Shayne Walker’s exceptional work as a foster parent and social worker earned him a well-deserved place on this year’s New Year’s Honours List, for an ONZM. The senior lecturer in social work at Otago University is a former state ward who became a foster dad to nearly 200 boys. And in this kōrero with Dale, he talks about the demands — and rewards — of that work, especially when undertaken on the epic scale that he opted for.
Kia ora, Shayne. Thank you for joining us. I wonder if we could start your story with your whakapapa.
Aē, kia ora. Well, Dale, on my father’s side, I’m Rakaipaaka. That’s Ngāti Kahungunu. And, on my mother’s side I’m Kāi Tahu, Kāti Mamoe, mea Waitaha hoki. Kāti Māhaki ki Makaawhio te hapū. But really my tūrangawaewae is Motupōhue, Bluff.
I’m from Bluff, and I love being from there. That’s where I was born. My nana and grandad were Myrtle and Fred Flutey no te whare paua. They were already well ensconced down south before they started collecting shells and doing the mahi on their shell house.
We grew up listening to our grandfather tell stories in the front lounge of the house — and then we ourselves would tell those stories to the visitors.
Are you a muttonbirder?
Actually, I have rights to the islands. And I love eating tītī. But we don’t go muttonbirding. We should go down so we know the art, so we know the mahi, but I think there’s enough of our whānau who need the money for kai from doing that mahi, so I wouldn’t want to go and do it for any kind of financial gain. But I’d like to understand the whole process and I’ve had several invites to do so. It’s just a matter of fitting it in.
Well, I’m pleased to be speaking to the mokopuna of the paua shell house. I didn’t expect to be doing that. It’s in a museum somewhere now isn’t it?
It is. It’s in Ōtautahi. In the Canterbury Museum. And it’s the strangest thing because, every time I go there, I just want to mihi to them because you know they’re there. I can sense them. I can see them. When you touch some of the things in the house, you really know they’re with you. One of my aunties can’t go in there because, for her, it just feels so real.
Well, we salute the Flutey family. They were such a prominent whānau from the Bluff.
If you look at their mokopuna, you can see there’ve been some real go-getters among us, whatever we’ve been doing — whether it’s loving people, opening oysters or chopping down trees. Whatever. We’re cheeky, too. And quite extroverted, which, I think, we get from our grandfather, Fred.
The path that you eventually took, Shayne, was social work. But how did that come about?
When I was 13, my mother and father both died tragically, within a month of each other. So I left Invercargill and came to Dunedin to live with an aunty and uncle. But I wasn’t a happy teenager. I had all kinds of reasons not to be a useful human being, and I ended up being raised by a number of parents — and also being involved with what was then the DSW, the Department of Social Welfare.
So I had the same status as a state ward until I was 18. And I went to a number of schools. All that kind of thing. Did all the things that crazy teenagers do when they’re upset and hurt.
And I didn’t go to uni until I was 32. By that time, we were running a household with huge numbers of young people going through it. And I actually went to university as a kind of protest to do with that.
I’d been to a family group conference where the whānau had asked me to speak on their behalf. But it seemed to me that very little notice was taken of what I said. So I complained about that to a DSW worker who said maybe I should get off my butt, get an education and get the qualifications to have some influence.
So that’s what I did, starting as a 32-year-old, initially looking at clinical psychology but then realising that social work was where I wanted to be.
And that’s where I’ve been ever since, although I’ve had a number of roles, like running an NGO, being a youth worker for Te Hou Ora, running foster homes, having a caseload as a social worker, and continuing to study at the university.
But, thinking back on it now, I can see that I couldn’t have done it, even just the uni part, without the support of Helen, my wife, and our three daughters, Bethany, Lydia and Alice. Or the support of some young whāngai men who were standouts with the mahi that they did.
So it’s absolutely been a team effort. And even teaching at the University of Otago, which I started in 1996, has been really valuable because I’ve been able, at the same time, to do a whole lot of other mahi. Like chairing the Social Workers Registration Board, doing other government work on family violence, and doing local casework here in Dunedin for Oranga Tamariki.
The university considers this kind of whānau work and involvement in practical work to be really important.
You must’ve been really at risk of running amok as a kid after you lost your mum and dad. You could’ve gone off the rails. But, instead, you’ve been an advocate for those who find themselves in similar or even worse positions than you were in — which is really commendable.
You’ve fostered nearly 200 kids through the years. You must have a special wāhine to be able to do that. Can you tell us a little bit about her and also how your relationship has withstood that — or how it’s blossomed as a result of that?
Helen comes from a middle-class Pākehā whānau. All her siblings are professional people. And I can remember when we were standing up the front of the church the day we got married, saying to her: “Are you sure you’re up for this?” And her giving me a look that said: “Well, it’s a bit late now that everyone’s here. We better get on with it.”
We met when we were teenagers and so our love affair has been a long one. But, in regards to the work itself, she’s had by far the hardest part of the mahi — cooking and keeping house for 12 or 15 every day. Clothing them. All those kind of things. It’s been physically hard and demanding work.
And, on top of that, there were things that the boys would go to her with but that they’d never bring to me. Deep conversations where there was trust and a mother’s love. And we felt and could see that, if the boys experienced the love, could see it, feel it, taste it, day by day, they would emulate it themselves.
I imagine that has led to you and Helen staying close to some of those boys when they moved on from your home.
I remember one year I was the best man at three different weddings where I was twice the age of the grooms who we’d brought up. And the speech I gave was basically the same each time. I thanked them for the privilege of being part of my life and seeing them turn into deeply loving and caring human beings, respected by their whānau and friends.
And I recognised that those young men taught me more about life than I learned here at university. University really just gave me the language for things that those young men had taught me and their whānau.
I’ve realised as well that making progress with our sort of mahi doesn’t depend on qualifications. It depends on the engagement of the heart. I learned that from a young man who swore at me one night. He said to me: “What the fuck gives you the right to think that you can walk in and out of my head? Piss off until you’ve earned that right.”
And he was absolutely correct because he kinda summarised how I treated those people who tried to work with me when I was a teenager. When they earned the right, some of them became friends for life. It’s been the same with a number of young people we’ve worked with — and now we’re as much a part of their whānau as they are of ours.
Despite the pay-off from those foster families where there’s two-way love, there’s still a tendency for the media to take a negative view of social work. Why do you think that’s such a common attitude?
Several reasons, I suppose. But what I see is a huge amount of goodwill within and towards the foster families. Looking after someone else’s tamariki is in itself an act of love. When you open your door and you have someone at your table and you’re sharing kai, sharing breath, and sharing space. These are deep acts of love. Of aroha. These whāngai parents have to breathe so much into those young people’s lives.
And so much support comes in from the outside too. In our time, anyway, we had all sorts of allies. For example, we had a group of farmers down south called the Waidale Trust, and an elderly Pākehā couple there called Harry and Marjorie White. And, as part of their Christian tithing, they’d ring us up and go: “Shayne, how are you off for meat?”
I remember one time we were running four homes that, overall, were looking after more than 20 kids. And I said: “Harry, we can always use meat.” He said: “Good. There’s two cattle and 18 sheep on a trailer for you. They’ve already left.”
They’d already been butchered but me and the boys had to break them up and distribute them to the whānau and the homes. I was really grateful for that — and I’m forever grateful for a whole number of people who’d just turn up and do things.
Like one Christmas when we had nothing. No money for presents. Only just enough to keep house. And a truck turned up with 10 rimu high-back chairs. A gift. No explanation. And then, later in the day, someone else put a grand in cash in our letterbox.
That sort of response must’ve come from the huge support system you’d built up around your homes.
That’s true. We were part of the mātua whāngai movement and the routine was that, if we had excess kai, we’d all share it. Or, if we were in an auction and saw 30 mattresses, one of us would buy them so that we’d have spare mattresses. Same with blankets or washing machines.
And the difficulty of ensuring that there’s material as well as emotional support is part of the reason for the bad raps that foster care gets. Because there can be shortages.
For instance, some young people who’ve been traumatised are still bedwetters at ages that you just wouldn’t expect it. Now, if you’ve got someone that has that as an issue, you know, you need a complete change of bedding.
You need a whole lot of things that go with that to make sure that the young person can be in a context where their mana is upheld — and where the whāngai parents have everything they need to do that, rather than that being a source of absolute stress and worry for them.
Social workers don’t get great raps or great pay, I’m led to believe. But, their work is vitally important. What aspects of that work do you prioritise when you’re speaking with potential recruits about their career choices?
The most basic thing is whether they like humans. Because, you know, some people who say they want to do social work, don’t particularly like humans. Secondly, social work for me is a vocation. It’s a vocation first, and a profession second. And, if you see it as your vocation, your approach will be to serve others and to treat them as fully human.
And, I think one reason that social workers get a bad rap is because some of the people on the receiving end of social work don’t feel they’ve been treated as fully human.
And the third thing for me is that, if we take on this social work mahi, and take it deeply to heart, we have to work to create the context where mana can prevail. And I mean the mana of everyone who’s involved. Not just of the child. But also of the whānau, and of the worker, and of others involved in that whānau’s life.
So those three things stand out to me.
Also I think, at times, social work is unfairly blamed for a number of elements it’s trying to deal with. So, if you take into account poverty, housing, violence, drug addiction, all those kinds of things, I think social workers do an incredible job.
There’s another complication, too, because, if you, like so many of the kids who’ve been fostered, needed help with something deep going on in your life, who would you trust? Would you automatically trust someone who turns up with a title, a mandate, or whatever? Or how many visits, or how much kōrero, would it take for you to let them inside your head and inside your heart?
And, on top of that, what would make you follow their advice? What would make you do the things that you’d agreed on? Common sense tells us it takes time to create those relationships.
You know, if you’re going to walk away from drugs, or from violence, what are you going to be? Social workers are part of the reflection of what that young person, could be, or may want to be, or may need to be. So for me, the role is a privilege. But, unavoidably, it’s hard, deep work.
I understand the Sami people up in the Arctic would say: “You have to have heart warmth.” Further south, in Norway, I heard a young person say: “You have to have warm eyes.” Then a couple of weeks ago, when we were discussing “aroha”, and a woman from Uganda asked me: “Shayne, do you mean we should breathe warm air into this?”
Beautiful answer, Shayne. Now, finally, let’s just leave the stage open for you and for you to say whatever you think may still need to be said.
Mostly, what needs to be said is thank you to all those who worked with me when I was messed up, those who’ve been doing all of this mahi with young people and, especially my wife and my children for their long-term commitment to the welfare of others.
They’ve supported me in so many ways — and I’ll finish with just one example. One day, Bethany was in my office and there was a man outside, going through the bins. He was picking up cigarette butts and looking at them. Well, I went outside and I gave him 10 bucks and said: “Bro, whether you spend it on food or smokes, it’s yours.” And he took it and walked away.
But, when I came back into my office, Bethany glared at me. And she said: “Was that for your benefit, or his?” ‘Cause she understood. My act wasn’t one of compassion. I was uncomfortable with someone going through my bins, and I just wanted to solve a problem. And she saw right through that.
I absolutely appreciate her wisdom on it. And I’m often learning things from all three of my daughters. They’ve learned so much as they’ve been growing up and I’m really grateful for them.
Also, I’m grateful to the various whānau who’ve taken me and our family as their own, and who are often supportive in a whole number of ways.
And, finally, I should acknowledge the lessons we can learn from one another. I turned 60 just before Christmas, and my approach is still that we can learn something from everyone we meet, if we have a heart and mind that wants to do that. And so, in a way, I feel I’m just beginning. Kia ora.
Mate, I’ve really enjoyed your kōrero, and I’m sure others will too. I appreciate you sharing so much of yourself with us. Thanks very much, Shayne. Nice meeting you.
Tēnā koe. Kia ora.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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