From abused runaway child to care professional
Neta Kerepeti grew up in Ngunguru, a small town near Whangārei. The town had a strong sense of community and a rich culture grounded in reo Māori and te ao Māori.
In the late 1960s Neta’s parents moved the whānau from Ngunguru to Whangārei. Sadly, Neta’s mother passed away in 1967, leaving Neta and her siblings in the care of Neta’s father. It wasn’t long before Neta’s home life became fraught with abuse of various forms, perpetrated by Neta’s father. Neta was subjected to the abuse between the ages of eight and 12. The abuse led her to act out in various ways. She became rebellious and admitted that she became a bully towards others. She also missed school and misbehaved when she did attend. Her truancy brought her to the attention of the Department of Social Welfare.
At 12, she became a ward of the State and was taken into care by the department. Neta was never told why she was taken away from her whānau. She was placed in a “family home” with several other children in State care. She described this family home and subsequent ones as horrible, unsafe places. In one, she was physically and sexually abused. She and other Māori children were treated more harshly because of their ethnicity.
“Why was I removed from my home for truancy and then placed into care with evil people who were abusive? How could the Social Welfare Department not know that these people were abusive?”
At 13, Neta was taken to Bollard School for Girls in Auckland. On admission, she was subjected to medical examinations for venereal disease, a sexually transmitted infection and pregnancy by a male doctor, after which she was put in a locked cell for a week: “I was fully exposed to him, there was no female present … I had no idea what a venereal disease was.” No one bothered to visit her other than to give her food.
While at Bollard, Neta suffered still more sexual abuse, this time at the hands of staff. She became pregnant and miscarried. The abuse of power by staff fostered a deep distrust of authority that lasted well into her later years. Neta twice ran away from Bollard. She ended up living on the run from age 14 to 16. She did whatever she could to evade Police and the Department of Social Welfare. While homeless, she got mixed up with the wrong crowd and began taking drugs and drinking alcohol. She returned to Whangārei at 16, pregnant with her first child.
The State’s failure to provide adequate care and support has deeply scarred her to this day. Yet despite her traumatic early years, Neta went on to complete a post-graduate diploma in social work and a Bachelor of Management. She has worked for Child, Youth and Family Services and other public service agencies and government ministries. Her experience in care and her time working in the care system put her in a unique position to make recommendations for change.
Neta said the care of children must be child and whānau-centric. At no point was she ever asked why she did what she did, or whether she needed support. Neta’s whānau never had an advocate to help them as she was being taken into care. “The Social Welfare Department practices were not whānau-centric. They were more focused on working through the process and putting me into the system. The person who mattered the most was not placed at the centre.”
She said most of the State’s funding and resources went to agents of the State to look after whānau Māori, whereas much more needed to go to whānau, hapū and Māori so they were equipped to support their own.
Verify to Continue
Neta was critical of the lack of culturally appropriate services available for Māori. Current services to address trauma are not always suitable or do not recognise mātauranga Māori and practitioners as a means of rehabilitation and healing for Māori. The State needed to broaden therapeutic methods for healing trauma beyond western styles of therapy, to include the use of mātauranga Māori and rongoā Māori. Neta said western standards could be restrictive and did not necessarily work for Māori. Government agencies should have trust in Māori to lead and express tino rangatiratanga for whānau through their own methods of healing.
Neta said embedding the principles of te Tiriti o Waitangi at the core of the care system was an essential reform, as was greater co-ordination between government agencies and communities, greater involvement by Māori in decision-making, and the recruitment of the right people with the right skills who were focused on the wellbeing of the individual and whānau. “It is people who … implement human-designed policies, processes and procedures. A system built by people for people, so obviously cannot be devoid of human thought and touch, and should not then be described as a function or failure of the system.”
Verify to Continue
Next: Walton Ngatai-Mathieson