The case for putting stability and security above other factors when deciding a child’s best interests (and they are colour-blind)

The inexorable march to separatism – manifest in the political clamour to have Maori children removed from the protection of state welfare agencies – raises questions which most commentators have overlooked or prefer not to tackle. 

Lindsay Mitchell is not so coy.  She asks if the future of a child with a modicum of Maori blood should be decided solely by Maori members of a family and raises the matter of the rights and claims of non-Maori family members.    

Rights were brought smack-bang into the issue when the Human Rights Commission threw its support behind calls by the Children’s Commissioner for urgent action to keep at-risk Māori children with their wider  family.

In effect, these authorities are telling us the rights of Maori family members outweigh the rights of non-Maori family members.   

The Children’s Commissioner this month published the second of two reports on a review of what needs to change to enable Māori aged 0-3 months to remain in the care of their families in situations where Oranga Tamariki-Ministry for Children is notified of care and protection concerns

The key recommendation in the report is for a total transformation of the statutory care and protection system.

By that I mean nothing short of a ‘by Māori, for Māori’ approach and a transfer of responsibility, resources and power from the state to appropriate Māori entities, as determined by Māori.

And :

We recognise that there are many tremendous social workers doing amazing work. Our view, however, after extensive inquiry, is that it is unlikely that Oranga Tamariki or any other iteration of it, can deliver care and protection interventions and services in a way that will be most effective for tamariki and whānau Māori.

The commissioner is adamant that when he calls for a transformation of the system, he does not mean more restructuring, reports, reviews, and social work improvements.  

Now is the time for this moemoeā with tamariki Māori at its heart. I believe only Māori can do this for Māori in a way that will deliver the best and enduring outcomes for tamariki. These include that all tamariki Māori remain with their wider whānau and that their whakapapa links are maintained within their whānau, hapū and iwi; this is central to achieving the legislative goal of ‘wellbeing’ for tamariki Māori.

Meng Foon, speaking on behalf of the Human Rights Commission, said he backed this approach,

“ … saying it would uphold indigenous rights of Māori through self-determination.”

The indigenous rights of Māori?  That opens the way to another debate.  

But for now, let’s focus on the transformational change championed by the Children’s Commissioner and the Human Rights Commission and by influential witnesses at a Waitangi Tribunal hearing into the state care of Maori children.

Lindsay Mitchell has looked into the ethnic composition of Kiwi families while considering the profound governmental and societal implications.     

She notes that Maori and non-Maori partner at very high rates. 

StatsNZ: “In the 1996 census, 66 percent of partnerships involving people of Maori ethnicity were partnerships between a Maori and non-Maori partner.”

She has read the statements by various government and state agency players speaking to the Waitangi Tribunal yesterday and is left in no doubt that a move to separate child protection systems is developing.

She references the contribution of Assistant Māori Commissioner for Children Glenis Philip-Barbara, who said the government must determine whether iwi and hapū could take on a transfer of power from Oranga Tamariki.

“What we’re asking for is for the government to recognise mana Māori by handing over the power to define, determine and decide what ‘good’ looks like for tamariki Māori to Māori.

“I don’t think we’ve had a better time in our history as a nation to realise this dream. I’m hopeful that government will step back and understand how important it is to share power as a Treaty partner.”

But let’s put aside the politics and ask what this will mean for real people, Mitchell urges.

If a child has any Maori blood, his or her interests will be decided solely by Maori?

 Envisage a Maori whanau versus a non-Maori family vying for custody of their mokopuna/grandchild. It isn’t difficult to imagine the heartaches that will be involved if the non-Maori family’s rights are dismissed because whakapapa links are the most important consideration.

 The principle is already given a great deal of weight under current legislation but it can’t dominate to the cost of all else.

 Stability and security must be paramount when deciding the best interests of children, Mitchell insists.  And this requisite is colour-blind.

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