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Open Letter to Hon. Tracey Martin (Minister for Children)

Dear Minister

Over the past few weeks issues regarding the uplift practices of Māori pēpi by Oranga Tamariki have been raised, leading to several national inquiries. There has also been a tendency by some to portray these issues as one-off isolated incidents. This is misleading. Māori experts have been raising the issues with the practices of New Zealand’s child welfare agencies for decades, but have been ignored or shut out when outlining culturally competent solutions. Indeed in 1988 Puao Te Ata Tu raised these exact same issues, also offering solutions.

As psychologists we experience the whole system. The current Ministry for Children system is not working for many of our whānau Māori. In an environment where 60% of the tamariki are Māori it is clear that the legal structure to remove Māori children is working incredibly well to serve the needs of Crown agencies and their representatives. The removal of tamariki and taitamariki Māori from the fullness of their whānau, hapū, and iwi contexts under the mandate of Pākehā decision-making is an act of colonisation. This occurs alongside the marginalisation and subjugation of Māori systems of governance, education, justice, health, and land to the Crown. It continues to perpetuate the
ngakau mamae (pain) that has diminished individual and collective Māori mana (esteem), tapu (sacredness) and mauri (vitality) caused by Crown action and inaction.

The inappropriate use of psychometric tools with whānau engaged with the Ministry for Children is just one issue. Our experiences of the system show us hundreds of whānau who live in fear of the Ministry of Children and their systemically racist underlying practices. We live in a media saturated society where racism is bolstered as ‘truth’, ‘fact’ or ‘just someone’s point of view’, and isn’t seen as the pernicious and harmful force that erodes the humanities and liberties of Māori to ‘be’ as we are, want, and aspire to. There is substantial evidence across domains of health, social services, and justice systems that Māori are incorrectly psychologically pathologised, or criminalised, by virtue of an incorrect (and racist) ‘professional’ judgement.

We know, as the Minister herself has admitted, there are cultural competency gaps for Ministry for Children staff, and although many social workers are well meaning they do not understand whānau-centred kaupapa Māori practices. Despite not having this cultural competency, Ministry for Children staff have immense power over whānau with little accountability or recourse for whānau.
The current system affords an extremely narrow scope for Māori to be self-determining in this space and articulate what would support whānau to wellbeing, and develop initiatives and ways of working that are premised upon mātauranga (knowledge), tikanga (practices), and te reo (language) Māori. Instead, Western imported practice and systems are considered ‘superior’, normal and the common sense ‘default’ way things should be. As was identified thirty years ago in Puao Te Ata Tu, a profound misunderstanding or ignorance of the place of the child in Māori society and its relationship with whānau, hapū and iwi structures lies at the heart of the issue we face.

We know there is a lack of consistent protocols across the Ministry – processes differ depending on where you live and whānau face significant barriers in trying to navigate complex unpredictable processes. We know at times the legal system does not allow input from whānau. We know that all resources are not made available to whānau. Psychological reports are not always ordered before a child is taken from their whānau and psychological reports are not used in their entirety, are withheld or replaced. There are not enough Māori psychologists available to Māori whānau under the Ministry for Children legislation, meaning that very few Māori whānau and tamariki will ever see a Māori psychologist who is best placed to understand their needs and pathways forward. We know that foundational attachment practices are put at risk by Ministry for Children practices, placing significant barriers in the way of whānau having their tamariki returned.

July 1st, 2019 marks a significant opportunity for the Ministry for Children to actualise their intention to “put tamariki first”. This is not achieved in isolation or by having “one caring adult”. “Tamariki first” exists within a whānau-centred Kaupapa Māori process which ensures whānau remain at the centre. When tamariki and taitamariki Māori (Māori children and young people) are removed from their whānau (extended family) and placed in non whānau care they are also removed from rich connections to their tūpuna (ancestors), tūrangawaewae (place to stand), and associated whānau connections that include potential supportive and nurturing relationships. This is akin to stripping away a korowai adorned with whānau, hapū and iwi from tamariki and taitamariki Māori.

Colonial contexts inform further challenges for tamariki and taitamariki atawhai
(Māori children and young people in state care) to navigate. They have had decisions made for them without their consent or prior knowledge. They require support to heal from whakapapa (ancestral) trauma, including the circumstances and contexts whereby they were removed from their whānau. They may have difficulty accessing traditional understandings of Māori identity and ways of being in the world. They may also be more susceptible to understanding themselves in relation to deficit-focussed narratives about Māori with state care experience. Tamariki and taitamariki atawhai require the people in their lives to support them in their sacredness, uniqueness, potential, and diverse aspirations.

Te Pā harakeke is a traditional way of thinking about how to achieve and support whānau Māori, who may have struggles. It is not about one isolated harakeke as indicated on the left, but much more about ensuring that the Pā harakeke is embodied with supportive relationships. It is about providing the range of supports necessary for whānau as they raise tamariki who are able to reach their own aspirations alongside those of their whānau. The Minister herself has stated mental health, addiction and family harm are key issues for whānau engaged with the Ministry for Children. As has been consistently stated by Māori including across recent reviews to Government in mental health and addiction, justice and welfare, we need to be brave and look to reclaim our Māori tamariki and whānau aspirations within the broader context of a whānau-centred kaupapa Māori system which works for us. This includes reclaiming our names and practices. ‘Tamariki first’ for us means whānau ora. We are waiting for the true intent of the legislation to be enacted.

Yours sincerely

Members of He Paiaka Totara

Tania Cargo – T.Cargo@auckland.ac.nz
Dr Michelle Levy - michellelevy007@gmail.com
Dr Bridgette Masters-Awatere – Bridgette.Masters-Awatere@waikato.ac.nz
Sharon Rickard
Dr Jade Le Grice
Dr Ainsleigh Cribb-Su’a
Dr Kiri Tamihere-Waititi
Megan Fitzpatrick
Dr Hukarere Valentine
Dr Rebecca Wirihana
Leona Manna
Dr Julie Wharewera-Mika
Dr Erana Cooper
Dr Mohi Rua
Dr Gemma Tricklebank
Dr Casey Mendiola
Holly Winder

He Paiaka Totara is a collective of Māori psychologists trained, registered and working in New Zealand and those who support the indigenous psychology kaupapa. Members of this group have come together to comment and respond to issues raised regarding the uplifting of Māori children.

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