The state’s child care and protection system is steeped in colonial principles. It has harmed and disenfranchised thousands of Māori. Is change and decolonisation even possible in a system framed by Pākehā values? 

Ophir Cassidy tells us about one of the children she represents from her Manukau office.

“I have a little Māori boy that’s placed with a South African-Indian family,” she says.

“And the other day, he said to me: ‘I’m not Māori’. I was gobsmacked.

“I said ‘Yes you are Māori’, and he said: ‘No I’m not’.”

Ophir, who is of Ngāti Porou descent, shakes her head when recounting the story. It is part of our discussion about Māori in the state care and protection system. Our interview takes place during a week when the wrongful uplift of a Māori newborn in Hastings is back in the news after Oranga Tamariki released its investigation findings on the case.

For Ophir, the boy she talks about is among hundreds of Māori she has represented in her 18 years as a family lawyer. In the last eight of those, she has specialised in the area of child care and protection, working as a court-appointed lawyer for children and youth advocate. 

The child’s words demonstrate the unforgiving isolation the system often imposes on Māori kids. 

“It’s a huge concern for me,” she says. 

“For any child, but particularly Māori - who are overrepresented in the system - to have a sense of identity and know his sense of tūrangawaewae, his standing in his whakapapa, he has to first understand and acknowledge he is Māori.”

In his situation, the lack of connection his caregivers have with Te Ao Māori is a significant problem, Ophir says. 

Despite that, she and his Oranga Tamariki social worker are at odds over his living arrangement. Ophir says the department have informed her they will support the boy living permanently with the South African family if they have not found a suitable whānau member in the New Year. 

“They are a lovely family, but I just said: ‘Ah, no you’re not’.

“From my point of view, there’s an aunty there who has put her hand up, but Oranga Tamariki don’t support her. They’ve got certain views about her. My issue is that they’d rather have this little boy continue to live with this family, yet he already has some confusion about his place in the world. That’s going to create huge issues down the track for him.”

Fluent in her native tongue and a staunch advocate for tangata whenua, Ophir works with children and families who are almost always Māori. Many of them are disconnected to their whakapapa, language, and wider whānau support system.

Ophir Cassidy

It is an oppression and trauma which no Māori child should have to carry, she says. 

As we talk more about her work, it becomes clear the state care system’s overarching institutional challenges in dealing with Māori children, like her young client, is a motivating factor in her chosen career. 

“The reality right now is we’re in a crisis,” she says.

“The stats tell us that Māori are in the worst state they’ve ever been in in terms of the number of Māori that are removed by the state or in its care.”

Those statistics include data from June 2018, which showed 4346 Māori children were in state care. That accounted for 68 percent of all children in state care at the time, up from 3518 or 62 percent the previous June. Figures for the number of Māori babies removed at birth are also alarming, with a 33 percent increase in baby uplifts between 2015 and 2018 attributed entirely to removals of Māori infants. Overall, Māori make up 16 percent of the population. 

These children are not only at risk of abuse and trauma within the state care system, they are also at risk of being isolated from their familial links - including connections to whānau, hapū and iwi, Ophir says. 

For Māori, that is the essence of “who we are”. She points to the 1988 Puao-te-ata-tu report as an example of one of many over the past three decades that have documented the consequences of that isolation.

“We don’t see a child in isolation,” she says. “We see a child as part of a whānau - everything is seen in a collective. You can’t remove a child from their whānau [through the state care system] and think you’re going to fix everything.”

The very idea that taking a child from their family and wider whānau could be in their best interest opposes Māori understanding of wellbeing and the world, Ophir says. 

“Everything that needs to be done needs to be done with the whānau considered in that. So straight away, there’s this clash of cultures - it’s their [Pākehā] ideologies and for us our tikanga and the way we view the world.”

With that understanding established, we ask Ophir, or “O” as she is known, what it is like to work in a system that inherently challenges her own beliefs and values. 

She takes a deep breath and smiles tentatively.  

“It’s hard in the sense that I often come up against barriers that culturally I know are not conducive towards the way Māori see the world. We keep banging up against each other,” she says as she brings her closed fists together. 

“But, as a lawyer, I’ve learnt to navigate.”

Borrowing words from renowned Māori leader Sir Āpirana Ngata, also a descendent of Ngāti Porou, Ophir continues: 

“I would say I’ve grasped the tools of the Pākehā and I’m in the system and I know the law and how to navigate it.”

Her role in addressing the ongoing devastation of colonisation falls within that context. 

She notes the significant legislative changes enshrining the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi in New Zealand’s care and protection laws in July. As part of these, Oranga Tamariki’s handling of Māori children and families will come under extra scrutiny. 

However, she is wary of the department’s capacity to properly meet the needs of thousands of young Māori in its care. 

“It’s a really big deal for us, but it has to be put in context,” Ophir says of the updated legislation. 

“We know Māori are not treated fairly in the state care system. You’ve got a Government structure that derives from colonialism, that’s grounded in the dominant culture’s way of doing things and how they view children,” she says.

Last year, she and three other senior Māori wāhine lawyers formed Te Korimako legal initiative. So far, they have held nearly 20 workshops across the country aimed at educating those working at the coalface with whānau on the Oranga Tamariki Act. 

“This is a practical response to the crisis we’re in,” Ophir says. “If we don’t do something now, we’re talking about a lost generation, a stolen generation, a generation of children that will grow up not knowing their whānau whakapapa and having any connection to who they are.”

Te Korimako work with Māori social workers and community social service providers who deal with Māori families. It includes Northland-based La-Verne King - who was appointed a District Court judge in May - and Hamilton barrister Kiriana Tan. Tania Williams-Blyth, who is based in Rotorua, is the fourth member of the group.

“We look at how they [workers] can navigate their way through the act so they can assist their whānau and challenge Oranga Tamariki around how they engage with Māori,” Ophir says.

“We were concerned with the pre-Court phase… because that is when they don’t have the benefit of legal representation, so a child won’t have a ‘lawyer for child’ and a parent or whānau member won’t have a lawyer acting for them and giving advice.”

She says to reduce the number of children going into state care, involvement and support from whānau must come at this stage.

“The minute that Oranga Tamariki come knocking at the door,” Ophir emphasises.

“For example, if there’s family violence in the home, they have to look at getting some support in the community and look at attending appropriate programmes that are going to address the underlying issues. We’ve also given them templates to create a plan so they can show Oranga Tamariki what is happening.” 

At this point, the attempted Hawke’s Bay uplift comes up. In that case, the mother and her whānau made significant changes to ensure baby’s safety in family care. However, Oranga Tamariki’s investigation into the case showed this was ignored by staff members, who focused instead on the mother’s outdated history of concern. 

The widely publicised attempted hospital uplift that occurred sparked protests across the country about the department’s treatment of Māori. Four inquiries were also initiated. 

“In this instance, you had people that didn’t work within the legal framework, and so you had the midwives challenge it in their own way,” Ophir says. 

“From that one event, it became an issue that everyone was talking about, and it has definitely impacted the way Oranga Tamariki operates,” she says. 

“Since that, and the July [law] changes, the number of urgent uplift orders Oranga Tamariki have applied for has decreased significantly,” she says.

We ask Ophir whether it is fair whānau are expected to comply with Oranga Tamariki expectations. 

She drops her head slightly, smiling reservedly like she did earlier in our discussion.

“For so many years, we as lawyers working within the system have been frustrated. But we know, once [a court] order’s made, that you’re supposed to follow that order.”

She sees her role as an advocate within the system. The midwives in the Hawke’s Bay case worked towards the same goal, only they pushed from outside, Ophir says. 

“I think we need both: people within and outside the system. It’s a collective effort, and I know it sounds corny, but change will come through the power of our people.” 

Auckland University of Technology lecturer Dr Maria Haenga-Collins, whose background is in social work, agrees with Ophir about the need for Māori to lead the care and protection of at-risk tamariki. Of Ngāti Porou, Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki and Ngāi Tahu descent, her areas of interest include the ongoing impacts of colonisation and the closed adoption of Māori children into Pākehā families. 

We meet at Maria’s office at AUT’s South Campus, not far from Ophir’s and the busy Manukau business hub. Our discussion begins with her own story of closed adoption into a Pākehā family.

“I was born in 1964 to a Māori mother and Pākehā father. My father worked at sea and he basically abandoned our mother in the city,” Maria says.

“She had been advised by her family not to marry my father, but she did, so she stayed on in the city and did not return to her family.”

At the time, Maria had one older brother. To balance the needs of her two young children with costs of living in the Wellington, Maria’s mother placed them in care so she could work. The family Maria was placed with neglected her, which resulted in the involvement of the then-Department of Social Welfare.

Auckland University of Technology lecturer Dr Maria Haenga-Collins

“I was then put into a foster family at nine-months-old, and this foster family very quickly wanted to adopt me. My [department] file is about the next five years of them and my mother going backwards and forwards. It shifted between the family wanting to adopt me, and my mother not wanting to [do that] but being pressured by social workers.”

The adoption was eventually finalised as a closed process when Maria was five. Her case is relatively unique because a record of it exists through her Department of Social Welfare file due to her years as a foster child. In other closed adoption cases, adoptees and their biological parents are prevented from accessing information about each other due to restrictions imposed by the 1955 Adoption Act.  

Her adoptive Pākehā parents were an older Catholic couple whose biological children had reached adulthood by the time she was in their care, Maria says. 

“They fostered children for money. There are a lot of things in that family that were quite hard growing up, and there was a lot of dysfunction, but I did feel very much loved,” she says softly.

Her upbringing in a wholly Pākehā environment gives her first-hand experience of being without substantial connection to whānau and whakapapa for a significant part of her formative years. 

“I’m not saying I would have had a better life with my birth parents. There were a lot of issues there as well. But I guess the thing that I did miss out on was connection, especially connection to my Māori family,” Maria says. 

At age 11, she reconnected with her birth mother. However, even then, it was obvious something was missing from her world, Maria says.  

“For young children, it may not look so important, but I haven’t met anyone - including myself - who at adolescence especially, hasn’t had issues with looking for their identity as Māori. 

“We all do that, but for children who have been removed from their birth families and adopted cross-culturally, I think that’s huge.”

Maria reiterates the points Ophir makes regarding Māori identity and worldviews, and the definitive need to uphold whānau links in any situation involving Māori children.

She links the state care system’s failure to do that to New Zealand’s brand of racism. It is inextricably linked to colonisation, Maria says. 

“We do our racism in a particular way - it’s almost like a sleight of hand. It appears as one thing, but underneath it’s something else.”

Her time as a social worker in the community mental health team at the Capital & Coast District Health Board showed how it manifested through a culture fixated on “worst-case scenarios”.

It creates treatment outcomes which disproportionately impact Māori and Pacific young men. They are prescribed more medication than their Pākehā counterparts and generally placed under more rigorous security measures, Maria says.

That same bias, and sleight of hand, exists in the state care and protection system, she says. It is why Māori are surveilled and scrutinised to a different standard, and why their children are removed more readily than non-Māori.

“The racism, rooted in colonialism, which obstructs progress for Māori is part of the fabric of this society,” Maria says.

“When white New Zealand hears about the uplift of children, they think the parents must be really bad and there’s all these other things they’ve done wrong. What white New Zealand does not understand is Māori generally have had a completely different experience of the system than them.”

“For us, things don’t have to be terribly wrong for the full weight of the state to come down,” she says. 

Not everyone, particularly non-Māori, are able to accept that and the generational hurt it represents for Māori. In that sense, Māori will always be - and have always been - best-placed to deal with at-risk tamariki. The conversation must shift to not if this is true, but how funding and resources can enable it, she says. 

She repeats a phrase echoed many times over the decades.

“Māori know what is best for Māori.”


This article is a part of our series Rediscovering Aotearoa: a decolonisation series. Watch our short documentary on Whānau | Family here and listen to our podcast here.


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