Editorial: How to keep vulnerable children safe within the whanau
Social Development Minister Anne Tolley is wise to soften the Government's stance on "whanau first" care of troubled children. It should be possible for social workers to ensure that a child is kept safe while also preferring to place the child within the whanau or extended family.
The new approach would recognise that there are two principles which should both be served if at all possible. The child's safety must always be paramount. At the same time it is clear that a Maori child is much more likely to flourish if placed in a setting where they feel comfortable and where their deepest sense of identity is maintained.
Just how this will be done remains to be seen, and there are difficult issues to be faced in drafting the legislation.
The framework for the new and supposedly ground-breaking Oranga Tamariki or Ministry of Vulnerable Children removed the priority to place Maori children with whanau, hapu or iwi where possible when they have been removed from their immediate family. This now seems to have been an overreaction to some admittedly disturbing statistics gathered by the expert advisory group which planned the overhaul of Child, Youth and Family.
The group found that 29 per cent of Maori children who were returned home after being placed in CYF care were abused, compared with 17 per cent of non-Maori children returned home. A further 11 per cent were abused when housed with the wider whanau, compared with 2 per cent housed outside of family and kin-care.
These statistics reflect past practice which all now agree had disastrous results for children taken into state care. Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft points out that the legislation "buys a fight" with Maori that would not be necessary if good social work practice took place in every situation.
Clearly such practice did not always take place in the past. It must do so in future, and the Government has pledged to back its revolutionary change of the system with plenty of money. If it doesn't, then the system won't improve and the re-abuse of children taken out of dangerous situations will continue.
Becroft says if hapu and iwi were properly resourced then kin-care placements would not be problematic. Again, this is a big if. And we need to be realistic about the world in which decisions about foster care are made. People in the field have talked about having to find a place for a child "on the day before Easter" when few choices were available.
And clearly not all foster-parents are good parents. Within Maoridom many belong to a social class facing multiple economic and social problems. The problem of child abuse is a serious issue in Maori society.
But it is vital that officials don't leap to stereotypical conclusions about the whanau. Some Maori families are desperately dangerous places for the children in them, but very often a loving and safe home can be found inside the wider extended family. In that case, both the safety of the child and their need for recognition of their identity can be served.
A rewritten act should be able to recognise this fact.