Shaking-Up CYF: Minister of Social Development, Anne Tolley, must balance the urgent need to "modernise" the delivery of New Zealand's child and family support services against the equally pressing need to improve the delivery of such services to Maori. Achieving both objectives without alienating large sections of the Maori community will not be easy.
FAR-REACHING CHANGES LOOM if the ideas of the Expert Panel set up to “modernise” Child Youth and Family (CYF) are implemented. Their just released report: “Investing in New Zealand’s Children and their Families” envisages both a new approach to child welfare, and a new set of structures to give their re-ordered priorities practical effect. At the same time, however, the Expert Panel was also asked to address the disproportionate number of Maori children requiring the intervention of child welfare professionals. Achieving both objectives without alienating large sections of the Maori community will not be easy. The Minister, Anne Tolley, does not want an embarrassing cultural stand-off.
At the core of most explanations for the appalling social statistics in which New Zealand’s indigenous people are enmeshed is the continuing impact of colonialism on the lives of Maori people. For one-and-a-half centuries, the loss of land, and the economic consequences of that loss, has not only impoverished Maori, but has also led to the tragic manifestations of that enforced poverty being used to justify the dominant Settler Society’s racist assumption of cultural superiority.
The problem with this argument is that, if it is true, then all the tragic manifestations of Maoridom’s enforced poverty: domestic violence, child abuse, drug and alcohol addiction, criminal offending, chronic illness, homelessness and educational under-achievement; must also be true. That being the case, the most obvious solutions which present themselves to the dominant Settler Society, will all tend to involve extracting Maori from the negative consequences of colonialism, and replanting them in environments which reflect its more positive features.
In the words of the Expert Panel’s Final Report:
“There has been considerable debate in the past three decades on the place of children in Māori society and on the place of whānau. Much has been said in order to emphasise the differences in Māori society from others and this is not always accurate or true. Some interpretations have confused the issue. The safety of Māori children is paramount and any work we do must be child-centred. A well-functioning whānau provides a sound basis to help solve the problems that face these children at particular times in their lives, but a badly functioning whānau can be dangerous. We must never compromise the safety, security, and sense of belonging of any child in their care arrangements.”
Decoded, this paragraph signals the abandonment of the policy that the best interests of vulnerable and/or abused Maori children will always be best served by keeping them in the care of their extended family group. The policy itself arose out of the grim experiences of both Maori and other indigenous people (most particularly Aboriginal Australians) at the hands of Settler Societies whose official child welfare policy held that it was in the afflicted child’s best interest to be raised in strict isolation from its parents’ culture.
This was the policy approach that led to such eugenicist tragedies as the so-called “Stolen Generation” of Aboriginal children. Maori nationalists were determined that such pernicious examples of Settler Society racism would never be repeated. CYF’s “Whanau First” approach, first implemented in the late 1980s, was intended to ensure that young Maori were not cut loose from their cultural moorings and transformed into Brown Pakeha.
In practical terms, however, CYF’s Whanau First approach all-too-often saw abused Maori children thrown out of the frying-pan and into the fire. With the toxic legacies of colonialism still at work across broad swathes of Maori society – how could it be otherwise?
How can Anne Tolley, and the new organisation she intends to erect in CYF’s place, square this vexing circle? At least part of the answer lies in that interestingly euphemistic phrase, “a well-functioning whanau”.
Logic would suggest that the chances of serious abuse occurring in a well-functioning whanau are reasonably slim. In all societies there are virtuous as well as vicious familial cycles. Could Ms Tolley be wondering: “If success breeds success, perhaps it can also foster it?”
As anyone who’s read Charles Dickens’ novels will attest, that is certainly how the Victorians viewed the problem. What better fate could there be for a helpless waif raised in an Orphanage than to end up as the adopted son of a well-to-do middle-class gentleman?
Is this how Ms Tolley and her Neo-Victorian colleagues propose to rescue the neglected and abused children of Maoridom? Not by replicating the racist horrors of the Stolen Generation, but by taking full advantage of the fact that the Maori Renaissance of the 1980s and 90s has given birth to a rapidly expanding Maori Middle-Class. Is she hoping to see them doing well by doing good? First, as the providers of the sort of “early intervention” and “wrap-around services” envisaged by National’s “social investment” strategy; or, if that fails, by offering Maoridom’s battered babies a well-functioning foster whanau?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 12 April 2016.