already demonstrated by many individual practitioners, judges, counsellors and service providers. However, there are no institutional guarantees.

In everyday practice some whānau members find themselves marginalised by Court processes or involved as an afterthought. Many grandparents, for example, experience institutional and informal barriers to participation in Family Court processes and the precious role that they can play is undervalued.

But I want to repeat, Whānau Ora places whānau at the centre. This is far more challenging than recognising the role of whānau, hapū and iwi in a abstract way. It requires institutional support at every level.

Individual compliance is no longer enough. Real engagement with whanau, tangible support and a sense of hope is critical to achieving change.

Fundamentally, the challenge for us all, is how to nurture the ability of whānau members to be the loving partner, the nurturing responsible father or mother that they are capable of being.

Of course it is easier to be a nurturing, responsible parent or partner if you have sufficient income, have experienced a nurturing family life and are not battling depression or addiction.

If relationships are to be improved and children nurtured, relief from unrelenting debt, crowded housing and lack of meaningful, well remunerated employment is also vital.

In a recent paper, ‘Doing good justice in bad times: strategy’ by Kim Workman, he talks about the idea of justice reinvestment – to quantify savings and reinvest in our more vulnerable communities, by redeveloping housing and better coordinating education, job training, health and employment opportunities. In essence, it is a recognition that for change to be enduring, the system needs to take responsibility for supporting our communities to better support themselves.

And I want to just leave some final thoughts on programme effectiveness for Maori.

It is important, as we seek to improve outcomes for Māori through the Family Court and in other settings, to balance the focus on international evidence for certain programmes with the reality that many Māori do not attend, do not engage or fail to gain the assistance they need from many of these ‘evidence-based’ programmes.

There is growing recognition that for any programme, much gets lost in translation. Evidence of effectiveness for Māori from many programmes is very limited. And I know that this has been a concern voiced by the Principal Family Court Judge with respect to programmes to reduce violence.

Sir Professor Peter Gluckman has made the point that for more complex social problems, linear thinking and an unsophisticated application of ‘evidence’ is inappropriate.

It is time to trust Māori capacity for innovation and for problem solving – for Aotearoa to create our own evidence.

I am hoping, through the emphasis I have given in Whānau Ora to action research that the stories of success we see in so many whanau will become the foundation for our future progress.

Finally I would have to say, that my hope is that Whānau Ora’s greatest contribution to the Family Court will be to put you all out of work! I would dearly love to see a decrease in workload, a stemming of the flow of Māori into the system, as applicants or respondents.

At its heart, Whānau Ora is aspirational and seeks to rebuild the capacity of all whānau to be self managing, cohesive and nurturing. While there is obvious application to Family Court interventions, the promise of Whānau Ora is in the promotion of positive whānau relationships and increased capacity for whānau to sort out problems early, safely and effectively. It is a promise I am determined to live up to every single day.


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