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Whānau, whāngai and Oranga Tamariki: What Māori families look like

At the heart of the issue surrounding Oranga Tamariki and their disproportionate uplifting of Māori children from their families is the desire for solutions to be found within iwi, hapū and whānau. Recognising that the Māori family structure looks different from the Western one would be a great place to start.

In English we have names like aunt, great-aunt, cousin, second cousin that describe very distinct roles within a family structure. There’s a prescribed distance in the Western second cousin relationship. In te ao Māori (and indeed many Black and indigenous cultures around the world) those distinctions don’t exist to the same extent, there are simply generational strata. Your parents, aunts and uncles may have the same responsibilities towards you, your siblings and your cousins equally. All aunts, uncles, great-aunts, great-uncles and often people you’re not even related to are simply ‘aunty’ and ‘uncle’ and within your generation the difference between sibling and cousin is blurred.

In a piece for TheRoot.com Damon Young describes “cousin culture” as having “no real distinction between first, second and third cousins … and there are a few people who don’t share any blood with you but are your cousins, too, just because their asses are around all the time and you didn’t even know they weren’t technically related to you until you were, like, 25”.

This is true for te ao Māori, but it has a solid foundation in our traditions and history.

Take two of the te reo Māori words for siblings. Many will be familiar with the terms ‘tuakana’ and ‘teina’. They’re commonly used to describe mentoring systems, in schools and universities for instance, with tuakana being the older mentor and teina being the younger mentee. They are also the names for a younger or older sibling of the same sex.

These aren’t necessarily two different meanings, mentor and sibling mean much the same thing in this instance. Your tuakana are responsible for some of your childcare and for teaching you your roles and responsibilities, as they were taught by their older siblings/cousins. You, in turn, pass those lessons onto your teina.

How does whāngai fit in?

Whāngai doesn’t have an exact equivalent in English either. It’s commonly described as a practise where a child is raised by someone in their family other than their birth parents, but this is an imperfect description.

Your whakapapa and direct bloodline are very important to your history and identity, but the day-to-day responsibility of clothing, protecting and feeding someone (whāngai also means to feed) could be performed by any family member. This is why whāngai can also be thought of as less ‘raising a family member’s child as your own’ and more of an acknowledgement that the child is already part of the wider family’s responsibilities, with an informal agreement as to who will be doing the feeding. Again, whāngai does not have two distinct meanings here – feeding someone and caring for someone are one and the same. Atawhai (meaning to show kindness) is another term that is sometimes applied to whāngai relationships, but more commonly used to describe ‘fostering’.

One thing that hasn’t changed is that it is an open process involving communication between family members where all parties are acting in the best interests of the child.

Other whāngai traditions include the eldest child being raised by their grandparents in order to receive traditional or specialist knowledge from them, a child being given to a childless couple to carry on a legacy, or the raising of children who have lost their natural parents. The most famous whāngai is the demigod Māui, who was raised by his grandfather Tamanui-ki-te-rangi, who found him washed up on the beach after Māui’s mother cast him into the sea.

Whāngai in the law

Whāngai is widely accepted in New Zealand society but it is informal and usually arranged directly between family members, without the involvement of any courts or agencies. The child’s birth parents remain its legal guardians.

It’s not recognised under New Zealand law, with an exception in the Māori Land Court, where whāngai relationships can be recognised for the purposes of inheriting Māori land.

Open adoption and whāngai had been legislated and recognised in various forms from the 1800s until the 1950s when the Adoption Act 1955 said all adoption should be closed and all contact between the child and their biological parents should be severed. The Act also explicitly stated that ‘no person shall be capable of adopting a child in accordance with Maori custom’.

The state

As many more people now know – thanks to the important reporting of journalists like Aaron Smale and Mihingarangi Forbes of The Hui – from the 1950s onward the government removed disproportionately large numbers of Māori children from their families, and put them into state care, whether they were family homes, ‘training centres’, or private homes. Many Māori children were taken from their family against the family’s will or without the extended family’s knowledge. Social workers were not required to find other whānau that would take the child.

We also now know a distressingly high percentage of those children were physically, sexually and psychologically abused, and that abuse of children in state care continues today.

It’s reasonable to assume that the principle behind removing so many Māori children (i.e. that the child was better off in literally any other living situation, no matter how dangerous, than with their natural Māori family) was inherently racist.

The state agency for intervening on the behalf of New Zealand children has had many names, and today it’s known as Oranga Tamariki. These practices around uplifting Māori children are not the same now as they were 40 years ago – but the intergenerational trauma caused by that whakapapa is still being felt today.

The family unit

In the Children’s and Young People’s Well-being Act 1989, the family unit is repeatedly referred to as “family, whanau, hapu, iwi, and family group” and Oranga Tamariki are required to prioritise the placement of children with whānau, hapū or iwi under s13(2) of the Act. As of June 30 2018, 54% of children and young people living in out-of-home placements were with other family or whānau. However, there is a belief among many whānau that have had children uplifted that the requirement was removed.

A statement from Oranga Tamariki in June says this is not the case: “In reality, the opposite is true. Currently, we have more than 80% of tamariki Māori with whānau and there have been nearly 500 more whānau or family placements since the start of Oranga Tamariki.”

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Those relationships, however, are still defined as fairly straight forward types of ‘caregiving’ of which there are many forms. But there is still no recognition of family or care in specifically Māori terms.

None of this is to say that children’s lives haven’t been saved by swift and deliberate intervention by Oranga Tamariki and it’s previous incarnations. But many extended whānau and hapū are coming forward to say that their voices aren’t being heard and one can only assume it’s because the relational dynamic that whāngai is a part of isn’t being truly embraced by the agency, or still doesn’t fit in with its definition of a family. Whānau, hapū and iwi aren’t merely synonyms, they have a different context.

Whānau, hapū and iwi are asking for more agency in deciding what is right for an at-risk child. If they’re powerless in the face of Oranga Tamariki, the Police and the Family Court, and have no opportunity to exercise their tikanga, their acknowledgement in law seems meaningless.

Read more: Uplifting children is not a Māori problem. It’s a colonisation problem


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