Welcome leadership from Waitangi Tribunal

April 4, 2021

By David Hanna, Director Wesley Community Action

The Waitangi Tribunal has again exercised critical leadership to offer a direction for a highly stressed tamariki care system. Its report, He Pāharakeke, He Rio Whakakīkinga Whāruarua, released last week, recognises the need for deep systemic change – as outlined in Puao-te-ata-tu, a report on the Department of Social Welfare, back in 1988.  

It’s now up to the government to implement the main recommendation in the report – setting up an independent Māori Transition Authority to reform the current state care system for tamariki Māori.

After 20 years of providing intensive foster care to young people through a contract with Oranga Tamariki (previously CYF), we at Wesley Community Action are well aware of the challenges of this work and how trauma-saturated much of the care system has become.  This environment, as the Tribunal identifies, undermines any approach to honouring Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Back in 1984, in response to acknowledging our racist system and challenging our colonial legacy, the Methodist Church made a commitment to become a bicultural church.  This commitment drives our mahi at Wesley Community Action.  We are a part of the system that is failing and as such have a commitment to make real efforts to honour Te Tiriti in our practice and the wider system.  This has involved action at the whānau, regional and national levels.

Action at whānau, regional and national levels

At whānau level we recently invested heavily in reconnecting a young mother with her pēpi and her whānau / hapu, after the baby  was taken from the young woman straight after she had given birth (while she was having a shower).  The energy required to take on the system in this case was massive and way beyond our ‘contracted’ requirements.  

We exercised leadership regionally in response to the increase in up-lifts of tamariki Māori by working with our sister agency, Lifewise, to develop an initiative called Mana Whānau.  This whānau- led approach focuses on preventing the removal of children from their whānau or helping those who want to return home. To date this initiative averages a 94% success rate and has a large waiting list.  We see this whānau-led approach as critical to a just care system.

In 2019, we initiated a national NGO network to raise concerns about the direction of the new OT, especially an increase in the number of uplifts that we were observing.  This network hosted forums and shared information to help counter what appeared to be a highly ‘managed’ environment.  This was a risky step given that government agencies see us as simply contracted ‘service providers’.  This minimises the role NGOs play as part of civil society and active agents for a Te Tiriti-honouring process.

On course to becoming a Kaupapa Te Tiriti organisation
To encompass this organisational approach, we have set a course to become a Kaupapa Te Tiriti organisation – one that is neither mainstream nor iwi / Māori.  This requires our organisation to change so that the Māori view becomes more the default frame to inform all our work while also actively supporting Māori-led initiatives.

While we know that no one organisation or network has the total ‘answer’ to this complex historical situation, we align with the Tribunal findings that we need to shift the power back to Māori. New Zealand arrived at this point because people in power made the wrong decisions and ignored wise advice, but these actions can be reversed. We are committed to contributing to finding effective solutions and are increasingly seeing that being whānau-led is a critical element to ensure effective implementation that reflects the desired intent.

I applaud the current shift of power to mana whenua to shape local funding decisions. This is challenging for WCA but one we are up for.  Re-establishing mana whenua in a key leadership role potentially provides the long-term stability to grow the relationship capital essential to break the trauma cycle. The Waitangi Tribunal report, while focused on Oranga Tamariki, also highlights the limitations of a Wellington-centric public service that struggles to operate in ways that holds complexity, strengthens relationships and grows capacity in local communities and NGOs.

Supporting whānau lost to mainstream and iwi networks
A role Wesley Community Action plays is with whānau who are lost to both the ‘mainstream’ system and to iwi / hapu networks.  This is a big group and one that we have experience in supporting through community-led and whānau-led approaches.  We find that if they can be supported to gain some stability and a pro-social vision, then a desire to discover and reconnect with their whakapapa occurs naturally.  In a sense, Kaupapa Te Tiriti organisations like Wesley, play transition / linking roles to negotiate the impacts of colonialism.

The Waitangi Tribunal report, work of the recently established Ministerial review panel and vision of the Minister for Children Kelvin Davis,  provides a rich pool of wisdom and insight to finally have the children / family care system that Puao-te-ata- tu envisioned. I call on the Government to take the next step and honour that wisdom and insight.