New Zealand’s problem with Māori boys

What remains of Kohitere Boy's Training Centre in Levin, one of the institutions at the centre of abuse claims. Image: Aaron Smale

New Zealand’s problem with Māori boys

The success or failure of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into state welfare abuse will depend on how much attention it gives to Māori boys – and a change in New Zealand’s attitude, writes Aaron Smale.

Years ago while reading Anne Else’s 1991 book A Question of Adoption, I came to a chapter that talked about the issue of the adoption of Māori children. Else described how in the late 1960s and early 1970s most of those applying to adopt were Pākehā and middle-class. And they were becoming fussy.

In their applications they began stipulating the kind of child they wanted, to the point that the Department of Social Welfare created a colour-coded card file system that graded them on desirability.

At the top of the list of desirability were blue-eyed, blond-haired girls. At the bottom of the list were Māori boys.

When I read that I hurled the book across the room in anger.

One of those Māori boys was me.

Born in 1971 to a Māori father and Pākehā mother, I landed right in the middle of the peak of adoptions in New Zealand, but also at a time when Māori children were becoming especially difficult to place.

Else’s book put my experience in a larger context which showed clearly that Māori boys were considered a problem, not just to the Department of Social Welfare but to Pākehā New Zealand society. Else describes this in a number of places:

“Race comes up throughout the history of adoption. Finding enough parents willing to take Māori or part-Māori children, or indeed any ‘non-European’ child, was universally regarded as one of the of the major problems in adoption.”

Else describes one birth mother who was told it would be “very difficult to adopt a part-Māori child, particularly if it was a boy.”

In another place she describes: “a quarter-cast Māori boy, again, a baby in the least-wanted category.”

“By the late 1960s, some Child Welfare offices used a simple ‘colour-coding’ system to speed up preliminary matching. The card files for adoptive applicants were flagged according to what sort of child they would consider: blue for a boy, pink for a girl, red for handicapped, green for Jewish, yellow for Chinese, black for mixed-race.”

At first I thought it was just that people wanted to adopt children that at least ‘blended in’ to their family, and it had nothing to do with the children being Māori. This benefit of the doubt was demolished by the discovery that during the 1960s there was a publicity blitz about babies from Hong Kong and Vietnam becoming available for adoption. Else describes those who approached a social services agency in Christchurch expressing an interest in adopting these children from Asia being “completely against any suggestion that they consider a part-Māori or part-Samoan child.”

Matron with babies, Wellington Bethany home, 1969. Image: Te Ara

This led to Social Welfare either offering Māori children to Pākehā couples who were lower on the socio-economic ladder, or the children ended up languishing on the department’s books.

“It was never easy for social workers to find enough applicants willing to take Māori children, and it became increasingly difficult as the general ‘over-supply’ of babies increased. In 1965 Child Welfare was admitting that ‘adoption of Māori children is a big and constant headache’.”

Despite these difficulties in finding Pākehā strangers who were willing to adopt Māori boys, the department still wouldn’t consider whether the child’s own Māori relatives could adopt the child as per our tradition of whāngai – a practice that was explicitly excluded by the 1955 Adoption Act, which says traditional Māori adoptions would not be recognised. They certainly didn’t bother to talk to mine.

“To Pākehā social workers, any legal placement with strangers organised via Social Welfare appeared preferable to allowing the baby to go to Māori kin…”

As the anger subsided, a good 15 minutes after that book took flight, I started to think – is that what New Zealand thought of me? Thought of all Māori boys? Is that what they still think of us? We had barely entered the world and already we were deemed unlovable, unwanted, a problem – on top of the stigma of being born to unmarried parents. Judged not for things we’d done but simply because we were.

The colour code assigned to us was black. However crude, this was social engineering 101. Nowadays there would probably be an algorithm.

But does that attitude still exist? It could be said those were different times. I don’t think things have changed. As far as I can tell those attitudes have just gotten a little more sophisticated.

The questions continued and were the impetus behind many stories I did. The statistics on social issues like incarceration and education showed Māori males were always at the bottom of these numbers.

But more crucially, why was it that people didn’t seem to be bothered by these facts? Did everyone think this was some kind of normal, just the order of the universe that could not be challenged? Was it that Māori males were viewed by New Zealanders as inherently violent, stupid, criminally inclined, lazy? Even when we were infants?

Albie Epere and April Mokomoko at a protest at New Zealand parliament about abuse of state wards in welfare institutions, June 2016. Image: Aaron Smale

Eventually these questions led me to the story on state welfare abuse for The Spinoff. Here the numbers were even more lop-sided. Estimates suggest around 60% of wards of the state in institutions were Māori at a time where they made up around 12% of the population. Other more eye-witness accounts put it as high as 80%.

So while the Department of Social Welfare was having trouble finding parents for Māori infant boys in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, it was also finding it very easy to pick up older Māori boys and funnel them into welfare institutions. Māori boys were perceived as a problem, although in many instances that problem was that they were from large, poor families. The department didn’t make it explicit that there was a problem with Māori boys in the same way the government didn’t explicitly suppress the Māori language – it never articulated a policy but it certainly enacted one.

In the public discussion of the Royal Commission, these facts are virtually ignored. The draft terms of reference are not specific about Māori being the focus and thus far, contain no mention of the Treaty. Is this because it is assumed that Māori children deserved it? Or that their parents were useless?

It’s as if their Māori-ness is incidental, not central to their incarceration. And here’s an opinion that might make me unpopular – despite Māori boys and men being in the majority in state institutions, they are already being sidelined in the public discussion of the Commission’s mandate and focus.

Another problem is the campaign to have those abused in church settings included in this Royal Commission. They are quoting overseas experts criticising the draft terms of reference as woefully inadequate for not including church victims.

I am not arguing that those sexually abused in church settings shouldn’t have a high-level inquiry. I strongly believe they should – and the church should look at funding it themselves too. But including quite different issues in the same Royal Commission would short change both groups of victims. If you want to draw parallels with inquiries overseas, Australia and Canada’s inquiries into the removal of indigenous children are closer to the mark. They are far broader than sexual abuse, although they certainly include it.

They need to be examined separately, otherwise neither group will receive the attention and resources they both deserve.

This is not to diminish the suffering of others who aren’t Māori males, whether that be tauiwi or women. Abuse is abuse, whoever it happens to and in whatever context. Everyone deserves to be heard. But my greatest fear for the Royal Commission (and I have a number) is that the largest group affected by state welfare abuse will be sidelined. While groups that are well organised or represented will be clamoring to be heard and included, Māori men don’t have that kind of advocacy and are more likely to be silent and not participate.

One of the reasons I fear this is because it’s already happening. At the first day of the hui to consult on the terms of reference for the new Royal Commission, there was a panel of nine survivors. Of them, only one was a Māori man. When I pointed this out and how it was problematic given the majority of state wards were Māori boys, I was met with a chilly silence.

Many Māori men who were wards of the state carry deep wells of anger, mistrust and trauma. They have been looked down on, denigrated and vilified directly and indirectly their whole lives. They and their children are populating our prisons.

They are the ones that most need to be heard in this Royal Commission and yet they will be the most difficult to convince that this process is something they should participate in. The state has been interfering in their lives from the time they were children and they regard anyone in authority with suspicion and hostility.

Convincing them to participate is going to be one of the greatest challenges of this inquiry. It is a challenge that will test the very legitimacy of the inquiry. It will take innovate thinking and a willingness to listen to those who understand these men, not bureaucrats and academics. Most of all it will take some very involved discussions with these men themselves, on their terms and in an environment and forum that is for them.

A while ago I spoke to a manager in Corrections who talked about a group of inmates in a rehabilitation programme that were mostly Māori, but included a few Pākehā. The Māori inmates wouldn’t talk. This was discussed and staff decided to try again with just Māori inmates. For some reason, they began to talk.

These men were reluctant to disclose their childhood trauma in front of anyone other than people who understood them. And they had an innate belief that it would only be other Māori men in that category.

When I spoke to Australian filmmaker Larissa Behrendt, whose father and grandmother were part of the Stolen Generation in Australia, she talked about a group of men who went through Kinchela Boys Home, in many respects the Australian version of Kohitere. These men are now well organised and have built support networks for survivors through the Kinchela Boys Home Aboriginal Corporation.

These are the kinds of experts that need to be consulted to make this Royal Commission work – people who have a common experience that Māori men can relate to but also an outside perspective that can give them another way of seeing things.

New Zealand society as a whole, not just the state, will also need to examine its own attitudes to Māori men. We are quite happy to embrace them when it suits us – the Taika Waititis, the Reiko Ioanes, the Dr Lance O’Sullivans – and bask in the reflected glory of their talents.

But we just as quickly look down on Māori boys and men and ignore them when it’s convenient, expressing no curiosity or empathy for those countless faceless and nameless individuals who end up in the worst places in our society. We disown them.

Māori iwi and political leaders have not helped in terms of voicing and supporting victims of state abuse – in fact they’ve been missing in action when it comes to standing up for their own.

In the Final Report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Daniel Elliot, a descendent of a residential school survivor, told the Commission: “I think all Canadians need to stop and take a look and not look away. Yeah, it’s embarrassing, yeah, it’s an ugly part of our history. We don’t want to know about it. What I want to see from the Commission is to rewrite the history books so that other generations will understand and not go through the same thing that we’re going through, like it never happened.”

New Zealand will need to do the same.

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