“Section 7AA is far from perfect. But it is a tiny, cautious loosening of the state’s monopoly over Māori children,” writes Kim Mcbreen about the government’s move to repeal the section. (Photo: Aditya Romansa)

The government has introduced legislation to repeal Section 7AA of the Oranga Tamariki Act, which relates to the Treaty of Waitangi. Submissions are open until Wednesday July 3. Kim Mcbreen, who was adopted by a Pākehā couple and didn’t meet her Māori birth father until her 30s, looks at what’s at stake.

 

Back in 2016, another National-led government was changing the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act to remove clauses that required the Crown to consider the effects of its decisions on whānau, and to prioritise placing children within their hapū or iwi.

I organised hui against those moves, and I remember feeling very lonely in that work. It wasn’t that I was actually alone. I was working with others, kaimahi Māori were involved, and all the usual, wonderful people were 100 percent in, as they always are. But it felt like the only people who cared were those who were already doing all they could for Māori children. We’d seen iwi step up on other issues — and I know I wasn’t the only one who wanted to see the same strong, vocal leadership from them on this issue.

Certainly, iwi were working to protect children. By 2012, for instance, Ngāpuhi had managed to get the state to agree to work with them in finding placements for Ngāpuhi children.

But I’ve heard many conversations comparing the response to the foreshore and seabed bill, which would take some of our land, with our response to proposals that make it easier to take some of our children. Tens of thousands turned out to hīkoi in defence of our whenua. Where was that unequivocal defence of our children, our future?

Some of what I felt was personal. Most of the people I was working with have experience with the state, and of being separated from whānau. But it should be personal for all of us. I’ve heard many, many people ask why protecting our children from the state doesn’t ignite the same passion as defending our whenua or our reo.

I’m pretty sure the answer is shame and trauma. Not because we have anything to be ashamed of, but because we’ve been told for so long that we do.

For decades, we’ve been told by the state and the media that this is a problem of Māori parenting. I still hear it on talkback and see it in comments sections.

But the reason Māori children are over-represented in the state system isn’t that “Māori are bad parents” (and it’s also not poverty).

Colonisation has treated generations of Māori to continuous violence. The Crown has attacked Māori systems of safety and wellbeing for generations, disconnecting us from our whenua, our whakapapa and our whānau. The fact that we still exist as Māori, the fact that so many of us (900,000 now!) still care that we are Māori, is proof of our love and resilience.

The story that Māori are bad parents was pushed relentlessly to justify policies that have removed tens of thousands of Māori children from their whānau since World War Two. The story of Māori criminality and violence was totally dominant when I grew up in the 1970s and ‘80s, and it’s still alive and kicking us.

I wish it was easy to cast off any shame we carry — because it doesn’t belong with us. It belongs to the coloniser.

Despite all the state’s efforts to destroy whānau and turn us into Pākehā families, despite them destroying our economy, despite their refusal to recognise tikanga that create safety and wellbeing, despite the tens of thousands of children taken from whānau, despite all of the harms of colonisation, Māori have continued to organise and re-organise to care for our children.

We find ways — kaumātua and other whanaunga step in, we set up kōhanga and kura, we run breakfast clubs and after-school drop-in centres, as well as all the mahi of iwi, providers, and national rōpū. We don’t always win, but we keep doing what we can.

I wish those were the stories I’d heard growing up. It might help me remember that most of the “language revitalisation” strategies that we talk about were at least as much about supporting whānau and protecting our children from racism and the state. It might help me remember that Whina Cooper said “Take care of our children” as well as “Not one more acre.”

In the late 1980s, two reports by incredibly brave teams laid out the evidence and analysis for a more honest story.

Pūao te Ata Tū and He Whaipaanga Hou were each commissioned to look at the “Māori problem”. They were the first reports of their kind that didn’t privilege Pākehā priorities and understandings. Both teams gathered Māori experiences and understandings, and reported that the state is still colonising, and harming and institutionalising Māori.

Pūao te Ata Tū was to examine Māori over-representation in Social Welfare. It reported that institutional racism throughout the state welfare system harms Māori children and whānau. The state had taken the ability of whānau, hapū and iwi to take responsibility for their children, and the state was isolating children from their whakapapa and culture. The report recommended that the state work with whānau, hapū and iwi, and that Māori be resourced to solve the problems we’re facing.

He Whaipaanga Hou, led by Moana Jackson, was to examine Māori over-representation in youth offending. It reported that institutional racism meant the state system was supporting injustice and harming Māori. Because the state system is built on racism, discrimination and Pākehā culture, the report recommended resourcing and supporting Māori-led solutions, including a parallel Māori justice system.

These reports were an opportunity for the state to hear Māori experiences, understandings and solutions. They also became important stepping stones for Māori towards rebuilding (reconstituting, me kī) our own systems based on tikanga and mātauranga. What Moana Jackson would call “re-Māorification”.

In 2019, 30 years after Pūao te Ata Tū and He Whaipaanga Hou, and nearly 180 years after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, Section 7AA was added to the Oranga Tamariki Act. It’s the first time the Treaty of Waitangi is mentioned in New Zealand’s child protection legislation (but it actually refers to the principles of the Treaty). It was a very overdue and very underwhelming step in the right direction.

Oranga Tamariki describes Section 7AA as their “practical commitment to the principles of the Te Tiriti o Waitangi/Treaty of Waitangi”. The key mechanism for this is “strategic partnerships” with iwi and other Māori organisations.

Section 7AA is inadequate and far from honouring the Treaty of Waitangi. But strategic partnerships do return some resourcing and power to rōpū, and make it easier to care for our children. Many rōpū have seized this opportunity to grow their support for whānau and tamariki. They are developing programmes based on their own tikanga, needs and aspirations. All the partnerships are very new, so they’re still in the early stages. Ten partnerships have been announced.

I’ll mention three examples.

Ngāi Tahu was the first iwi to sign a strategic partnership with Oranga Tamariki. In 2021, they announced their “Whānau as First Navigators” programme, which aims to reduce interactions with Oranga Tamariki by enabling whānau rangatiratanga.

Their programme has four workstreams:

Prevention, through raising awareness of tamariki and whānau wellbeing, sharing knowledge and promoting services to support whānau.

Early support, using whānau interaction hubs to give early support information and advice, and to grow a culture of seeking trusted help early.

Boosting service capability, by working with Māori providers to better support whānau aspirations.

Professional and culturally competent practitioners, through developing a care and protection workforce to better support whānau.

The Eastern Bay Iwi Provider Alliance was formed in 2017, and brings together Te Tohu o Te Ora o Ngāti Awa, Tūhoe Hauora, Te Pou Oranga o Whakatōhea and Tūwharetoa ki Kawerau Hauora.

The Alliance works to build and strengthen whānau resilience, build the trust and confidence of whānau to engage with the Alliance, support whānau to access services, encourage collaboration among services and providers, and co-design future services with whānau.

In 2020, the Alliance signed a strategic partnership with Oranga Tamariki. That partnership means all contacts to the Oranga Tamariki National Contact Centre that are relevant to their rohe are now rerouted to the Alliance contact centre, Te Pūkaea o te Waiora. Te Pūkaea o te Waiora also receives calls from other local agencies, including police, Te Whatu Ora, the community and whānau. Whānau can then be connected with the appropriate iwi providers, or they can choose to work with Oranga Tamariki.

Ngāti Kahungunu. In 2019, the iwi declared: “Not one more child” — they would intervene at all costs. It’s a simple and powerful statement that speaks to the state, to whānau dealing with the state, and to all the children the state has already taken.

That year, Ngāti Kahungunu invited whānau to Waipatu Marae in Heretaunga to share their experiences of maintaining their whānau and of their interactions with the state. The Kōrero Mai Whānau report captures whānau needs and aspirations from the hui.

From this, the iwi and Te Tumu Whakahaere o te Wero designed Te Ara Mātua to support whānau through early intervention to limit their involvement with Oranga Tamariki. Ngāti Kahungunu signed a partnership with Oranga Tamariki in 2021, and the first stage of Te Ara Mātua was launched in 2023.

All of these examples are large-scale. The Crown prefers to work with as few and large groupings as possible, so they privilege iwi and large rōpū over smaller groupings like whānau. I don’t know what this means for the many of us who are outside our rohe, disconnected from our iwi, or who can’t identify our hapū or iwi. As always, I don’t know who will step up to claim and support the diaspora.

Together, the partnerships feel like the start of a massive shift.

Any project that relies on continued support from the state is precarious, especially large programmes — even a successful, award-winning programme like the Amokura Family Violence Prevention project, which had the support of seven iwi of Te Tai Tokerau and ended in 2011 after government funding was reallocated to “frontline services”. The state is an unreliable partner. The government changes, and changes its mind. Ahakoa tonu — whatever they do, Māori will keep moving towards our goals.

The Minister for Children Karen Chhour is proposing to repeal Section 7AA. Her proposal isn’t based on evidence or analysis that Section 7AA is causing problems — her own officials have nothing to support her stance. The only argument seems to be that she’s “heard stories”.

To be clear, whatever stories the minister has heard, Section 7AA isn’t causing harm to children. Section 7AA doesn’t pressure social workers to leave children in high-risk situations. You need to be belligerently missing the point if you think that’s what this is about. I’ve read the Regulatory Impact Statement and the Waitangi Tribunal report; removing Section 7AA will do nothing to increase the safety of children and is likely to cause “actual harm” to children. Even the Oranga Tamariki officials agree.

The minister isn’t the only one who’s heard stories. I’ve heard hundreds of stories from adoptees raised outside their whānau. We’ve all experienced an unnecessary loss of culture and connection.

And let’s not forget that this proposed repeal is happening while we wait for the final reports from the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care. For decades, the state has been covering up evidence of their abuse and neglect of children. In the last decade, as that evidence emerges, we’ve heard so many stories — horrific stories of neglect, abuse and torture, overseen and enabled by the state. I don’t know how anyone can argue that the state should be allowed near children, let alone make decisions about what’s best for them.

We can do better. Surely.

Section 7AA is far from perfect. It doesn’t come close to the agreement in the Treaty of Waitangi affirming “te tino rangatiratanga . . . o ō rātou kāinga.” But it is a tiny, cautious loosening of the state’s monopoly over children, a monopoly with an appalling and shameful record. It is an incremental move towards something better.

This isn’t the debate we should be having. The discussions we should be having are the discussions that whānau and other rōpū regularly have: What do we want for our future, for our tamariki, me ngā uri ā muri ake nei? How do we get there? What are the barriers?

I want a future where whānau are supported to care for each other. Where we’re all expected to show up for one another. Where children have such complex networks of relationships around them that no one could ever harm them.

I don’t think it’s a future that the state can legislate for, even if it wanted to. But as we’ve seen too often, there are many, many ways the state can act against that future.

And still, I know, Māori will show up for our children.

 

Kim Mcbreen is Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe, Ngāi Tahu and Pākehā. She is involved in several projects to end violence and support whānau, and works for the New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse. Kim lives with her partner and two children in a small coastal town.

See also Aaron Smale’s deep dive on section 7AA: The Crown versus Māori children.

© E-Tangata, 2024

Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.

If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.