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Writing as a grindstone. Finished writing, unfinished writing, writing ideas, things that I'll never get round to writing, other things. Grinding it out, grinding away. Writing some more.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Racial justice meets the child welfare system

Originally posted on The Spinoff Parents November last year, re-posting here to support the Human Rights Commission taking their open letter to parliament today (event page).

You may have heard the Crown have had a series of bad reports for their child welfare work. Really bad reports. So bad that the Crown has set up a new ministry and is proposing changes to the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act. What they really need to do is give up and admit this isn’t their thing.

The Crown has been horrible at child welfare. The Crown has taken children from families for almost arbitrary reasons, like skipping school or being poor—that in itself is an inexcusable act of violence. It has taken those children from safe homes and put them in dangerous situations where many have been abused and neglected. Can you imagine how you would feel if this was your kid? How angry, devastated and useless you might feel, what that would do to a whānau? Māori have been especially targeted, both in who the Crown has taken and who is most likely to be abused. Two Crown reports last year showed the extent of the Crown’s responsibility for the abuse of children. The Crown has blamed CYF, which is kind of like when my kid blames her foot for pushing the cat. According to the Crown, it’s all CYF’s fault: we need a new model, the law needs simplifying. The changes that the Crown has announced are a signal that there will be no real change—it will be the same stuff with a different name.

Many reports have identified the problem, but the Crown doesn’t get it. The problem is not the name of the ministry or that the law was too complex. The problem is that the Crown is colonising, controlling and authoritarian. That strategy has failed, it is time for a different strategy—like sharing the responsibility with the communities that are most affected. A Crown report in the 1980s identified that institutional racism was shutting Māori out of child welfare decisions, while at the same time Māori children are the majority in the child welfare system. For decades, Māori have argued that the best solution for our children is to give the responsibility to Māori.

The Crown seems allergic to the idea of sharing power. Like so many patriarchs, the only way it knows to respond to criticism is to tighten control. But surely we all want the same thing: an actual solution. A solution means solving this mess, so we won’t have endless reports on how useless and abusive our child welfare system is, so children are protected and stay out of the system, so they don’t carry that trauma through their lives, so we are moving towards a future we want.

To protect children and undo the damage that the Crown has inflicted on whānau, the enduring solution is to take that power from the Crown, and give decision making, resources and responsibility to appropriate rōpū, communities, hapū, iwi. The Crown’s task then becomes supporting rōpū to prepare for that responsibility. Our task is to work out how to make it happen.

Some backstory: institutional racism and unconscious bias

When I was born 40-odd years ago, my mother was very young and single, and so I was taken immediately for adoption. The Adoption Act 1955 was what some people would call colour-blind. It didn’t refer to culture or ethnicity; all adoptions were treated the same. Other words for that are institutionally racist, or assimilationist, or colonising. In practice, it meant Māori understandings of wellbeing, adoption and whakapapa were ignored and all adoptions were according to Pākehā ideas of what was best: closed adoptions, a complete break between the birth family and the adopting family. By Māori standards, that’s abuse.

My mother was white and no attempt was made to find out the ethnicity of my father (the Adoption Act pretty much excluded fathers). I had pale skin and dark hair, so I was white enough—the social worker didn’t ask about my ethnicity. Despite that, when my adopting parents asked, the social workers guaranteed that I was white.

I was adopted and told that I was Pākehā, and that was the story I grew up with. It’s a story that became harder and harder to believe, but in this monocultural society, it nevertheless stole any opportunity for me to grow up with te reo, tikanga or mātauranga Māori. I grew up with one part of my cultural heritage well-represented, and another part denigrated, so that I will never feel at home among people and in places where I belong.

I am well aware that I was luckier than many. Being born pale skinned and female meant I was adopted as a baby, which meant I was destined to have it easier than those who were not. But my history gives me some small knowledge of what it is to be disconnected from whakapapa and shut out of belonging.

I am sharing this story because it shows what happens when we don’t require social workers to think outside their cultural context. If we do not require social workers to consider whakapapa and cultural connection, most will not. If we make our law colour-blind, in practice it will be white, assimilationist, colonising. And it will hurt children. That’s why, nearly 30 years ago, Māori fought hard to have children’s connections to whakapapa and culture protected in the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act. That’s why, when I heard that the Minister of Social Welfare was proposing to drop those protections, I was so shocked that I thought it was a misunderstanding.

More backstory: centuries of whānau nurturing children

Traditionally, Māori society is whānau centred, and Māori whānau are child centred. Whakapapa is at the heart of our philosophy, the relationship between tūpuna and mokopuna is especially celebrated in our literature, and our metaphors for identity and belonging are all about mothering. When Europeans arrived, some were appalled enough that they wrote about what terrible parents Māori were, especially Māori men, who were far too loving and attentive to children—not at all manly behaviour. (If you are interested in traditional Māori parenting, Mana Ririki produced a fantastic report.)

Over the next several decades, Europeans got stuck in, teaching Māori parents good Christian spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child parenting, and teaching Māori men patriarchal family values. At the same time that the Crown took Māori wealth and resources, it imposed capitalism. The combined effect was impoverishment and chasing wages for survival (when my iwi, Ngāi Tahu, signed Te Tiriti they were responsible for almost all of Te Waipounamu, Rakiura and surrounding islands; between 1844 and 1860, they were forced to sell effectively all that land for less than £9000. In that short time, thousands of people who had been collectively self-supporting and self-determining became politically and financially dependent on the Europeans who had taken everything. Can you imagine how that felt?).

Europeans introduced diseases that killed thousands (in the first 100 years of contact with Europeans, the Māori population fell from around 200,000 to 42,000). The Crown dismantled Māori law and systems that kept whānau safe and healthy, criminalised tikanga, locked people up for trying to hold on to their land, banned te reo Māori from schools to stamp out not just te reo, but all the knowledge that it carries. And Māori were still expected to fight for Britain in two horrific world wars.

After a hundred years of this, Māori were still resilient. In the 1940s, research on Māori mental health focused on why Māori were so much healthier than Europeans (one third the incidence of mental disorder)1. Pākehā researchers’ explanation was that the whānau was such a nurturing mechanism that it was protecting Māori mental health from even the ongoing violence of colonisation. They predicted that as whānau structures were dismantled, Māori mental disease would increase to Pākehā rates. This could have been a turning point for Māori and Pākehā—where would we be if Pākehā had paid attention to their own researchers saying whānau are a healthier institution than nuclear families? Instead, the Crown has continued with policies to dismantle whānau, and privilege small family units that provide a dependent, mobile workforce.

Colonisation has treated generations of Māori to continuous violence, trauma after trauma after trauma. At the same time, the Crown has been dismantling our mechanisms of well-being—disconnecting us from our whenua, our whakapapa, our whānau. These experiences have created the situation we are in now, where some Māori whānau aren’t coping. They need support to heal. Instead, the Crown steps in, taking children from communities that it has attacked, and takes away those communities’ futures. Unjust, immoral, abusive—I don’t have words that adequately express how obscene this is.

Last backstory: decades of Crown endangering Māori children

That problem for Māori was clearly described in the 1987 report Puao-te-ata-tu, commissioned by the Minister of Social Welfare. Already, Māori made up the majority of Social Welfare institutions’ clientele. Puao-te-ata-tu reported that institutional racism in the Department of Social Welfare, the Children and Young Persons Act and the courts made it impossible for those institutions to achieve their goals. They defined institutional racism as “monocultural institutions which simply ignore and freeze out the cultures of those who do not belong to the majority. National structures are evolved which are rooted in the values, systems and viewpoints of one culture only.” Whenever people talk about one law for all, this is what they mean: one law based entirely on Pākehā values and priorities, applied to all of us.

The solution Puao-te-ata-tu recommended was biculturalism. Not the token biculturalism we think of now, where all the values and goals of our institutions and laws are Pākehā, but we are allowed the occasional pōwhiri or karakia so everyone can feel culturally enriched. But real biculturalism, where the values, cultures and beliefs of Māori are as central as those of Pākehā in all aspects of governance; where power is re-invested in Māori institutions—whānau, hapū and iwi. Puao-te-ata-tu identified that Māori succeed when rangatiratanga is recognised and supported, and therefore recommended that Māori should be resourced to solve the problems Māori are facing. The report’s recommendations would have transformed social welfare institutions from their philosophical foundations to their practices. The advice could have turned this crisis around 30 years ago. Thousands of children could have been spared the CYF experience. And the reality of that experience is only now becoming fully known.

Last year the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service completed their final report on experiences of abuse and neglect in state care up to 1992. The Service described their findings as “horrifying”—if anything, that’s an understatement. For decades, children were removed from homes, sometimes for little reason, and placed in situations where they would endure neglect, physical, sexual and psychological abuse, with nowhere to complain, no-one who would help. Thousands of children. And as bad as it was generally, Māori had it hardest—Māori children were more likely to be put in care, for more trivial reasons, and to be treated more harshly. I challenge anyone to read that report and not be outraged (the report is only public because the Otago Daily Times made an OIA request).

There are predictable outcomes. The report states: “It has become clear to us that the neglect and abuse of children and the previously frequent practice of locking children up in institutions has contributed to a dark legacy of suffering and crime in this country.” Principal Youth Court Judge Andrew Becroft also commented last year on the link between state care and crime—83 percent of prison inmates under 20 have been in CYF care. State ‘care’ has been creating enduring problems that will only grow.

The Crown’s response shows the level of compassion and empathy we can expect. There is no denying that children and their families suffered, so the Crown cannot avoid paying some compensation. But it will not apologise.

Another report from last year, this time from the Crown appointed Children’s Commission, looked at the recent performance of Child, Youth and Family. It wasn’t encouraging. They say “We don’t know if children are better off as a result of state intervention… the limited data we do have about health, education, and justice outcomes is concerning.” Again, although the majority of children referred to CYF and in care are Māori, CYF does not have and does not value the knowledge, skills and experience to work with Māori. Again, they recommended transforming CYF, including focusing on building cultural capacity and partnering with iwi.

Report after report is telling the Crown that it cannot care for children, that Māori children are especially endangered by the Crown, and that the Crown needs to be partnering with Māori to ensure good outcomes for Māori children. With Māori children representing around 60 percent of children in care, it is obvious that the Crown should be doing all it can to work with Māori to turn this around.

Instead, the Crown blames its terrible record on CYF. It’s not the State treating children terribly, it’s CYF and all its predecessors (seriously—are we supposed to not understand that CYF is the State?). The State has got this under control. It’s getting good advice.

What is this whole new model? The Crown will re-brand child protection work under a Ministry of Vulnerable Children. It is immediately clear that the Crown is not taking advice from people you might expect, like its own Children’s Commissioner, who said the new name is “stigmatising and labelling”. Other places it is not taking advice from include all the aforementioned reports that demonstrated the need for a new model. Because instead of strengthening its relationship with Māori, the Crown is doing the opposite. In the legislative overhaul for their new model, the Crown is removing two important clauses for Māori: one that prioritises Māori children staying within their hapū and iwi, and another that considers the effect of decisions on the stability of Māori children’s whānau, hapū and iwi.

Labour supports the changes, with their spokesperson Jacinda Adern saying the moves are justified because of abuses of children in care of extended family. That was a sadly ignorant response. It is tragic whenever CYF places children in unsafe situations, including with unsafe whānau. It is an example of CYF making bad decisions for children, and why Māori want to be making those decisions ourselves. CYF’s bad practice is no excuse for removing provisions to protect children in the context of whānau. To make that argument is transparently racist—Māori cannot be blamed for the Crown’s bad decisions. Likewise, it is unbelievable that social workers cannot find safe and loving whānau within a child’s whakapapa. As Tariana Turia has said of her iwi “You can’t tell me that within 8000 people connected by our river, you cannot find someone to care for a child.” This is true of all our whānau and hapū.

Tweaking an abusive model: What’s wrong with the proposed changes?

The clauses the Crown is removing from the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act consider the effects of decisions on whānau, and prioritise placing a child within their hapū or iwi. These clauses came from the Puao-te-ata-tu report I mentioned earlier, which found that the Crown would continue to fail Māori if it did not overcome institutional racism. The report made many recommendations, most of which have not been met, but two findings are particularly relevant.

Firstly, in the context of institutional racism, social workers need to be directed to recognise children as members of whānau and hapū, whose wellbeing is necessarily linked to the child’s wellbeing. Without that direction, social workers were taking away the ability of whānau, hapū and iwi to take responsibility and care for their children. They were contributing to problems in whānau. Secondly, in the context of institutional racism, social workers need to be directed to recognise that the well-being of Māori children includes their sense of belonging to whakapapa and whānau, and that prioritising their wellbeing includes prioritising those connections. Without that direction, social workers were not prioritising whakapapa, and children were being isolated from their whakapapa and culture. Māori fought hard to have these directions included in the CYP&F Act; removing them takes away protection for connections to whakapapa.

We need to return to the historical context of whānau, which has been deliberately de-stabilised by Crown policies for decades, where trauma from the violence of colonisation has created problems that means a few whānau are not currently safe, and where for decades the Crown has taken Māori children and put them in less safe situations. At this point, the only just response for the Crown would be to ask Māori how whānau can best be supported to care for children. Removing those particular clauses signals to Māori that the Crown isn’t listening and doesn’t care what we think.

The proposed changes to legislation also breach New Zealand’s international obligations. There are two relevant statements in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which New Zealand is a signatory. Firstly, the declaration recognises “the right of indigenous families and communities to retain shared responsibility for the upbringing, training, education and well-being of their children, consistent with the rights of the child.” Secondly, the declaration recognises “the collective right to live in freedom, peace and security as distinct peoples and shall not be subjected to any act of genocide or any other act of violence, including forcibly removing children of the group to another group.” The UN is critical of the State’s new model, and like so many of the State’s own reports, recommends more engagement with Māori.

Is there another vision?

The Crown’s vision for child welfare seems to be to create a model that isn’t as horrifying as the one we had before. Or perhaps it is to draw a line under last year, and start with a clean slate. Either way, it’s not a vision I can buy into, and it stems from the Crown’s failure to recognise itself as the problem. Until it gets that, it will miss the point. The fundamental flaw that reproduces bad outcomes for children is that the state is colonising, authoritarian and paternalistic, especially when it comes to Māori. That will always end in abuse.

My vision, which I hope is consistent with yours, is one where communities are supported to heal, and empowered to nurture and protect their children. If that is the end goal then the tasks in the meantime are clear.

For the Crown, instead of twisting itself in knots to stop itself abusing children, the task is to support communities to prepare. This was the solution that Puao-te-ata-tu proposed. For decades, Whatarangi Winiata has argued that the only enduring and fair solution is a reallocation of resources, from the Crown to Māori. If all the resources that the Crown takes and uses in failing to protect our children were instead given to Māori, returning all responsibility to care for our children, history and experience suggests our children would be better off.

For Māori and other communities who want to take responsibility for their children, the task is to identify what is needed, and how to re-build capacity so that our children are nurtured and safe. Many of our communities are well underway with that work.

Right now, our task is to stop the Crown from abusing another generation of children. We need to stop the changes to the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act, and we need to push for a holistic, enduring solution. Puao-te-ata-tu called it biculturalism, Whatarangi Winiata calls it rangatiratanga, I’m going to call it justice.

Hands off our tamariki.

1 Beaglehole, E and P Beaglehole 1947 Some Modern Maoris, New Zealand Council for Educational Research Series (Whitcombe and Tombs, Auckland)

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Open letter from Hands off our tamariki Ōtaki hui



The following letter was sent to all Māori Members of Parliament from the Hands off our tamariki Ōtaki hui, held 12 October at Te Wānanga o Raukawa.


Re: Proposed changes to the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act


Tēnā koutou i ngā tini āhuatanga o te ao,

On Wednesday, October 12, a hui in Ōtaki discussed the changes Anne Tolley has proposed to the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act, removing the clauses that consider the effects of decisions on whānau, and that prioritise placing a child within their hapū or iwi.

Those clauses came out of the 1988 report Puao-te-ata-tu. After extensive research around the nation, Puao-te-ata-tu found that ‘institutional racism’ was at the root of Māori social welfare problems, and predicted that the Crown would continue to fail Māori unless this was fixed. The report found that Māori succeed when rangatiratanga is recognised and supported, and recommended that Māori should be resourced to solve the problems Māori are facing.

Two findings of Puao-te-ata-tu are particularly related to the proposed changes. Firstly, children are members of whānau and hapū, and the wellbeing of those units needs to be considered. At the time, legislation regarded the welfare of the child as the first and paramount consideration (the proposed changes will re-instate this). The report found that in the context of institutional racism, this took away the ability of whānau, hapū and iwi to take responsibility for their children. Secondly, the well-being of Māori children includes their sense of belonging to whakapapa and whānau, prioritising their wellbeing includes prioritising those connections. In the context of institutional racism, not specifically prioritising whakapapa means children are isolated from their whakapapa and culture. This is dangerous.

Puao-te-ata-tu made many recommendations, most of which have not been met. The two clauses that Anne Tolley is proposing to remove were hard won. Removing them from legislation takes away all protection for connections to whakapapa.

It is unbelievable that social workers cannot find safe and loving whānau within a child’s whakapapa. As Tariana Turia has said of her iwi “You can't tell me that within 8000 people connected by our river, you cannot find someone to care for a child.”

It is tragic whenever CYF places children in unsafe situations, including unsafe whānau. It is an example of CYF making bad decisions for our children, and why we want to make those decisions ourselves. CYF’s bad practice cannot be used as an excuse to remove provisions to protect children in the context of whānau. To make that argument is transparently racist—Māori cannot be blamed for the Crown’s bad decisions.

Removing the clauses from legislation is simply another colonising act of control. The proposed changes are inconsistent with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which New Zealand is a signatory. In particular, the changes are inconsistent with article 7.2 which recognises “the collective right to live in freedom, peace and security as distinct peoples and shall not be subjected to any act of genocide or any other act of violence, including forcibly removing children of the group to another group.”

It is apt that this hui was held at Te Wānanga o Raukawa. From the Wānanga, for decades Whatarangi Winiata has argued for an enduring and fair solution to the many problems that Māori face as a result of colonisation, including the number of children in state care. The solution he proposes is a reallocation of resources, from the Crown to Māori. If all the resources that the Crown takes and uses to protect our children were instead given to Māori, returning all responsibility to care for our children, history and experience suggests our children would be better off. This is the long-term solution we support.

We are asking you as a Member of Parliament to do all that you can to reverse the changes to the CYPF Act that Anne Tolley is proposing. These changes come from a monocultural understanding of child welfare. They will result in dislocating Māori children from their whakapapa and all the negative outcomes that stem from that disconnection. There has been no credible reason given for the changes. They breach the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and meet the Declaration’s definition of genocide. We would expect the Crown to be moving towards honouring Te Tiriti, but these changes are a dangerous step away from rangatiratanga. They are assimilationist, racist and colonising.

We hope that you will be brave, energetic and outspoken in protecting our tamariki from these moves.

Ngā mihi,

Attendees of the Hands off our tamariki hui in Ōtaki, 12 October 2016

Saturday, October 08, 2016

The NZ state, making children vulnerable since way back

I’m going to talk about the proposed changes to the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act, but before I do, I want to give a quick background. The context is necessary for understanding why the changes are so upsetting.

Traditionally, Māori society is whānau centred, and Māori whānau are child centred. Whakapapa is at the heart of our philosophy, the relationship between tūpuna and mokopuna is especially celebrated in our literature, and our metaphors for identity and belonging are all about mothering. When Europeans arrived, some were appalled enough that they wrote about what terrible parents Māori were, especially Māori men, who were far too loving and attentive to children, not at all manly behaviour. (If you are interested in traditional Māori parenting, Mana Ririki produced a fantastic report)

Over the next several decades, Europeans got stuck-in, teaching Māori parents good Christian spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child parenting, and teaching Māori men patriarchal family values. At the same time that the Crown took Māori wealth and resources, it imposed capitalism—the combined effect was impoverishment and chasing wages for survival (when my iwi, Ngāi Tahu, signed Te Tiriti they were responsible for almost all of Te Waipounamu, Rakiura and surrounding islands; between 1844 and 1860, they were forced to sell effectively all that land for less than £9000. In that short time, thousands of people who had been collectively self-supporting and self-determining became politically and financially dependent on the Europeans who had taken everything. Can you imagine how that felt?). Europeans introduced diseases that killed thousands (in the first 100 years of contact with Europeans, the Māori population fell from around 200 000 to 42 000. Can you imagine that—losing 80% of the population? How did whānau function?). The Crown dismantled Māori law and systems that kept whānau safe and healthy, criminalised tikanga, locked people up for trying to hold on to their land, banned te reo Māori from schools to stamp out not just te reo, but all the mātauranga that it carries. And Māori were still expected to fight for Britain in two horrific world wars.

After a hundred years of this, Māori were still resilient. In the 1940s, research on Māori mental health focused on why Māori were so much healthier than Europeans (one third the incidence of mental disorder).1 Pākehā researchers’ explanation was that the whānau was such a nurturing mechanism that it was protecting Māori mental health from even the ongoing violence of colonisation. They predicted that as whānau structures were dismantled, Māori mental disease would increase to Pākehā rates. This could have been a turning point for Māori and Pākehā—where would we be if Pākehā had paid attention to their own researchers saying whānau are a healthier institution than nuclear families? Instead, the Crown has continued with policies to dismantle whānau, and privilege small family units that provide a dependent, mobile workforce.

What I’m trying to show is that colonisation has treated generations of Māori to continuous violence, trauma after trauma after trauma. At the same time, the Crown has been dismantling our mechanisms of wellbeing—disconnecting us from our whenua, our whakapapa, our whānau. These experiences have created the situation we are in now, where some Māori whānau aren’t coping. That problem was clearly described in the 1987 report Puao-te-ata-tu commissioned by the Minister of Social Welfare. Already, Māori made up the majority of Social Welfare institutions’ clientele. Puao-te-ata-tu reported that institutional racism in the Department of Social Welfare, the Children and Young Persons Act and the courts made it impossible for those institutions to achieve their goals, and made recommendations that would have transformed those institutions from their philosophical foundations to their practices. Their recommendations included incorporating Māori values in all policies, and working with whānau, hapū and iwi for good outcomes. 30 years ago, Puao-te-ata-tu gave the Crown advice that could have turned this crisis around. One of the few recommendations that survived into practice was the priority in the CYPF Act 1989 for Māori children to stay within hapū or iwi. This is based on a Māori understanding of well-being, which recognises connectedness to whānau, whakapapa and culture as sources of wellness. It needs to be understood in the context of generations of Māori exposed to Crown policies and practices breaking those connections.

Last year, the Crown appointed Children’s Commission published a report, State of Care 2015, looking at the performance of Child, Youth and Family. They say “We don’t know if children are better off as a result of state intervention. . . . the limited data we do have about health, education, and justice outcomes is concerning.” As bad as it is for many children in their care, Māori children are worse off. Again, although the majority of children referred to CYF and in care are Māori, CYF does not have and does not value the knowledge, skills and experience to work with Māori. Again, they recommended transforming CYF, including focusing on building cultural capacity and partnering with iwi.

Since then, Anne Tolley has announced that CYF is broken, which I will come back to, and that it will be replaced by a Ministry for Vulnerable Children. From the moment she announced the name of the Ministry, it was clear she was not taking advice from people you might expect her to, like the Children’s Commissioner, who said the name was ‘stigmatising and labelling’ (Vulnerable Children's Minister Anne Tolley: 'I'll call it, 'my ministry'). Given that the State of Care 2015 report found CYF’s ability to provide for Māori children such a concern and recommended working with iwi, you might expect that would be prioritised. Given that we know the importance of culture and connectedness for well-being, you might expect that whānau would be prioritised. Instead, one of the first legislative changes is to remove two clauses, one that prioritises Māori children staying within their hapū and iwi, and another that considers the effect of decisions on the stability of Māori children’s whānau, hapū and iwi (Turia blasts 'racist' children's law). These two changes together take away all protection for connections to whakapapa. It’s as if Tolley is trying to alienate Māori. When I heard, I was so shocked I thought it was a mistake.

I don’t understand it. CYF are bad at caring for children, and particularly bad at caring for Māori children. The majority of children in their ‘care’ are Māori. Two reports tell them to work with iwi, one tells them to ditch the monocultural approach and include Māori values at their heart. I would expect that to be the direction the Minister would move towards, even if glacially and superficially. Instead, she seems intent on pushing Māori away. Is this assimilationist step just monocultural arrogance (which Puao-te-ata-tu called institutional racism) and incompetence—importing models from overseas and ignoring history?

The other possibility is that it is ideological.

Tolley reacted strongly to the State of Care 2015 report—the system was broken and we needed to start again (eg, CYF system is ‘broken’, ‘It’s time for a clean break – CYF is gone’ says Tolley, ‘Horrifying’ outcomes for CYF kids warrant ‘a whole new model’ – Tolley). We don’t usually see ministers so scathing about their departments, even after bad reports. It’s uncommon enough that it reminded me of the time 5 years ago when we were told that ACC was broken, just before the announcement that private companies could compete for its work. Is it possible that this government is using the State of Care 2015 report as an excuse to remodel so private companies can contract to care for our children? Remember last year when Anne Tolley said she’d be happy for Serco to run social services for children (Anne Tolley still happy for Serco to run social services for children)? Or when she denied that Serco visited CYF facilities and had to apologise (Anne Tolley apologises over Serco link to Child, Youth and Family)? She then stated that “I'm not talking about putting any part of CYF's statutory responsibilities over to a private company” (Tolley: ‘No way’ Serco would run CYF), but something is going on.

I don’t know why Tolley is proposing something so divisive and counter-productive. What makes it even stranger to me, is that the clauses she wants to remove are so weak. Social workers have told me that the clauses are largely ignored, but that they are important because they are the only tool whānau can use to fight bad decisions.

I want to be clear, removing children from their whānau is violence. Sometimes, children’s parents aren’t coping, and children need to be protected. But the state has shown that it is not qualified to care for Māori. Iwi are putting their hands up (Iwi Leaders first to sign NZ covenant for children, Vulnerable kids win iwi, CYF pact), and have been for a long time. The authors of Puao-te-ata-tu argued that iwi should be making decisions for Māori children. Instead of setting up this strange new monocultural model, Tolley could be working out how to support iwi to take on that role. Whatever her reason for what she’s doing, whether it’s stupidity or ideology, the consequences are appalling—if we continue to fail Māori children in state care, we will continue generations of horrible outcomes. The thought of it makes me sick.

(for more information, check out the Hands Off Our Tamariki facebook page)

1 Beaglehole, E and P Beaglehole 1947 Some Modern Maoris, New Zealand Council for Educational Research Series (Whitcombe and Tombs, Auckland)

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Accepting violence

Around 2000 I was at a party in someone’s flat in Germany. We were probably all in our 20s, students or postdocs at the university, and there was a lot of alcohol. A guy (I’ll call him Guy1) was talking to me, he asked me to have lunch with him, I said no, in that joking inoffensive way that we do. He tried again a couple of times, I laughed him off. It was all very light, it probably lasted a couple of minutes and was completely forgettable, except for what happened next. Another guy came over and started talking to Guy1, he moved Guy1 away from me. In the next few minutes several people, men and women, apologised to me for Guy1’s behaviour and assured me that he would leave me alone. It was so beyond my experience of life that all I could do was laugh.

I was reminded of this the other day when I was thinking about how hard it is to explain what rape culture is, and why it’s bad. If, like me, you can’t stop yourself from reading comments on articles about violence against women, you will know that many people are outraged by the term rape culture. I get that no-one likes jargon, and lots of people are scared of feminism, so we could use different words to talk about the same stuff. But when people don’t use the term rape culture, it’s clear that the words aren’t the problem. The problem is that many people accept that violence (especially violence against women) is inevitable, and for whatever reason, they are offended when anyone acts like it’s not. They are offended when people don’t accept violence as an inevitable consequence of a woman being drunk, or alone, or out at night, or with a man, or wearing whatever, or working, or taking drugs, or having an opinion, or using public transport, or not standing up for herself, or blahblahblah. Those people talk about how women need to be responsible for avoiding this ever-present threat of violence, and are upset by anyone who wants to talk about how to remove the threat. They have accepted that violence against women is inevitable, so we all need to accept it. To be clear, whenever anyone says or implies that violence is inevitable, when they ask us to accept that violence is inevitable, they ask us to accept violence—violence is acceptable. And if violence is acceptable, then the victim is the problem that we need to focus on. If violence is inevitable, then there is no point trying to stop people being violent, instead we need to control potential victims.

How do you shift them from that point to reveal violence as a choice that some people are making? To reveal that we can be safer and more free by focusing on that choice, whether or not to be violent. Whereas, whenever we focus on the choices that victims or potential victims of violence make, we make the world more dangerous and less free.

My experience of parties and pubs has ingrained rules in me—don’t make eye contact with men I don’t know, don’t smile, don’t make conversation, stay in the bubble; smile and laugh if a man approaches, have a polite excuse to get away; always be aware; be nice/ likeable even if it takes forever to get away. I expect men who will not accept a polite excuse, I expect to have to argue, gently, carefully, and that it might take minutes or hours, I know some of those men will be dangerous even if they don’t know it. I expect men who will choose not to respect my decisions about my body. At times, it has taken hours of gently, carefully, saying no to men; at times, those men have been close friends who care about me.

My partner (a woman) had a conversation with my dad a few weeks ago. My dad was worried that I was abusing her, and it turned out that the problem was that I had said no to him—I had refused to continue an email argument, and when Dad wouldn’t stop, I told him I needed a break from him until he controlled himself. The only way my dad could make sense of this was that I am an abusive person, hence his concern for my partner. My partner explained the concept of personal boundaries to him (that we each can choose how we want people to behave towards us and what happens if they won’t), but the idea was new and foreign to him. I’m sure he still sees me saying no to him as a character flaw.

How do we keep ourselves safe if we are taught that it is wrong to say no to someone who doesn’t behave towards us in the way that we want?

I was wondering what the absence of rape culture would be like. What would it be like if people were free to say yes or no whenever they wanted without constant vigilance and fear for their safety? Would I recognise it? It feels beyond my comprehension. And then I remembered that night at the party in Germany—the concern of the other party goers was beyond my comprehension. It felt weird. I was even uncomfortable with them talking to the guy—was it controlling, oppressive? I’ve heard enough people talk about anything like that as repressive—how can we even have fun? It’s policing normal behaviour, you’d lock up all teenagers next, etc. It’s tragic that respecting each other is so foreign and terrifying.

The idea that it is reasonable for women to have personal boundaries was not something I was raised with, and it’s not consistent with my experience. My experience of parties and pubs comes from at least some people struggling to respect other people’s boundaries, and no-one telling them they need to. There are no repercussions for a guy being obnoxious, there are often no repercussions for a guy being violent. When guys ask for the same thing over and over, and ignore polite requests to stop and to leave, whether or not they are threatening us, they are using the existence of the threat of violence. It is treated as normal and acceptable, and no-one tells them they are being abusive.

I hope it is a generational thing. I hope my experience is incomprehensible to my daughter. I want her to go to parties like the one I went to in Germany, I want it to be normal. If someone behaves badly, I want it to be unacceptable, to her and everyone else. I want her to be free, to say yes or no to whatever she likes, to give and expect respect. I want a future where, when people talk about what’s inevitable, that’s what they’re talking about—mana, manaaki, care, respect.

For that to happen, we need to get better at how we talk about and what we do about violence. It's not inevitable, it's a choice. We need to stop accepting that choice. We need to support people to stop using violence, to get away from violence. We need to get better at recognising when violence and the threat of violence are being used to control—whether it's by individuals, groups or the state. Violence is unacceptable. We need to keep saying that.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Students, universities and white supremacy

Students of colour organising is getting serious media attention in the US at the moment. Concerned Student 1950 at the University of Missouri forced the University president to resign, holding him responsible for failing to address racism on campus (“Racial climate at MU”, “Mizzou hunger strike is what happens when universities disregard black lives”, “Concerned student 1950 demands”). Since then, we’ve heard about organising on countless campuses (article on 22 campuses with comments section naming other campuses, demands from students on a growing number of campuses).

One article that caught my attention was about Georgetown University. Georgetown’s history makes the link between white supremacy and its success clear—slaves were sold to pay off debt.

“American universities have only recently begun to publicly grapple with the fact that these elite institutions, like the United States, were literally built on the exploitation of black bodies. Beginning with Brown University’s Committee on Slavery and Justice in 2003, universities around the country have unearthed disturbing truths about how their schools profited from human bondage. For many universities, Georgetown included, slavery made the difference between a viable institution and a shuttered one.”
“In addition to the renaming of Mulledy Hall, Georgetown activists are asking for plaques to identify the unmarked graves of slaves on campus, an annual program to explore Georgetown’s history of slavery, the inclusion of information about black people’s contributions to Georgetown in campus tours, mandatory diversity training for professors, and the rechristening of McSherry Hall, a campus building named for the Georgetown president who presided over the 1838 slave sale.

“But the demand that could have the biggest effect on Georgetown’s future, if the university complies, comes down to money. The student activists have proposed a new endowment fund, equal to the present value of the profit garnered from the 272 slaves, for the purpose of recruiting black professors. It’s a brilliant example of how universities could enact something in the vein of reparations—a tangible admission of the link between the horrific acts of generations past and today’s racial injustice, one that would provide an equally tangible benefit to current and future students of color.” (Georgetown students protest hall named for slave selling Jesuit)
And they’ve had early success (Georgetown renames building).

By clearly founding their campaign on the school’s history, demanding actions to explore how Georgetown benefits from white supremacy and ways to put it right now, the students are offering the school an opportunity for learning and leadership. By grounding their argument in justice, rather than human rights, they invite deeper reflection and relationship building—they invite the school to take responsibility for finding solutions, rather than either denying the issue, or simply reacting to external pressure and doing the least possible.

I hope the school takes this opportunity, and I’ve included two ways they can build from it.

  • To explore how white supremacy not only allows them to be successful, but has also made it harder for other projects to survive. Actions like recruiting more black professors will ultimately help Georgetown remain successful at the expense of institutions with less money and prestige—institutions that have been committed to teaching about white supremacy long before it was politically safe. Not just recognised historically black and tribal colleges and university, but the many organisations teaching about justice. Reparations shouldn’t just mean finding ways to make yourself better and more powerful, it should mean dismantling that power in ways that support those most affected by your actions. In this case, supporting oppressed and exploited communities on their own terms.
  • To look at white supremacy more broadly, including how the school (like every colonial state) was built on the exploitation of native bodies and lands, and exploring how the school benefits from ongoing imperialism.
  • To explore and end ways the school contributes to white supremacy, and prioritise ending white supremacy


Of course I’m not writing about this because I think anyone at Georgetown or any other US university care what I think. I’m thinking about what needs to be done in Aotearoa, and how much I would love if the institutions that the State supported to uphold cultural imperialism took responsibility for dismantling it, instead of playing neutral or pretending they aren’t advantaged by it (I’m reminded of this cartoon).

Leonie Pihama reviews some of the colonial history of New Zealand universities in her PhD thesis (Pihama, “Tīhei Mauri Ora, Honouring our voices: Mana Wahine as a Kaupapa Māori theoretical framework”, PhD (Education) thesis Auckland University, 2001: 49-52). It’s very easy to see that the older universities have benefited from colonisation, because they were developed when colonisation was brutally obvious, but all universities benefit from white supremacy. For example, the three Wānanga have claims to the Waitangi Tribunal showing how they are disadvantaged by the State education system, which prioritises universities.

I’d like to see all the universities examine their past and current practices for ways they have exploited and harmed (and are exploiting and harming) tāngata whenua and peoples of colour and their ways of being. I’d like to see them examine the sources of their power and prestige—at whose expense have they succeeded, how are they benefiting from and contributing to white supremacy/ cultural imperialism? And then, I want them to work with tāngata whenua and communities of colour to put it right.

How do we make that happen?



(note: I use white supremacy to describe the historic and ongoing systems of oppression of indigenous peoples and peoples of colour, including their ways of being. Bell hooks explores the term in her chapter “Overcoming white supremacy: a comment” in Talking back: thinking feminist, thinking black.)

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Mātauranga Māori, tino rangatiratanga and the future of New Zealand science

On a completely different topic, last year my mate Debbie and I wrote an opinion piece on the future of New Zealand science (what we lack in knowledge of New Zealand science, we make up for in opinions). You can access it here: Mātauranga Māori, tino rangatiratanga and the future of New Zealand science.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Colonisation and belonging

For about a week, my inbox was full of links to blog posts about Andrea Smith and whether she is or isn’t Cherokee. I’ve read all of those posts, and most of them make me really uncomfortable. I want to explore my discomfort in a series of short (for me) posts over the next few weeks. I don’t know where this will go. I don’t plan to critique anything that anyone is saying, and I won’t presume to give any solutions—I know it's not my place. But there are a number of reasons that my reaction is complicated, and I think it’s important to talk about those reasons.

First of all, I should re-introduce myself. I am from Waitaha, Kāti Mamoe and Ngāi Tahu on my birth father’s side, and European on my birth mother’s side. I was adopted at birth by a Pākehā family, back in the days of closed adoptions, and grew up in Whangārei. My parents were assured that I am completely white, and I am light-skinned enough that this is marginally believable. So I was raised in ignorance of tikanga, and without any knowledge of my Māori whakapapa. I didn’t find my father until I was in my 30s, and with that I found out my iwi. At the time, I hadn’t even visited the area that we’re from. Since then, my birth father’s family have been incredibly welcoming, and have taken the time to teach me a lot. It has taken me a long time to learn some of the things that I should already have known. There are many things I will never learn. I will always be in-between, both Pākehā and Māori, and not quite either (I will write more about this in another post).

I have been lucky. There are many parts of my story that could have been different, that could have resulted in my never discovering my whakapapa, or that could have resulted in my knowing the connections, but never able to prove them:

  • I needed to find my mother
  • She needed to remember my father’s name
  • She needed to know that he was in another country
  • I needed to find him
  • He needed to acknowledge me.

It would have been easy to be caught in a situation of knowing who I belong to, but with no way of proving it. Whether I knew it or not, whether I could prove it or not, I have always been Ngāi Tahu. That is part of my whakapapa.

This sort of story, of complete disconnection, is colonisation. I was going to say it’s an important part of colonisation, but it’s more than that. Colonisation is breaking connections. Whakapapa is the ultimate threat to colonisation; it guarantees that colonisation will eventually fail. Whakapapa means we care for each other—we are responsible to each other and our ancestors. We are a force. This means that every link in whakapapa, every connection, is a threat to colonisation. It’s only by breaking indigenous connections to place, by forcing tangata whenua from their place, that colonisers can take the land and try to keep it. It’s only by breaking indigenous connections to each other, imposing their culture and values in the gaps that are created, that colonisers can feel safe and superior. As individuals, we are much more likely to succumb, to assimilate, to disappear.

For many Māori, the knowledge of whakapapa died a generation or two ago, the connections are forgotten. When that knowledge is taken, what can we do? Should we admit defeat, and say the whakapapa is gone, we are no longer Māori? Should we shut people out if they can’t prove their relationships? Or are there better solutions? What are the risks in accepting people who, for whatever reason, seem to belong? What are the opportunities? Are we more likely to realise tino rangatiratanga through strict rules of exclusion, or through flexibility and inclusion?

Clearly, I am affected by these questions. My identity as Māori, tangata whenua, Ngāi Tahu feels vulnerable. It’s hard for me to remember that this is true for lots of us. Many of us feel vulnerable, not Māori enough. Which project does that insecurity serve—colonisation or tino rangatiratanga? What are our political goals, and what actions move us towards them, or away from them? These are questions I think it is important to continue talking about.

I’ll write more soon.