New Zealand’s history has been one of colonisation. Over many generations, the government, at times actively assisted by churches, pursued colonial and assimilationist policies aimed at breaking down Māori authority and social structures and asserting government control over Māori, their land and resources – the exact opposite of what was agreed between Māori and the Crown in te Tiriti o Waitangi in 1840.
For Māori, the undermining of whānau, hapū and iwi structures and networks was “not merely a result of colonisation, but an essential part of the process”. This colonial history, as well as ongoing structural racism, has caused high rates of poverty among Māori and contributed to a disproportionate number of Māori children and young people in care. The impact of this has continued through multiple generations and Māori are still over-represented in care today.
A 1986 report to the Minister of Social Welfare, Puao-te-ata-tu, found that New Zealand institutions – rooted in Pākehā values, systems, and viewpoints – had served to alienate Māori from their own lands and to break down traditional Māori society. The history of colonisation was a “history of institutional decisions being made for, rather than by, Māori”. This applies to the way we have cared for children: the Waitangi Tribunal recently criticised the Crown for its failure to involve Māori in developing and implementing care systems for vulnerable children, saying "although these policies [implemented by the Crown] intrude into the most intimate aspects of whānau life, there is little evidence of Tiriti/Treaty partnership in their design or implementation”.
Other bodies, including the Children’s Commissioner, Ombudsman, and others, have also commented on the way that impacts of colonisation, such as systemic racism, intergenerational harm, and disparities suffered by Māori, have affected the way tamariki are cared for.
Dr Moana Jackson told us that the removal of indigenous children and their placement into State care is a common characteristic of colonising states:
“Families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next… the intention to take has been the same as in other countries, and dispossession is dispossession, even when it is carried out with an allegedly honourable intent or kind usage. Colonisation has always been genocidal, and the assumption of a power to take Māori children has been part of that destructive intent. The taking itself is an abuse.”
The Waitangi Tribunal, in its Oranga Tamariki inquiry, found that te Tiriti guaranteed ongoing full authority of Māori over their kāinga and communities, encompassing a fundamental right “to live and organise as Māori”; and the right “to care for and raise the next generation”. Similarly, Dr Jackson described the exercise of mana or tino rangatiratanga as encompassing “absolute authority” to make decisions about, protect, care for, and support the advancement of Māori communities.
The disproportionately high number of young Māori taken into care arose and persisted “in part due to the effects of alienation and dispossession”, and, according to the Tribunal, this amounted to a failure by the Crown to honour the guarantee of tino rangatiratanga:
“It is more than just a failure to honour or uphold, it is also a breach born of hostility to the promise itself. Since the 1850s, Crown policy has been dominated by efforts to assimilate Māori to the Pākehā way. This is perhaps the most fundamental and pervasive breach of te Tiriti/the Treaty and its principles.”
As noted, over-representation of Māori in State care continues to this day. The Tribunal said this “level of encroachment by the Crown into the lives of whānau and tamariki is profoundly inconsistent with te Tiriti/the Treaty and its principles”, and yet it continues:
“… in part due to assumptions by the Crown about its power and authority, and in part because the disparities and dependencies arising from the breach are rationalised as a basis for ongoing Crown control.”
While the Tribunal has naturally focused on the government’s role, churches have at times actively aided and participated in the colonisation of Māori, by advocating for and supporting the government to assert its authority over Māori communities, taking Māori land and promoting Christianity as a replacement for Māori belief systems. Over time many faith-based institutions became places of spiritual and pastoral refuge for many Māori. The Catholic and Anglican churches, for example, have many Māori members and have provided educational, social and pastoral support for Māori over many years. Yet it is clear too, that Māori have suffered tūkino while in the care of the churches, including in orphanages, schools and residences. Others have been abused by church officials providing pastoral care.
Many witnesses to our inquiry spoke about abuse in care as connected to and a consequence of colonisation in this country. Survivors have described how generations of their whānau have been affected by colonisation and racism, and in turn, poverty and environments where violence was sometimes common – resulting in tamariki being taken into care.
Dr Rawiri Waretini-Karena, a survivor and witness to this inquiry, explained the “intergenerational minefield” that Māori are born into due to the brutal taking of their land and resources and the impact of harmful legislative policy. This continues to devastate Māori cultural identity, language and heritage and has contributed to intergenerational trauma and hardship.
Dr Waretini-Karena described his own pathway into care through looking back at four generations of his whānau. He explained how his grandfather was abused in school, and his father was beaten and traumatised in Social Welfare care. His father was subsequently violent towards him, resulting in him entering care:
“What he [his father] experienced he pretty much applied to his family … our home was very abusive, extreme violence, extreme childhood trauma … All issues and behaviours have whakapapa, they come from somewhere for some reason, these things didn’t just manifest out of the land … for me, it was about looking at contributing factors to the environment that I was born into …
It rippled into the next generation and rippled into the next generation ... it doesn’t make any excuses but what it does is contextualise where these things came from ... I can look at anything from poverty and track its whakapapa back, drugs and alcohol and track its whakapapa back.”
Others have spoken of racist and discriminatory attitudes and policies that contributed to large numbers of young Māori being placed in care, particularly as their contact with government authority increased in the post-war years. The number of tamariki Māori entering care rose rapidly during that period, particularly between the 1960s and 1980s, resulting in seven per cent of Māori boys and two per cent of Māori girls living in State care.
A number of factors contributed to this dramatic increase. These included growth in contact between Māori and government agencies beginning in the early 1940s, partly as a result of the rapid urbanisation of Māori and partly because government ‘welfare’ agencies began to extend their reach into rural Māori communities. The Māori population was growing rapidly during this period and had a younger demographic profile than non-Māori. To a large degree, urbanisation was fuelled by younger Māori escaping deprivation in their home communities and seeking new opportunities in towns and cities.
This migration to urban areas made housing and employment problems worse for Māori, and at the same time made visible the racial, economic and social inequalities in Aotearoa New Zealand. This affected the social attitudes of many Pākehā towards Māori. Officials in both urban and rural communities increasingly identified welfare issues among Māori. Explanations for these welfare problems included Pākehā racial prejudice, intolerance and ignorance of Māori custom, as well as poor employment opportunities, substandard housing, and the breakdown of traditional Māori structures and other impacts of colonisation.
From the 1940s there was also a focus on “juvenile delinquency”, a term covering a wide range of behaviour perceived as requiring control. This focus particularly affected young Māori. Between 1940 and 1970, Māori were three times more likely than non-Māori to appear before Children’s Courts. Once before the court they also received harsher treatment; between 1966 and 1976, of those sentenced to two years in borstal (the harshest sentence available to the court) 59 per cent were Māori.
Sir Kim Workman has described Police deliberately targeting groups of young Māori socialising in towns and cities and harassing them until one swore or stood up to them and was arrested. In his evidence to us, Sir Kim reiterated his view that young Māori were often targeted and institutionalised for “comparatively minor offences” which often reflected cultural differences or deprivation rather than criminal activity.
In his book Justice and Race, Dr Oliver Sutherland argued that the youth justice statistics “proved the deliberate, systematic and increasing oppression of children, particularly Māori children, by the State, and were an appalling indictment of so-called justice in this society”. The figures “illustrated the depth of institutional racism and its impacts on those who were most defenceless”.
Throughout the twentieth century, an increasing number of Māori were also placed in psychiatric facilities. Research commissioned by the Tribunal observed that Māori communities had typically viewed mental illness as reflecting a spiritual imbalance and likely cared for the mentally ill within the community. In contrast, the government’s approach to caring for mentally ill people through this period was to place them in institutions, separate from their community, as discussed further below.
By removing young Māori from their whānau and kāinga, and by placing them in State care, government agencies cut them from the systems of physical, emotional and spiritual support, and ultimately from their identities as Māori. Some experienced frequent changes of placement and lengthy periods in care. Being placed in care meant they lost contact and connection with whānau, community, culture, language, identity and whakapapa, which many later struggled to regain, or worse, gave up wanting to.
The trauma arising from the removal of Māori children from home was made worse by their experiences within the boys’ and girls’ homes, youth justice facilities, psychiatric hospitals and other facilities in which they were detained.
Whether young Māori were placed in welfare or youth justice facilities, hospitals, faith-based institutions or other foster or adoption placements, they were often moving into a Pākehā system. Pākehā concepts of health and wellbeing, crime and justice, mental illness, spirituality, family and kinship, and the place of children differed in fundamental ways from those of Māori. Yet Pākehā concepts were seen as norms that could be imposed on Māori.
While in care, many tamariki Māori experienced serious abuse and neglect, including physical assault, rape and sexual assault, weeks of isolation, improper treatment and racial slurs. For some, experiences of physical and sexual violence or other mistreatment were regular, relentless occurrences, having lifelong effects.
Māori survivors also experienced other types of abuse in care. We heard of cultural neglect, belittling of Māoritanga, and racist abuse. Survivors spoke about abuse that was aimed at isolating them from their culture, such as being scorned and abused for being Māori, being beaten for speaking reo Māori, having their Māori birth names changed and being purposefully adopted and fostered out to non-Māori. As many of our contextual witnesses recognised, these types of abuse towards Māori survivors are a result of, and continue the effects of, colonisation, assimilation and institutional racism.
One survivor described being torn from her whakapapa while in care: “I was taken inside and they saw my taonga ... it was four generations old ... from nowhere these four men came forward and they held me to the ground and they injected me. When I woke up I woke up in a bed and … they had cut my taonga off.” She could not stop crying for the taonga “because it was my family ... they’d not only took my Mum but they ripped my tīpuna away”.
Another survivor told us of his abuser saying: “no one’s going to believe you if you say anything because you’re just a Māori and no one wants you”. Through these experiences: “I questioned my manhood. I felt like my mana had been taken.”
Some Māori survivors told us that being taken into care, and experiencing abuse and racism while in care, had disconnected or further disconnected them from their whānau, whakapapa and culture, resulting in a sense of isolation, deep loss of identity and a sense that they did not fit in either the Māori or Pākehā worlds.
For many Māori survivors, connecting or reconnecting back to their culture, language and whakapapa has been an important part of their healing from the abuse they experienced. Others have had difficulty reconnecting after being in care for so long, or feared that they would not be accepted. Some were hostile or fearful towards te ao Māori due to the racism they had experienced in care, or in some cases because their abusers were Māori.
It is likely that Māori over-representation in care, and the violence they experienced while in care, has been a factor in Māori over-representation in other areas such as homelessness, addiction and domestic violence. In particular, it has contributed to subsequent Māori over-representation in the criminal justice and prison system. There are clear links – for Māori and non-Māori – between experience in State care and later imprisonment. According to research prepared for the Waitangi Tribunal, 80 per cent of current prisoners have spent time in State care. The Waitangi Tribunal has also acknowledged the connection between State care and gangs, noting that an estimated 80 to 90 per cent of Mongrel Mob and Black Power gang members had been State wards.
“[T]he Black Power and the Mongrel Mob took off so fast during the ‘70s, cos there were a lot of unhappy kids, Māori kids around, who weren’t sure of themselves in any world.”
This was affirmed by our engagement with several Māori survivors who told us that the isolation, discrimination and abuse they experienced during care had contributed to many of them later joining gangs. Some Māori survivors told us that part of the psychological abuse they experienced included being told by staff members that they would end up in prison, and many accepted that crime and prison would be the natural progression in their lives.
The impacts of being taken and abused in State care are not only felt by individual survivors, but also collectively and intergenerationally by their whānau and community. The taking and abusing of children has also created a collective mamae, or hurt, and whakamā, or shame, and has led to children having limited knowledge of their whakapapa and being disconnected from their culture and identity because of what they experienced. It has led to tamariki, partners, whānau, hapū, iwi and hapori, or communities, being exposed to mental and physical health issues, drug and alcohol abuse, violence, relationship difficulties and family breakdown.
One survivor described how the extreme violence he experienced in boys’ homes carved a “deep groove” in him and was passed on “to the people we came in contact with ... including our families.”
Next: The journey for Pacific Peoples