Kerri Cleaver (Photo supplied)

New government policies on kaupapa Māori are signalling to many that the coalition cares little for its relationships with, and responsibilities to, te ao Māori. Two of its early moves — to diminish te reo Māori, and repeal section 7AA of the Oranga Tamariki Act — are particularly worrying to Kerri Cleaver, a state care survivor, social worker, and wāhine Kāi Tahu. Here she is with her personal response.


I didn’t grow up with te reo and I’m still not fluent. I understand why te reo was stripped from our whānau: the reo is our heart and it’s our knowledge, and so it never fitted within the colonial agenda.

My poua (grandfather) grew up on the southern shores of Te Waipounamu in Colac Bay and attended the Native School. For a time, the school resisted the banning of te reo. It continued to teach in te reo, attracting non-Māori students too, and it was the community hub. I don’t know when exactly the school succumbed to the state’s assimilation policies, but this likely happened before my poua went there, as evidenced by his lack of reo.

My hākoro (dad) and my aunties and uncles have never spoken Māori, and none of my poua’s moko were born into a reo-rich whānau. This is the successful state legacy of assimilation that was so effective in Te Waipounamu. This is the thief of identity, stopping the transmission of knowledge and severing the relational connections between us and our environment.

Recently, I was walking toward another unpaid mana whenua manaaki and tino rakatirataka responsibility, to support a Pākeha tertiary education recruitment process. With my headphones on, and listening to waiata anthems, I considered all the ways te reo supports me.

For example, I wouldn’t understand the concepts of manaaki and tino rakatirataka without te reo. And without that understanding, I’d have been left without an anchor in the years that I navigated profound isolation after being in the foster care system.

Those concepts not only support me and my whānau, but they also support the community I live in, benefiting both Māori and Pākehā.

We’ve moved on from early colonial settler days where mātauraka Māori was dismissed as invalid. Now most Pākeha and Māori enjoy and see the value in kapa haka, the Black Fern haka, total immersion and bilingual education, holistic wellbeing frameworks grounded in te ao Māori — and in being connected to a culture and identity that are grown organically and in relationship with this place.

I gain strength from hearing te reo across different spaces and simply from being in the presence of te reo. It connects me to who I am, to my tūpuna, to the taiao. It gives me strength. And it gives me the lessons that I continue to need, to heal from the abuse of the foster system and to strengthen me to stand in my whānau and community.

Repeal of s7AA

The late Moana Jackson, when talking to social workers in 1992, discussed three un-enacted Māori rights. The right to define (through te ao Māori and mātauraka Māori). The right to decide (how decisions are made). And the right to protect (language, culture, children). These rights are tūpuna rights reaffirmed in Te Tiriti.

The key aspirations of Māori to define, decide and protect were asserted in an urgent claim to the Waitangi Tribunal in 2020 (Wai 2019) and supported in the Tribunal’s recommendations. They remain unmet by the previous government, and don’t appear anywhere in the direction outlined by the new coalition.

Still, as a starting point, section 7AA of the Oranga Tamariki Act (1989) shows some recognition of the rights and responsibilities of hapū and iwi to be part of service design and delivery. It requires Oranga Tamariki to report specifically on Māori in state care. There’s an emphasis on ensuring a reduction of inequitable numbers, and on holding the state to account on outcomes. Nowhere in the act is there sharing of power when it comes to defining the issues, or in decision-making — and there is minimal concession to the Māori right to protect.

In 2020, I set up our Kāi Tahu service which, under 7AA, delivers the caregiver functions of Oranga Tamariki for mokopuna Kāi Tahu who are in the state system. Through the design and set-up process with our community, we heard of an overwhelming desire for a “by Kāi Tahu, for Kāi Tahu, of Kāi Tahu” service.

Our current offering, called Te Kaika, was only made possible by our iwi partnership with the Crown under 7AA. It is a minimal, substandard demonstration of giving effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi, but it’s what we’ve been given.

Wāhine Māori bear the brunt of the child protection system, and mana wāhine remain the leading voices advocating for the rights and responsibilities as understood in our pūrākau atua narratives. These place us as wāhine in the whare takata (the house of humanity) where the knowledge carried by our reo centres mokopuna rights.

Kāi Tahu and Māori know our whānau, and we are committed to our responsibilities to mokopuna. Intergenerational lives can be changed if we hold the ground that has been hard-fought for by our mana wāhine.

Māori know what we’re doing. We need Pākehā to back us, using their power, and trusting our knowledge of whānau care.

I often reflect on my own foster system experience, knowing what iwi partnerships under the Act can bring, and what could be different as a result of Kāi Tahu-led delivery.

I spent my entire teenage life in state care. I bounced around Pākehā foster homes but was never placed with whānau, despite having 17 biological aunties and uncles to choose from. There was no communication with anyone in my whānau, other than my older sister, who was already in the state system.

I can hand-on-heart say that, if I was a rakatahi going through the foster system now, Te Kaika would have found all my whānau and supported my relationships with whānau. Those years of isolation, and my long journey of reconnection, could’ve been avoided.

I think about my friends who’ve also been through the foster system. We range in age from 18-70, and I see the struggles and difficulties that we’ve all faced with the multiple tasks of surviving in society, parenting, and healing. Such challenges for our next generations could all be mitigated if 7AA remained as a placeholder, with a view to the future full devolution of care services for tamariki to Māori.

That the government wants to repeal 7AA speaks to their position that Māori don’t have a right to design and deliver in the existing system. It suggests that the government doesn’t feel required to report on, and account for, Māori children. It rips the rug away from under us, when the rug has only just been laid.

How to take collective action

It’s important that we all stay in our lanes. If you accidentally swerve into another and someone beeps at you, don’t worry, we’re all learning. Keep moving. To help, here’s a quick list.

Understand your lane

Reflect on who you are, your knowledge and experiences. Privileges that you carry may mean you aren’t best placed to speak on behalf of others. Consider how you use that in spaces where Māori aren’t present.

Let Māori who’ve dedicated their lives to our communities, or who have lived experience, have the limelight and the space to be heard. You may need to step back for others to be seen and heard.

Check parliament legislation timeframes and submission deadlines

Hit the pavement. We need to be visible in numbers. Look out for activation and protest strategies by Te Pāti Māori, iwi leaders and other groups. Join in.

Be an active ally

Being takata Tiriti isn’t about being silent now. It’s about allyship, in real “turn up” ways. Be at protests. Put in submissions. Challenge your organisations. If you are in a non-Māori NGO, you will no doubt have opportunities for contracts that belong with Māori. Reflect on what work should better sit with Māori, because that work sits within our rights to define, decide, and protect. Be willing to say no.

Let’s be in solidarity together, Aotearoa.


This is a lightly edited version of a piece first published at Reimagining Social Work.

Kerri Cleaver (Kāi Tahu, Kāti Māmoe, Waitaha) is an activist, a hākui to three rakatahi, an experienced social worker, and a lecturer at Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha. Her work is staunchly rooted in tino rakatirataka, and the rights of children, whānau, hapū and iwi. Kerri currently teaches in the social work programme.

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