Back to the table over controversial 'whanau first' clause, Government to soften stance

Social Development Minister Anne Tolley says the Government is open to changing laws to allay fears around the placement ...
CHRIS SKELTON/FAIRFAX NZ

Social Development Minister Anne Tolley says the Government is open to changing laws to allay fears around the placement of Maori children if they are taken from abusive homes.

The Government is preparing to soften its stance around controversial child protection legislation that would have removed a "whanau first" priority when placing a child in a new home. 

But Social Development Minister Anne Tolley says she won't budge on ensuring child safety is the single most important priority. 

The move comes after Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft said the Government was "buying a fight" with Maori by not allowing new laws to greater prioritise placement of their abused children with wider whanau, hapu or iwi.

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft says the proposed legislation does not give enough weight to the importance of ...
ROSS GIBLIN/FAIRFAX NZ

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft says the proposed legislation does not give enough weight to the importance of kin-care when placing vulnerable children in new homes.

Proposed new legislation, laying the framework for the new Oranga Tamariki Ministry of Vulnerable Children, removes a priority to place Maori children with extended whanau, hapu or iwi wherever possible, if they are taken from their immediate family. 

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It instead calls for the decision-makers to "consider that the family, whanau and usual caregiver are strengthened and supported to enable them to care for the child or young person" and "wherever possible the relationship between the child or young person and their family, whanau and usual caregiver is respected, supported and strengthened".

Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox says child safety first is paramount, but that does not mean a safe environment can't ...
ROSS GIBLIN/FAIRFAX NZ

Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox says child safety first is paramount, but that does not mean a safe environment can't be provided within wider whanau or iwi - to maintain a child's cultural links.

The change is in response to startling rates of re-abuse among Maori children, once they leave the care of Child, Youth and Family. 

Figures show re-abuse rates stand significantly higher for Maori children than for non-Maori children, although Maori children are the most represented in the state care system.

The expert advisory group - whose findings formed the basis for the rebuild of Child, Youth and Family - found 29 per cent of Maori children returned home after being placed in CYF care were re-abused, compared to 17 per cent of non Maori children returned home.

Fairfax NZ

Some of the members of a CYF Youth Panel, which advised Social Development Minister Anne Tolley, talk about the care they needed, but often didn't get from CYF. Stuff spoke with Karlee Symonds, Monique Goodhew, Shine Thompson, Tupua Urlich and Zak Quor for the Faces of Innocents project.

A further 11 per cent were re-abused when permanently homed with wider whanu, compared with two per cent who were permanently homed outside of family and kin-care. 

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Becroft said child safety was paramount, but the new law needed to place greater emphasis on keeping children within their extended whanau if they were taken away from their families. 

"This legislation buys a fight that would not be necessary if good social work practice took place in every situation. Or if hapu and iwi were always properly resourced enough, and geared up enough to always be able to provide those kin-care placements."

"I'm not flexible in terms of the importance of kin care - that to me is an important starting point, and as a country we need to be clear about that."

The were many "transformational aspects" in the new legislation, and Becroft said it would be a "tragedy" if they were undermined by the kin-care argument.

MAORI PARTY TO DOUBLE-BACK ON SUPPORT

The controversy comes as the Maori Party prepares to double-back on its support of the legislation, which is currently before select committee.

Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox said a child's safety was paramount, but did not accept safety was compromised by a whanau first approach.

"What the law presumes is that they can't be one and the same thing - what we're saying is that's stupid. 

"Because you tar all Maori people with the same brush, if you think that you have to make it explicit that the child's safety should be paramount and that priority placement with whanau does not achieve that - that's wrong."

Fox said the statistics around the re-abuse of Maori CYF children had gaps over where the re-abuse took place, and did not support unnecessary stereotyping. 

"And it goes both ways. People presume this is a Maori issue, because 63 per cent of the children in state care are Maori but we don't ask how they got there or the reasons that they're there in the first place.

"Therefore we make a whole lot of assumptions about Maori children and the state of abuse in this country, when it is very clear that this is an endemic problem across our entire society, that is coming to the fore where it used to be a hidden thing."

Fox said the 99 per cent of Maori did "very well" in raising and caring for their children. 

"And one of the success indicators that we know for Maori, is fluency in Te Reo - about language, culture and identity, about ensuring that the child is raised in a holistic way."

Tolley said the Government had tried to position the legislation so social workers abiding by the law, would know exactly where the emphasis should lie, in terms of finding a safe place for children. 

"The best place for any child is with their family. If that's at all possible, and it's safe and it's in the childs long-term best interests, then of course we want them with their family. 

"We've tried to nuance that - I think clearly we've nuanced it too much and we're in discussions about how we might ease some of the fears from people," she said. 

"But practise is driven by the legislation, and some of the practise has seen decisions made using that 'priority' part of the legislation... and the young people have said that themselves; 'you've experimented with our lives using that priority word in the legislation'".

Labour's childrens spokeswoman Jacinda Ardern said she could not support a Bill that "talks about the importance of a child's cultural identity and links to their whanau, but then does not follow through in practice".

 - Stuff

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