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Whāngai As An Alternative To Our Broken Foster Care System And The Government’s Proposed Repeal

In light of New Zealand’s broken foster care system, where Maori children disproportionately suffer from its deficiencies, the government's proposed repeals threaten to cause further harm to an already vulnerable structure. Confronting the realities of this flawed system, the Maori cultural practice of whāngai offers a culturally rich, relational alternative to the proposed repeals. Whāngai practice embraces a child’s identity, cultural heritage, and community. Embracing the principles of whāngai would allow for the construction of a system that prioritises the cultural wellbeing of children, and promotes a nurturing, community-based framework for the care of vulnerable children.

The foster care system has long had disproportionately high numbers of Māori children. A report in 2019 by Oranga Tamariki showed that an alarming one in 14 Māori children are at risk of being removed from their families and placed in foster care, compared to 1 in 50 Pākehā children. In addition, Māori children are four times more likely to be uplifted than Pākehā. And to make matters worse, here is another disturbing statistic. Three quarters of the harm that happens in state care happens to Māori children. According to the report, Māori children are more likely to be physically, emotionally, and sexually abused in state care, than Pākehā children. It is clear that removing 1 in 14 Māori children from their parents is not keeping Māori children safe.

Not only are Māori children not safe in state care, but they are often also separated from their cultural heritage and familial connections. This cultural disconnect exacerbates the challenges that these vulnerable children already face, as it robs them of the cultural understanding and sensitivity that is necessary for their wellbeing. In failing to provide culturally responsive, nurturing environments for Māori, the state system is failing Māori children and their families.

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With a clear need for change, the foster system is set to take a turn for the worse. The government’s solution is to repeal the current law which aims to protect Māori in state care. The repeal will nullify Section 7AA of the Oranga Tamariki Act 1989, which outlines the states obligation to uphold the Treaty of Waitangi principles, and to find placements for Māori children within their own whanau, before looking elsewhere. Section 7AA also includes collaboration with the child’s community (whanau, hapu, and iwi), maintaining important connections with the child’s family, and the protection of whakapapa (genealogy and lineage). This section was introduced to reduce the disparities that exist between Māori and non-Māori children in state care, and its repeal will likely perpetuate these disparities. While the government argue that Section 7AA encourages race-based solutions, and that the repeal will allow for a colourblind system, this is a naive view. A system that is made up of almost 70% Māori can never be colour blind. What is colour blind, is attempting to build a foster care framework that does not recognise the cultural needs of the children who inhabit it. A system that does not fight for the wellbeing of every person will only result in further failures for Māori.

This repeal is a clear breach of the Treaty of Waitangi, and also breaches the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child (CRC). Article 8 of CRC emphasises the right of a child to his identity, nationality, and family relations. It recognises the importance of a child’s cultural background, and the need to respect and preserve identity, for a child’s overall wellbeing. If this repeal goes through, our government will be breaching not only our founding document, but the global right of children, as outlined by the UN, leading us down a disastrous path back.

The Māori practice of whāngai provides a superior alternative to both the repeals and the flawed foster care system. Whāngai has been practised since before colonisation, in order to ensure that a kinship based system was in place for children who need it. In whāngai, a child is raised by a member of the extended family, or community, in an open, fluid arrangement where the child grows up fully informed as to the identity of his or her birth parents, and their place within the whānau. Though the child is raised in a different home, the role and status of the birth parents is not displaced by the whāngai arrangement. This relational approach ensures the preservation of the child’s cultural identity, and fosters a strong sense of connection and belonging. Whāngai children are raised in a robust system that provides cultural, social, and practical support.

It is the birth right of every Māori child to have access to their whakapapa, their heritage, and their culture. Denial of these rights is anathema to Māori, as it threatens cultural identity. Whāngai embodies the spirit of the Treaty of Waitangi and makes use of the community support systems that are available in Māori communities. It employs the rich principles of the Māori world to ensure the child is nourished in every way.

Whāngai offers a richer, more holistic, inclusive approach to the child welfare problem that has plagued this country since its inception. Recognising, and validating this practice will offer a compelling alternative to the proposed repeals of Section 7AA which neglect the nuanced cultural considerations that apply for Māori children in care. The Whāngai emphasis on familial and community ties make it a great place to start for a reform. I suggest the government abandon its focus on the repeal and instead construct a more thoughtful, culturally responsive approach to foster care that incorporates whāngai principles.

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