Taryn Dryfhout (Photo supplied)

Māori children disproportionately suffer from deficiencies in New Zealand’s broken foster care system, and the government’s proposed repeals threaten to cause further harm, writes Taryn Dryfhout.


The New Zealand foster care system has long had disproportionately high numbers of Māori children. A report in 2019 by Oranga Tamariki showed that an alarming one in 14 Māori children are at risk of being removed from their families and placed in foster care, compared to 1 in 50 Pākehā children. In addition, Māori children are four times more likely to be uplifted than Pākehā. And to make matters worse, three quarters of the harm that happens in state care happens to Māori children.

It’s clear that removing one in 14 Māori children from their parents isn’t keeping Māori children safe.

Not only are Māori children not safe in state care, but they’re often also separated from their cultural heritage and whānau connections. This cultural disconnect increases the challenges that these vulnerable children already face. In failing to provide culturally responsive, nurturing environments for Māori, the state system is failing Māori children and their families.

Even with such a clear need for change, the foster system is now set to take a turn for the worse. The government’s solution is to repeal the current law which aims to protect Māori in state care. The repeal will nullify Section 7AA of the Oranga Tamariki Act 1989, which outlines the state’s obligation to uphold the Treaty of Waitangi principles, and to find placements for Māori children within their own whānau, before looking elsewhere.

Section 7AA also requires working with the child’s community (whānau, hapū, and iwi), maintaining important connections with the child’s family, and the protection of whakapapa (genealogy and lineage). This section was introduced to reduce the disparities that exist between Māori and non-Māori children in state care, and its repeal will likely perpetuate these disparities.

While the government argues that Section 7AA encourages race-based solutions, and that the repeal will allow for a colour-blind system, this is a naive view. A system that is made up of almost 70 percent Māori can never be colour-blind. A system that is “colour-blind” is one that attempts to apply a foster-care framework that doesn’t recognise the diverse cultural needs of the children who inhabit it. A system that doesn’t fight equally for the cultural wellbeing of every person, especially when those cultures differ, will only result in further failures for Māori.

This repeal is a clear breach of the Treaty of Waitangi, and also breaches the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child (CRC). Article 8 of CRC emphasises the right of a child to his identity, nationality, and family relations. It recognises the importance of a child’s cultural background, and the need to respect and preserve identity, for a child’s overall wellbeing. If this repeal goes through, our government will be breaching not only our founding document, but the global right of children, as outlined by the UN, leading us backward down a disastrous path.

So what’s the alternative? We don’t have to look far for answers within te ao Māori, where the practice of whāngai offers a culturally rich, relational alternative to the proposed repeals. Whāngai practice embraces a child’s identity, cultural heritage, and community. Incorporating these principles of whāngai would allow for the construction of a system that prioritises the cultural wellbeing of children, and promotes a nurturing, community-based framework for the care of vulnerable children.

I’m a wahine Māori who has both studied the practice of whāngai as an academic, and has also been blessed with the responsibility of raising three whāngai children.

When our biological son was three years old, we welcomed a new child into our home. She was seven weeks old, healthy, happy, and had whakapapa Ngāi Tahu, like myself. After whānau group meetings, and discussion with the birth family, it was decided that we would become her permanent caregivers. When she was 13 months old, we were offered the opportunity to also care for her three-week-old brother. My husband and I both felt strongly that our children should be raised in a community, with transparency around their identity. Four years later, another son also joined our family. He was the biological sibling of our other two whāngai children, and was five months old when he made the trip from the South Island to our Auckland home.

My youngest son’s entrance to our family reaffirmed our commitment to raising all of the children within a rich whānau network. Because the children are a sibling group, the community aspect of our whāngai arrangements came together very naturally. Keeping the children together means that they will grow up with a sense of belonging — not just to us, or to their birth parents, but to each other. In addition, the children have grandparents and half-siblings with whom we maintain a connection. This has meant that they’re able to create lifelong whānau relationships from a very young age.

These connections are helpful for piecing together family information and whakapapa, allowing important identity material to be shared and made available to the entire whānau. As our children mature, they naturally have questions about their background. Through open family relationships, they gain access to their wider birth family, and helps to establish a sense of connection and belonging for each of them.

Taryn Dryfhout with her tamariki. (Photo supplied)

Part of our philosophy is about promoting openness and abandoning secrecy. There is no need for death-bed confessions. Over the past 13 years, we’ve tried very hard to create a transparent system, communicating openly within our wider family networks, and with the children, in a way that is age appropriate. As they continue to mature, these discussions will become deeper and more frequent, and our commitment to transparency shall remain.

We believe that being open with the children will allow them to develop a deeper understanding of their identity and achieve a greater sense of wholeness. It’s my hope that this will also allow them to develop a better understanding of the reasons surrounding their placement, and will decrease the feelings of abandonment that closed adoptions can prompt. This openness has also included a commitment to exposing the children to their cultural heritage, which I believe will help to preserve their connections to their tīpuna and increase their sense of belonging in te ao Māori.

In addition to formally registering them with their marae, my husband has done extensive genealogy work to establish written forms of whakapapa that they can refer to throughout life. Informing the children of their tribal identity and whakapapa will help them to navigate through a changing world and society, secure in the knowledge of where they have come from and where they belong. It will also help with practical matters such as enrollment on the Māori Electoral Roll and access to education scholarships.

Rather than severing the ties between the two families, whāngai has expanded the family boundaries for all of us. Whāngai does not replace or extinguish the biological concept of family but deepens and broadens it. It widens the sphere of family, and breaks the restrictions that have been created by the heavy emphasis that biology has had within parenting narratives in western culture.

Our experience of welcoming children into our home was one of transparency, and whanaungatanga. We raise them with knowledge of their identity in their whānau, and in te ao Maori, and ensure that they retain relationships with their other siblings who are also in permanent placement.

These actions are not legal categories but are rich practices from whāngai — they are a Māori reality into which we are able to step. The whāngai arrangements that my family has experienced have provided us all with a richer experience of whānau than western foster care systems or adoption would have enabled.

A legal grey area

Though whāngai was practised by pre-contact Māori, its practice after the arrival of the British shifted according to laws imposed by the settlers. For this reason, its history has at times been challenging and difficult, as the practice of whāngai struggles to survive in a culture that has shifted away from collective living and group responsibility for child rearing.

New Zealand adoption and foster care law refuses to acknowledge whāngai. As a result, since the early 19th century whāngai has been practised outside of Pākehā law, within a legal “grey area”. To date, New Zealand still operates under the Oranga Tamariki Act 1989 which breaches Te Tiriti o Waitangi, as it denies Māori full and exclusive control of their taonga.

Oranga Tamariki has taken commendable steps towards aligning its practices with whāngai and Māori worldviews, promoting a more culturally sensitive approach to child welfare. The recent introduction of the Māori-centred processes has influenced the placement of children, emphasising adherence to tikanga and ideas of kinship.

Notably, family group conferences have become integral, inviting extended whānau to actively participate in decision-making for the child’s future. Additionally, efforts to prioritise family or iwi placements over those with strangers, and the commitment to transparency in child placements, reflect a positive shift towards culturally-grounded practices. It’s these positive advances which the impending repeals threaten to undermine, potentially eroding the progress made in incorporating Māori values into the framework of child welfare. It is crucial that the government recognises and preserves the gains that have been achieved in aligning Oranga Tamariki’s practices with the rich cultural heritage of whāngai and Māori worldviews.

Whāngai: the way forward for tamariki Māori in state care

Whāngai provides a superior alternative to both the repeals and the flawed foster care system. Whāngai has been practised since before colonisation, in order to ensure that a kinship-based system was in place for children who need it.

In whāngai, a child is raised by a member of the extended family, or community, in an open, fluid arrangement where the child grows up fully informed as to the identity of his or her birth parents, and their place within the whānau. Though the child is raised in a different home, the role and status of the birth parents is not displaced by the whāngai arrangement. This relational approach ensures the preservation of the child’s cultural identity, and fosters a strong sense of connection and belonging. Whāngai children are raised in a robust system that provides cultural, social, and practical support.

Māori should be permitted to lead the way in child welfare by actively participating in the development and implementation of policies that prioritise whāngai and Māori cultural values.

Leadership by Māori communities and organisations is essential to ensure that their unique perspectives are integrated into decision-making processes. Supporting initiatives that promote whāngai as a recognised and respected alternative to mainstream foster care is crucial. By fostering partnerships between government agencies and Māori communities, a more inclusive and culturally sensitive approach to child welfare can be established, allowing Māori to lead the way in shaping a system that genuinely reflects their values and traditions.

It is the birthright of every Māori child to have access to their whakapapa, their heritage, and their culture. Whāngai embodies the spirit of the Treaty of Waitangi and makes use of the community support systems that are available in Māori communities. It employs the rich principles of the Māori world to ensure the child is nourished in every way.

Recognising, and validating this practice offers a compelling alternative to the proposed repeals of Section 7AA. I suggest the government abandon its focus on the repeal and instead allow Māori to lawfully draw on whāngai principles to addresses the needs of our most vulnerable tamariki.

Taryn Dryfhout (Ngāti Pōrou, Ngāi Tahu) is currently completing her PhD at the University of Otago. Her research interests include Māori and indigenous theology, whāngai and adoption, and the intersection of Maori worldviews with Western theology. Taryn is the author of several non-fiction books and other writing, and is a NZ registered secondary school teacher. In 2020 she was inducted into Mensa. 

© E-Tangata, 2024

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