Amicus Curiae: The New Ministry for Vulnerable Children is Not Exempt From Criticism

BY ALEX SIMS

On the 31st March, the official implementation of the new Ministry for Vulnerable Children, (Oranga Tamariki, the Ministry), took place, replacing Child, Youth and Family (CYFs). The Minister for Children, Anne Tolley, welcomed the new Ministry stating that it “puts children and young people’s safety and wellbeing first”. Anne Tolley claims that the new Ministry is the first step in a four to five-year modification process, focused on ensuring young people and their care and protection is made a priority. The development of the new Ministry stemmed from one of the many recommendations that arose out of the review by the Ministry of Social Development concerning New Zealand’s care and protection system in 2015. The review analysed the flaws inherent within the CYFs system and looked at the wider systems in place within the community and non-governmental organisations who are involved in the care of New Zealand’s young people.

One of the first criticisms that arose concerning the new Ministry was the name it was given in English, particularly the use of the word “vulnerable” to describe a particular group of youth in New Zealand. Does the word “vulnerable” stigmatise this group and further encourage stereotyping of their position within society? Although this is an issue for many groups and families in New Zealand, it particularly effects our Māori population who are currently overrepresented in their involvement with child protection services. Many are choosing to use the Māori name for the Ministry, rather than the English version, in light of key concerns around the effect of the word “vulnerable”.

The Māori Party have been vocal with their views on the impact they believe the new Ministry will have on Māori youth in New Zealand, who are impacted by the child protection service. 63 per cent of children within state care are Māori, therefore they will be most affected by the new change in legislation that has taken place with the implementation of the new Ministry. The CYFs legislation placed priority on placing children with a member of their family or wider hapū, where possible, and alternatively with someone with the same tribal or cultural background as the child. The new legislation removes this requirement and replaces it with an emphasis on the child’s safety and protection. Māori party co-leader Marama Fox and former government minister Tariana Turia have spoken out against this amendment. A key concern is that the new legislation could create another “stolen generation” of Māori youth.

Marama Fox has stated that we need to be building a child services department that has a kaupapa Māori focus (Maori approach), to make a real difference in the lives of youth in New Zealand. She added that Māori have already been colonised and assimilated once into European structures and systems, resulting in Māori youth who were lost within the state system and became detached from their whānau. A ministry that address issues of assimilation and dislocation must be implemented to avoid repeating mistakes of the past.

Many, including Fox, are worried that the new Ministry is not “Māori-centric enough, as current provisions will enable the Ministry to avoid placing children within their family or wider hapū. A common misconception surrounding this concern is that children will be placed back into an unsafe home. Fox states that “just because it’s a Māori home doesn’t make it an unsafe home” and placed emphasis on the fact that we need a guarantee within the legislation that Māori will be placed with extended whānau where possible. An issue with the current legislation is that it contains phrases such as ‘where applicable’ or ‘wherever practicable’, and has no provision that requires decision-makers to first attempt to re-home children within their family.

NZ First leader Winston Peters disagrees with Fox, saying the Ministry should not have a “whānau first” approach, as he believes a whānau first approach does not always benefit the child. Prime Minister Bill English and Anne Tolley have emphasised that it is possible for children to maintain their cultural connections without being placed within the family. However, how realistic is this claim and does it consider the long-term impact on Māori children who grow up dislocated from their cultural backgrounds and largely removed from their wider hapū?

Labour’s Deputy Leader Jacinda Ardern stated that she could not support the Bill due to the fact although it emphasises the importance of a child’s cultural affiliations and links to whānau, it does not follow through in its application. If Māori children are placed outside their family they risk losing core connections to their whakapapa and may experience a sense of lost identity.

Dame Tariana Turia has discussed the issues around the implementation of the previous legislation. She claims CYFs legislation was probably the best child protection legislation New Zealand has had, and claims that the problem lay with the way the legislation was implemented. Focus should be placed on issues around how the child protection ministry is run, rather than removing core provisions that provide protection for children being placed, where possible, within their whānau. Māori children who do not grow up with whānau, hapū and iwi connections face future problems around feeling a sense of dislocation. They risk facing trouble understanding where they came from, who they are and where they belong. The long-term issues that will arise if priority is not given to Māori children being placed within their family group will largely outweigh the current approach that does not require an attempt to place children within their whānau and wider hapū. 

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