The following are my thoughts. I am Pākehā. I guess this makes them Pākehā thoughts – my Pākehā thoughts that is. I don’t have a problem acknowledging this and I think it is important to do so. I also think the following things.
It is necessary to talk about difficult subjects in the world of social work. It is important to get to the heart of things and at the same time it is vital not to over-simplify complicated matters. Social workers are often caught in between their clients and the state – between the interests of the powerful and the interests of the marginalised. This positioning creates tension. Social workers are often (and quite correctly) accused of maintaining the status quo in an unequal society, but they also have the opportunity to identify (and understand) the causes and effects of injustice and to do something about it: some work outside the state, some work inside the system, some see themselves balancing a precarious position that is both in and against the state. Some experience all of these locations in the course of a career in social work. The history of the relationship between Māori and the Crown can be seen in similar terms historically: agitation for change by engagement with Pākehā power structures from outside, inside and in ways that bridge the two.
Many people who talk about the importance of the Pūao-te-Ata-Tū Report have not read it very carefully. I have always seen it as an extremely hopeful document that arose at a particular time and place. Opportunities for systemic, progressive social change arise at certain points in time. The genesis of Pūao-te-Ata-Tū and the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act (1989) (CYPF) came about at such a time. Such victories are not without cost and we owe a debt to the so-called ‘Māori Radicals’ of those days. The core message of Pūao-te-Ata-Tū is about institutional racism as expressed in the first objective:
To attack all forms of cultural racism in New Zealand that result in the values and lifestyle of the dominant group being regarded as superior to those of other groups, especially Māori, by: (a) Providing leadership and programmes which help develop a society in which the values of all groups are of central importance to its enhancement; and (b) Incorporating the values, cultures and beliefs of the Māori people in all practice developed for the future of New Zealand.
Pūao-te-Ata-Tū was not perfect or beyond criticism. The bicultural vision that grew out of it can be seen as yet another form of colonial assimilation. However it was a lofty vision that many of us embraced at the time. It dramatically influenced our child welfare law in the form of the CYP&F Act. The Act can also be criticised (and was at the time) for not giving enough real authority to whānau, hapū, and iwi. However, many of us grasped the opportunity to empower and support whānau to care for their children – we dared to imagine a time when state care for Māori would be a thing of the past.
Why didn’t this happen? This is the bit that gets complicated. First of all Pūao-te-Ata-Tū recommended that this anti-racist objective “be endorsed by the Government for the development of Social Welfare policy in New Zealand”. Although Pūao-te-Ata-Tū was endorsed/accepted by the then Department of Social Welfare it never became a whole of government policy. One government department was not likely to radically reform the essentially mono-cultural society (in terms of dominant or mainstream values, beliefs and lifestyle) which New Zealand remains to this day. Secondly, the most tangible practical recommendation in Pūao-te-Ata-Tū was the establishment of a Social Welfare Commission and local community based Executive Committees to oversee the functioning of District Welfare Offices. This was a radical proposal that was really about distributive democracy and community governance. It was adopted for a very short period and abandoned because of the threat posed to the central state.
Finally, and most importantly, we endured the economic reforms of the 1990s – the rise of the New Right and the associated policies of economic rationalism. The promise of Puao-Te-Ata-Tu needed a parallel process of whānau support, empowerment and development (which still echoes faintly in the policy of Whānau Ora). What Māori got was unprecedented job losses in working class industries and the gutting of the trade union movement with the opening of the economy to global capital. We were presented with Ruth Richardson’s draconian benefit cuts for good measure. You could do anything you liked with a Family Group Conference provided you didn’t spend more than $600.00. I know – I was there. What iwi got – essentially – was empowerment without resources.
The revolutionary aspect of the CYP&F Act was (following Pūao-te-Ata-Tū) understanding the welfare of Māori children in the context of the Māori world – as inevitably defined by whakapapa and the right to belong to whānau. We have seen a constant push back against this view in the watering down of the legislation and the concept of child-centric practice – in amendments to the CYP&F Act and most recently in the Vulnerable Children’s Act (2014). We are going to see more of it: the proposed reforms are about earlier entry into permanent care and less emphasis on whānau placement. It is being suggested that cultural connectedness can be built outside of whānau connectedness. This is linked with wider welfare reform that is driven by a perceived need to discipline the socially excluded and hold them individually responsible for their misfortune. The argument is that if people can’t accept this discipline, their children need to be saved. This is what child centred social workers are for. This practice direction is informed by neoliberal political dogma that serves a particular set of social and economic interests. For the most part it is not in the interests of Māori . It is about one rule for the rich and another for the poor. It is unjust but capitalism (globally) has to do something about the underclass that it creates. We are seeing this shift in welfare policy in similar English speaking societies across the globe. To see the effects of growing inequality in New Zealand society it is only necessary to look around you – and it is something that social workers are confronted with every day.
This is what Parton (2014) refers to as ‘muscular’ child protection. It involves the state using its monopoly on legitimate violence against those least able to defend themselves. The outcomes are inevitably racist and also classist and sexist. This practice direction is informed by neoliberal political dogma that serves a particular set of privileged social and economic interests. By contrast, adult clients of the statutory child welfare system are often young Māori parenting in relative poverty and struggling in a complex (yes, sometimes intergenerational) web of social distress and disadvantage. Such people are blamed, demonised and mocked in popular middle class discourse. Child welfare is an emotive political football. There are alternatives to rescue mentality foster care and it is part of our collective responsibility to name the kinds of social work that can be practiced to support, empower and build safety with the families who are brought to the attention of statutory social work.
Child welfare is an emotive political football. Some families – Māori and Pākehā – sometimes present situations that are dangerous, damaging or even fatal for children. Sometimes children need to be removed. There are generally other ways of protecting and nurturing such children in the context of whānau, hapū, and iwi, but this isn’t always easy or cheap. Families suffering multiple stresses need highly skilled and well-resourced intervention and a capable tangata whenua worker will generally get better results with whānau than a Pākehā worker. Sometimes practice is overtly racist but causation is complex. Tangata whenua are over-represented in the indices of poverty and social distress. This is a legacy of colonisation and capitalism and can take more than one Family Group Conference to turn around. However strengths can be found, care nurtured, protection built and power can be shared. It is not easy work and it won’t be made easier in the near future if I am reading the signs correctly.
So, what can Pākehā do to promote anti-racist practice at this point in time? I don’t pretend to have the definitive answer. Listen – really listen – to Māori but be real and true to your own values – we are all made of clay. Understand that Māori culture differs from dominant Pākehā beliefs, protocols and decision making processes. Accept also that contemporary Māori identity is diverse – avoid one size fits all categorizations. Speak with / not for but do name racism in your world. Listen with respect and give it where it is due – be prepared to learn – always. Pardon the sermon! The thing about the struggle for social justice is that it is not a process with an end point. The good fight is ongoing: dialogue, solidarity, courage, and humility are needed at this time. If we want a progressive social work that does not oppress the indigenous people of this magical land we must constantly work to make it this way and appreciate that others – especially tangata whenua – are also compelled to stand up for what social work tells them about inequality and injustice. Is this stubborn idealism in the face of the apparently irresistible blunt force of neoliberal politics? I certainly hope so!
Happy New Year
Parton, N. (2014). The politics of child protection: Contemporary developments and future directions. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Image Credit | Liz West