Amicus Curiae: Racism and Reform – A Recipe for Failure?

Content Contributor, Daniel Gambitsis

“CYF” is “racist”, reads a recent Radio New Zealand headline, reporting the words of former Maori Party leader Dame Tariana Turia. Child, Youth and Family (CYF) continues to make headlines while plans for its reform are underway, as its failings are openly discussed. The Social Development Minister Anne Tolley has declared CYF to be “broken” and a report commissioned by the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) to oversee the modernization of CYF criticizes the current system and proposes reforms. This raises the questions of how CYF is failing Maori, how CYF is “broken”, and how the reforms plan to respond to these failings.

CYF is a government agency administered by the MSD. It is tasked with the provision of residential and care services for in-need children and youth up to 17 years old, and for young offenders. It ensures children and are ‘safe and protected from abuse and neglect’, responds to notifications of abuse, and can remove such children to safety. CYF works with child and youth offenders, as well as adoption cases. There is no doubt that the nation needs CYF’s services in some form, given that the OECD has declared New Zealand to be the most dangerous developed country for children to grow up in.

However, there is tangible proof that CYF is indeed “broken” based on the prospects of those who have exited its care. The figures reveal that among those having been raised in state care, by the age of 21 almost seventy percent are on a benefit and they are more likely to receive a community or custodial sentence. Maori compose sixty percent of all children in CYF’s care, while only thirty percent of New Zealand born children are Maori. This stems from Maori overrepresentation in disadvantaged households: for instance, Maori children are four times more likely to have a parent who was in CYF’s care as a child. It is a vicious cycle caused by long-term socio-economic inequities.

Turia argues that CYF is institutionally racist due to the unconscious bias in the system towards Maori, and that iwi should be given the right to care for their children where possible. She singles out the removal of Maori children from their family as particularly problematic and an abuse of power, as she considers that it leads to cultural disconnect in the long-term. MP Peeni Henare, whose electorate has the greatest number of children in state care, agreed with Turia, although he emphasized that care was still needed within the whanau setting and a need for greater transparency.

Given the aforementioned problems, the government is set to overhaul CYF, with numerous changes such as extending care beyond the age of 17, and an emphasis on contracting out to outside organizations such as NGOs, as well as iwi. The reform aims to reduce the fragmentation of services and improve accountability.

In terms of dealing with Maori concerns, the Expert Panel Final Report spearheaded by the Minister of Social Development details vast plans to improve results for Maori children and youth and to reduce Maori overrepresentation in the system. It will do this through greater focus on children, and investment to improve life outcomes for those children most at risk, as well as through developing long-term partnerships with iwi, Maori and Pacific organizations, making use of their ability to serve their own people. Other plans include improving prevention plans and early identification of risk factors. It seeks to promote ‘cultural competency’, which may address Turia’s complaint of institutional racism, although it is a very aspirational phrase. Similarly, a new advocacy service for children and youth will also involve significant input from Maori youth and children, and a new board overseeing the system will also require Maori representation of Maori with experience in the sector. With regards to the concern that Maori children should be left with their whanau in preference to state care, the report stresses the importance of maintaining links between Maori children and their wider whanau, but acknowledges that whanau placement may not always be appropriate where the child’s safety is at risk.

Reform of CYF is clearly merited, but the opportunity to improve the system must take the initiative in order to address the needs of Maori and other disadvantaged groups in need of its services. The planned reforms do address Turia’s allegations of institutional racism by emphasizing the importance of cultural connection for Maori children and youth and the need for greater involvement by Maori organizations. Whether the reforms will succeed in actually improving life outcomes for all children and youth under its care, or will only be window-dressing, remains to be seen.

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