Words are important.

Last year I had the privilege, as I have many times before, of hearing Dr Moana Jackson speak at a forum on the school-to-prison pipeline, in reference to the fact that being excluded or expelled from school is a major risk factor in later imprisonment. In his korero, Moana referenced the power of naming – and the power that goes with being The Namer of Names. In the Christian tradition, God gives Adam the honour of naming all creatures, in the book of Genesis. In all creeds, cultures and languages, names and labels reflect meaning, intention, values and sometimes stories.

This week, the Minister for Children Tracey Martin, claimed references to the systematic uplift and removal of Māori children from their whānau by Oranga Tamariki as New Zealand’s ‘stolen generation’ were “emotive” and “inappropriate”. Of course the term ‘stolen generation’ is most commonly associated with the removal of Aboriginal children by welfare and child protection authorities in Australia in the 20th century. The national inquiry into the practice produced the ‘Bringing Them Home’ report, which estimated that up to 100,000 children were forcibly removed from families under these policies across Australia.

In 2017 then-Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy reported more than 100,000 children and vulnerable adults had been placed in state care over a 40-year period in New Zealand, more than half of them Māori. In 1978, 78 percent of admissions to Hokio Beach Training School were Māori and Pasifika. By 1985, 78 percent of all of the boys in the six social welfare homes across Auckland were Māori.

As a naïve nine-eight-year old, I walked past Owairaka Boys Home every day on the way to Owairaka Primary. Some of these boys came to our school, along with the occasional girl from Bollard Girls Home in Avondale. I remember thinking that living together with other kids sounded cool, in the same way I was envious of the Māori and Island kids who were “selected” by the public health nurse to go to health camp. As an adult, I shudder to think of what was happening in those homes, and of the grief and trauma suffered by those kids and their whānau at their separation.

The current numbers are stark. Since 2013, the number of Māori children in state care has increased by more than 20 percent, directly correlating with the decline of non-Māori children removed from families. Of the approximately 6300 children currently in state care in this country 4410 are Māori. This under-represents the true figure, as children who identify with multiple ethnicities are not included in that number. Those past and present numbers, including the fact that three Māori babies a week are being uplifted from whānau, make a mockery of Martin’s claim that the comparison of our situation with our Aboriginal kin is an over-reaction.

In fact, Martin’s attempt to shut down or control the language and labelling of the situation is reminiscent of the blowback suffered by Dame Tariana Turia in 2012, when she quoted the Waitangi Tribunal’s characterisation of the Crown invasion and actions in Taranaki in the 1960s as a “holocaust”.

Many New Zealanders possess a thinly-veiled sense of superiority in respect of a perception that Māori were and are treated better or more kindly than their indigenous counterparts in the other colonial settler states of Canada, Australia and the United States. Whereas there is a commonly expressed empathy for the attempted genocide of First Nations peoples in the Americas and the plight of the stolen generations of Aboriginal peoples in Australia, there is little knowledge or sympathy shown toward Māori for similar ongoing colonial practices in this country. It is not difficult to join the dots between a number of historical and contemporary phenomena that perpetuate processes of disconnection between tamariki Māori and whānau, ensuring generations of trauma and suffering.

At present, the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in State Care is undertaking the mammoth task of hearing of the harms caused to children and young people removed from their families over many decades of welfare intervention, most of them Māori. Those harms include not only the incidents of physical, sexual and psychological abuse that were meted out to children by those tasked with caring for them, but the ongoing harms caused by the processes of removal – the disconnection from whānau, the disruption of relationships, the effects on victims’ mental and physical health and wellbeing, their ability to love and be loved, to parent and to live fulfilling lives. The life pathways that commonly involve moving from state care as a child in need of care and protection, to being an adult prisoner in state care.

A couple of months ago I met with a Māori inmate in Mt Eden Prison. He was 50 years old, and told me that his cellmate had first been his room-mate when they were eight years old In Hokio Beach Training School 42 years earlier. He talked of their life-long relationship, and their “graduation” from state care, to youth justice residence, to adult prison as if it was inevitable. This is one of the “pipelines” those of us who work in criminal justice refer to – the “welfare-to-justice pipeline” – a metaphor referring to the connection between being removed or uplifted from family into state care, and offending as young people and as adults. Over 70 percent of our prison population has a care and protection background – many removed from families into state care. Children in care are 107 times more likely to be imprisoned by age 20 than other children.

The agency in charge of child welfare has recently renamed itself ‘Oranga Tamariki’. The law that enables its practices was called ‘The Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act’ when first enacted in 1989. Two years ago it was renamed Oranga Tamariki – a reference to the wellbeing or flourishing of children. Reference to their families disappeared in the title. The substance of the Act however makes it clear that the affirmation of the mana of children “mana tamariki” occurs within the context of their whānau, hapū, iwi and family groups. The removal of children is a takahi, a trampling of that mana, of the whakapapa of those children.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern voiced concern at seeing the reality of what child removal looks like this week. That concern needs to translate into action. A year ago, she spoke about the need to show “kindness and kaitiakitanga” in her address to the General Assembly at the United Nations, and voiced a commitment to being “empathetic, strong and kind”. These policies and the way in which they are implemented are anything but kind. They show little respect for even basic procedural principles of fairness and an opportunity to be heard. It is offensive in the extreme to use our own language against us – to talk about the health and wellbeing of Māori children and whānau, without respectfully engaging with those whānau, to partner in articulating and moving towards shared aspirations for healthy, vibrant futures.

Khylee Quince is Associate Head of School, Director of Māori and Pacific Advancementin the law school at Auckland University of Technology.

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