After 34 years, the role of Children’s Commissioner has been dismantled. It’s been replaced by a board of commissioners and a new name: Mana Mokopuna — Children and Young People’s Commission.
Judge Frances Eivers is now Chief Children’s Commissioner and heads up the new board, having been Children’s Commissioner since 2021.
She’ll be leaving the job soon, in just three months. Here she is talking to Connie Buchanan about what it will take to make a real difference in children’s lives.
I have many ideas about how to make a difference in children’s lives, but let’s consider criminal offending as an example.
When we talk about children who are at high-risk of reoffending, we’re talking about no more than 134 children, on recent data. Imagine if we did the math on that and worked out how much time, energy, and money we’re putting into the idea that it’s a much bigger problem.
What we have is a small group of mokopuna, of children and young people, who are still able to have their direction turned. And that’s why I will always advocate for looking at the causes of offending, putting resources into each individual child, and getting them out of a system where they feel that they’re not wanted or needed.
Because why can’t we just deal with one child and their whānau whānui at a time? If a tamaiti comes from Papakura, let’s get them back to Papakura. Put intensive support around them and their whānau. Find out who their iwi is. If they’re Ngāpuhi, find out where exactly in Ngāpuhi. Get our hapū and iwi involved to help our whānau heal. These are the solutions. Take that one child, put them back within their whānau, hapū and iwi, and don’t make it a five-minute job. Make it a five-year job. Wrap that support around them so then they can walk out of the system on their own. They didn’t get there in the first place because they’ve chosen that path. They got there because of what life’s dealt them.
Let’s take our mokopuna in residences and detention, for example. We should close care and protection residences because those children aren’t child offenders. There’s no reason to hold them in detention either, in my opinion. The number of children in care and protection secure residences in our country now is around 19. These are children who have behavioural issues, and every single one of them comes from a place of trauma.
How we best deal with these children is to give them love, give them a whānau-like environment, provide therapy and address their particular needs — and help their own whānau support them, so that, down the track, they can live their own lives without being dependent on the state. So they don’t feel that the world is against them, and that they’re unable to cope.
One of my projects when I was Children’s Commissioner was arguing for closing care and protection and youth justice residences. People say to me: “But what’s the alternative?” And I say it’s community-based, smaller, home-like places, that have only three or four children. With dedicated support to address each of the unique needs of those three or four mokopuna in their own community with their whānau, their hapū and iwi involved in the rehabilitation. Then there’s the time, the space, the energy to help each child heal.
It’s no longer just me in this role. I’m part of a board now. We launched our new structure last week on a glorious day at Waiwhetū Marae. So I’m now Chief Children’s Commissioner and chair of a board of five other commissioners. I’ll be leaving in October and handing over my role to Dr Claire Achmad. I’m returning to work as a judge in Manukau.
Continuing to fight for things like closing residences will need to be a board decision based on consensus. I do hope that I’ll be able to persuade them to continue with that work.
The new board model hasn’t been without controversy. It may present barriers that we’d prefer not to have, but we’ve chosen to start on a positive note. Our work is still about focusing on our mokopuna — their rights, their interests, their welfare and their voices. So, my view is that we must do the best we can in this framework. And having a more formatted structure creates a wider “brains trust”.
We’ve just had our first board meeting, and the signs are really great. This is a bunch of dedicated, expert people who are committed to the kaupapa of making the lives of our mokopuna better.
Our official new name is Mana Mokopuna. At Waiwhetū Marae, our kuia Aunty Peggy got up and really laid down the wero for us on that name. She said, you make sure it’s not just a name. You make sure that you honour the whakapapa of mana mokopuna and don’t just have the name sitting there. You live by it. Protect it and uphold it.
We’re at a really tricky time for that wero right now.
For example, we’ve seen a government programme provide intensive support to whānau of mokopuna who commit aggravated robbery and burglary offences, known by the emotive term of ram-raiders.
I want to congratulate the government on that work. The reports say that 75 percent of children in that programme have not re-offended. And yet now we’re talking about bringing in quite radical laws to address these kids far more punitively. Because, what, a quarter of them didn’t respond to that programme? What about the 75 percent who did respond to the support of the programme? There’s no reason to do a complete u-turn.
Then there’s a recommendation from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children that, in Aotearoa, we raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14. I thought we were on track to do that. We heard noises that the government was looking at it and was favourable toward it. And yet here we are now, proposing to pass laws that put 12- and 13-year-olds into the court process — that criminalises children.
It goes against the United Nations treaties, it goes against Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and it just goes against, I think, our good heartedness as a nation.
I was in Geneva recently to attend the review of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT) and our state’s compliance with this treaty. It’s about the treatment of people in Aotearoa who are held in detention, including children.
And one of the committee members had heard the phrase “by-Māori, for-Māori”. So, they asked, what is the New Zealand government doing about getting more Māori to work as corrections officers? And I said, that’s not what it means. What it means is that Māori are sitting at the table. Deciding how many correctional facilities there are to begin with. Asking if we need to put everybody in prison. Finding out how we can get the resources into the communities where these people come from.
It also means understanding that, okay, yes, we’re all Māori, but each iwi has its own way of doing things. We know that. We can make that work. It can’t be binary — it can’t be this state option or that single Māori option. It has to be: “We’re going to Kaikohe and we’re going to sit down with iwi, hapū, government agents, the NGOs in Kaikohe — and all of us are going to work out what’s the best way to look after those in our area who are struggling.” On the government side, that’s not just Oranga Tamariki either. The Ministry of Health needs to be in there. The Ministry of Education needs to be in there, collaborating to do a much better job, in my opinion.
It’s great that under 12-year-olds have free transport to school. But let’s make it for under 18-year-olds. If they can get up, put their clothes on, get to school, and they don’t have to worry about paying to get on the bus, that will make a real difference. These are the practical ways to make an impact on every single-family home. Most of those mokopuna who are offending haven’t been in school for a very long time.
It’s also about persuading ordinary, decent New Zealanders out there that unless we fix this stuff now, then the offending — the ram-raiding offending, all of that — is just going to get worse.
We need trust on the ground too. Making sure that we’re listening to our communities and to what our people want. Not just identifying issues from a policy paper and what someone sitting at a desk in Wellington tells us, but from people who are living in Porirua, Ōtara, in Te Teko, who can tell us about their lives and what changes will make a difference for them.
I often think about something one kōtiro, who was maybe about 14, said to our team. She said: “If you help my whānau, you’ll help me.” That’s something I’ve heard echoed over and over again as I’ve gone around the country and visited our community and rangatahi groups. Our mokopuna want to be in a whānau. They want to be loved. They want to feel secure and protected. If we fix things for whānau, we fix things for tamariki.
We are a small enough country and we’re wealthy enough to help each of our children who are most in need. We can’t save the world in one hit. But there are small, practical things we can do to save one child at a time.
Judge Frances Eivers (Ngāti Maniapoto, Waikato) is our Chief Children’s Commissioner. Before taking on that role on 1 July 2023, she was Children’s Commissioner, appointed in November 2021. Prior to this, Judge Eivers was a judge in the District Court in Manukau, working extensively with mokopuna in the court system. She has worked as a lawyer in Auckland, Whakatāne, London and Tauranga. In New Zealand, she practised mainly in the Family, Youth and Criminal courts, including working as a lawyer for children and as a youth advocate.
Born in Kawerau and raised in Te Teko, she considers herself lucky to have been raised with love in her whānau whānui and to have had a community where “everyone pretty much knows everyone”. She is a mother of three sons and counts this as her greatest achievement.
As told to Connie Buchanan. Made possible with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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