Every year, the Y25 programme brings together 25 young women and non-binary people who are working to shape a fairer Aotearoa across various sectors.

Among those on the list this year are two women who spend their days advocating for young people in state care.

They spoke to Re: News about how their own experiences living in state care have shaped that work. 


Illustration by Pounamu Wharekawa

Mary-Lynn Huxford and her siblings were uplifted from their family home when she was three years old.

She and her sister were fostered with one set of relatives, while her three brothers lived with other whānau.

The 24-year-old says she was quite lucky in that she did eventually get returned to her mother and siblings, but it wasn’t easy.

“I guess because we were so young [when we were uplifted], we each forgot each other, so when we came back together as a family, we had to re-remember who our siblings were,” she says.

As a teenager, Mary-Lynn says her earlier state care experience continued to affect her. 

I didn't have the language or understanding to describe my care experience; I wasn’t surrounded by anyone who had that same shared experience,” she says.

“It almost felt like I'd done something wrong or it was almost like this just happened in my life. 

“[But] as an adult, you look back and go, ‘no, that's a severe trauma.’ There’s separation anxiety there, and there's attachment styles that will then impact you growing up, and extra mental health things to kind of work through as well.

“If you're in those early, developing years, and you're separated from all things secure, the reality is without help and support from other people, you do develop into a really insecure person.”

Giving young people a say in their care

Mary-Lynn says this is where advocacy for tamariki in state care can be powerful.

“It’s not just talking to the government [and] advocating to the government for change. It’s also the development of a community for our young people … who’ve had that same lived experience to come together and talk about it and also advocate together.

“I think there is something about when we come together as a community, we start to share, unpack and understand our own lived experience and how it's impacted us.”

Mary-Lynn now works for VOYCE - Whakarongo Mai, an independent organisation that advocates for children in state care.

She says one of the biggest issues is young people not getting a say in decisions that are made for them.

Time and time again, where a lot of the hurt and damage is caused, is young people not actually being allowed to voice what they need,” she says.

Mary-Lynn also says young people who have offended and are moved to a youth justice residence are also not getting the care they need.

“I think we've for some reason decided that a young person who has committed a crime is less of a young person … and not entitled to the same love and mana that all young people should have.”

‘The trauma is quite intense’

Mary-Lynn would like to see more young people eligible for mental health support after they’ve been through the state care system. 

“When people have suffered severe trauma in their childhood, that impacts how they show up in society, that impacts their health needs,” she says.

“[But] at the moment … unless you actually aged out of care or you were in care from the age of 15 onwards, you’re not eligible [for that support],” she says.

“Even if you’ve been in state care for a day, you [should be] entitled to mental health support, because that trauma of being uplifted and removed from all of your support systems is quite intense. 

“If the state is going to intervene because they believe they can provide a better and safer service, then I feel like they also have a duty of care to support that intervention as well.

“[We need to ask] are these systems and processes actually working for our young people? And if not, how can we shift [them]?”


Illustration by Pounamu Wharekawa

Celine Waikohu George grew up in and out of state care from birth. 

“It was hard,” the 24-year-old says. “I experienced all types of abuse.”

When Celine fell pregnant aged 16, she ended up in Maia House, a supported teen parent house in Whangārei.

She says the move probably saved her life, filling her days with some structure and giving her a safe and caring environment to learn basic life skills.

Now a mother to a happy seven-year-old boy, Celine says she’s fighting to change the lives of other tamariki in state care.

“[I’m inspired by] younger me, really, and all the things that I went through,” she says.

“I’m advocating for the unheard, the unseen, those that slip through the cracks … [I’m] just really trying to break that intergenerational barrier of trauma and disconnection, especially with regards to my taha Māori.”

Turning pain into purpose

Celine currently works with Oranga Tamariki, advocating and participating in different policy areas.

“[I’m] just really being the face and having the voice alongside my colleagues, as care-experienced advocates,” she says.

“Having that actual lived experience in order to speak about the things that need to be spoken at these tables of power [is important].”

Celine says she would like to have more Indigenous values consistently upheld within the state care system and wants to see more action on homelessness and the cost of living pressures being felt by families. 

“[We need] the space to be able to parent our babies in a positive way of life,” she says.

Celine says she’s grateful to be part of this year’s Y25 as she tries “to get myself into every space that I can to … advocate for everything that I’m passionate about”.

“[My work] has really helped me rediscover who I am underneath all of the trauma,” she says.

“It's kind of helped me transmute my pain into purpose … I think it's reaffirmed who I am and given more explanation as to who I am. 

“The opportunity to be able to advocate on where I have come from … and just making those intergenerational differences within my own [community] is a privilege in itself.

“The job helps me just as much as I help the job.”

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