Ngapuhi is the first iwi in the county to sign an agreement with Child, Youth and family in which both sides will strive to bring the tribe's children home.
The memorandum of understanding signed at Kohewhata Marae, south of Kaikohe, on August 30 commits CYF and Te Runanga-a-iwi o Ngapuhi to work together when children are placed in care. The two parties have committed to open discussion, information sharing and joint decision making.
The runanga's aim is to one day have every Ngapuhi child in CYF care placed with whanau. Currently 460 Ngapuhi children, aged from birth to 17, are in state care; of those, roughly half are with whanau.
Social Development Paula Bennett travelled north to witness the historic signing by runanga chief executive George Riley and CYF deputy chief executive Bernadine Mackenzie.
The manager of Ngapuhi Iwi Social Services, Liz Marsden, said in effect CYF was agreeing to share power over children's lives with the runanga, which was often better placed to find foster families quickly.
"We can help by connecting CYF with families and by being able to vouch for their safety," she said.
"We want to give these children the ability to swim in their own rivers, to climb their own maunga, to participate in their own marae - so they can grow up knowing who they are and where they belong."
In the long term Ms Marsden said the runanga also wanted to be able to recruit, train and approve caregivers. There was already cooperation between CYF and the runnaga but it was inconsistent. Now it had been approved at the highest level, it would be a lot easier, she said.
CYF operations manager Marama Edwards said the ultimate goal was to have no Ngapuhi children in care, but to have them all in long-term placements with whanau.
Ms Bennett said the agreement would mean earlier intervention with vulnerable families, and help address the causes of child abuse and neglect. She hoped other iwi would follow Ngapuhi's example and build a closer relationship with CYF.
Just under 5000 children, about half of whom are Maori, are currently in CYF care.
Turning the tide
Seventy per cent of Northland children found to have been neglected or abused last year were Maori, Social Development Minister Paula Bennett said at the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Te Runanga-a-Iwi o Ngapuhi and Child, Youth and Family.
CYF had investigated 3180 notifications of possible abuse or neglect in Tai Tokerau in 2011, of which 2022 related to Maori children. Of the 1008 children who were found to have been abused or neglected, 742 were Maori.
Ms Bennett told the gathering at Kohewhata Marae that the agreement by CYF and the runanga to work together to better nurture and protect the iwi's children was cause for pride for Ngapuhi and a milestone for all Maori.
The iwi had been "proactive and incredibly open" with CYF, and the signing of the memorandum of understanding was testament to its commitment to its children, she said.
Ms Bennett added that abuse happened in all ethnic groups, but Maori needed to be "seriously concerned" about what was happening in some of their families.
"Maori need to own this problem and work with me to help turn the tide on family violence," she said.
The memorandum of understanding was an acknowledgement that Ngapuhi was uniquely placed to support Northland whanau and intervene early in problem families.
"Strong relationships between the Government and iwi are key to delivering results for some of our most vulnerable whanau and their children," the Minister added.
"You can provide one-on-one care and advice. You can get to the root causes of abuse and neglect by virtue of being hapu, friends and whanau.
"You know these children, you know their families, and you know what it takes to reach them," she said.
Ms Bennett also urged greater openness from the community, citing the example of the Ngaruawahia woman who was threatened after speaking out about the death of a child next door.
The "horrific cases" of alleged abuse that led to the arrest of Pamapuria School deputy principal James Parker were a stark reminder that New Zealanders needed to be more open about social issues affecting their communities, she said.