Significant changes to social services for children and young people are likely to be announced soon. The Modernisation of Child, Youth and Familyinterim report was released in September 2015 and the full final report was provided to the Minister of Social Development just before Christmas. We can expect that Cabinet is considering proposals to update the Child Youth and Family (CYF) Act 1989 and other changes to affecting children and young people.
Within this is an important and exciting opportunity to transform the way we support the children who are in state care. In particular, there is a long overdue opportunity for iwi/ Māori to be given a voice regarding the care and wellbeing of their tamariki mokopuna.
In April last year, the Minister for Social Development established the Modernising Child, Youth and Family Expert Panel to help oversee this review process, with an eye towards developing a more child-centric approach. While the interim report has highlighted some serious weak points in the delivery of CYF services, it also noted that there was a committed frontline workforce and pockets of good practice.
When it comes to the modernisation of CYF practises, there will no doubt be many suggestions that will greatly benefit New Zealand children in state care. Where this process may fall short is when it comes to meeting the needs of Māori children. Any attempt to modernise operations and provide truly meaningful solutions going forward should include iwi and Māori social service workers and leaders. They have a wealth of insight and cultural experience and capabilities, and are in the best place to understand what Māori children need in order to thrive and succeed.
It is well documented that Māori children are over-represented in CYF care, currently making up 57% of all children CYF see by the age of five. While this is one of the factors considered in the Modernisation Report, and of course any effort to address this is great news, the welfare of Māori – and the future state care practises regards Māori children – would be best addressed with Māori-led ideas and solutions.
NZCCSS member agencies and other community social services understand better than most that something needs to be done to improve the experience of Māori children and young people in state care. While the modernisation of CYF is a necessary and welcomed action, there is a danger of assuming that the needs of all children are identical.
It could be said that Māori leaders and social work professionals are calling for not merely reform but a transformation of social services for Māori. This is an important point that is often not acknowledged: that iwi/Māori have solutions and capabilities of their own that perhaps the state alone cannot always provide. What should be amplified for maximum reach is that there is willingness, knowledge and experience among Māori communities, and the possibility of available infrastructure, to care for Māori children within their iwi and communities. Much more than what a social worker can provide, it is their iwi who are able to explore their whakapapa and find whānau who are able and willing to care for them.
This sense of belonging and whānauatanga is central to Māori culture, and is essential for the transformation of these children’s lives. While the government is focusing more on all children in state care, the modernisation process is also an opportunity to acknowledge, accept and support Māori in taking responsibility for the future of their tamariki mokupuna.
We need to move away from the assumption that Māori children in state care need only be made to be safe. While this is, or course, important in the immediate situation, long term this attitude and approach fails to deliver a sense of belonging. What better home for Māori children in state care than with their extended family and iwi? As much as we may try, state care that doesn’t include cultural relevance and experience lacks a transformative element. It is here that they can be introduced to who they are.