The Government's flagship welfare policy for Maori, Whanau Ora - worth $40 million this year - is designed to lift families out of poverty and dysfunction, but it has been criticised as a waste of money and an opportunity for some to rort the system. In a four-part investigation reporter Simon Collins speaks to those at Whanau Ora's frontline.

The Smith family of Rotorua had been to the local emergency department so often that staff joked about dedicating a new wing to them.

Steve Smith, now 49, weighed up to 150kg. His blood pressure was so high that he says doctors "were just waiting for me to die".

His wife Mirinoa, 40, has had seizures up to 10 times a day since a tube-tying operation two years ago went wrong.


Two of the family's five children have epilepsy and another has mental health issues.

"We've been to the emergency department 400 times in six years," says Mrs Smith.

"We're on a first-name basis with everyone in the hospital, especially the head of the emergency department. When we're in, he comes and sees us."

The hospital referred them to Whanau Ora and a worker for Korowai Aroha, a Maori health clinic and lead agency in the Te Arawa Whanau Ora consortium, went to see the family in their state house. He had to pick his way past piles of old electronic equipment.

"We had a lot of junk, mostly computer stuff," says Mr Smith, who was a computer administrator in Australia before coming home and going on the sickness benefit.

"We were just going to the hospital and back again. We couldn't get on top of anything, there were always dishes everywhere."

The whanau worker, Iwi Te Whau, offered them a chance to imagine a better life.

"Iwi says to us, 'We're going to have a little get-together to see what we can do for each other'," Mr Smith recalls.

With Mr Te Whau's help, they drew up a chart following Kataraina Maipi's PATH model, starting with their "dream" on the right-hand side and then more specific goals.

They agreed on goals of owning a home, developing a garden, deepening their links with Maori culture, going back to their Mormon church and "getting the music going" - Mr Smith is a keen musician.

They filled in their realities on the left, then a list of people to help them achieve their goals such as family planning, a music course for Mr Smith and tertiary studies for his wife.

Whanau Ora paid for a jumbo bin to help the family clear away their junk. From there, progress has been step by step. Mr Smith has got his weight down to about 110kg.

"The biggest thing was getting out and sawing wood. I built the kids a tree hut," he says.

Mrs Smith is about to have an operation to fix the one that went wrong, and has started a course to become a social worker.

She is also a volunteer tour guide at the museum and is involved in kapa haka. Dean James and Ann Kururangi, now the family's whanau workers, say she has a sense of worth that she did not feel a year ago.

The couple have gone back to church, where they got budgeting advice. Mr Smith has spent some of an inheritance on musical instruments but saved the rest for a house.

One of the children with epilepsy has not had a seizure for two years and the other has started new medication which has made a huge improvement. No one has been to the emergency department since June.

"Wow! We have achieved this," Mr Smith says. "I love being an at-home dad, but by next year one of us should be working. Then we'll look at getting our own place."

Whanau Ora (Well Families) is a Government welfare policy initiated by the Maori Party. It is open for everyone but its focus is on Maori families.

Social agencies work with whanau to help identify and improve problem issues such as poor housing, health, education and legal problems. They also ask the family to plan a future which moves them from state dependency to become financially independent and healthy participants in their community.

It is funded in two parts:
* $33.2m this year for agencies to form consortiums to work together with whanau to improve all elements of their wellbeing.

* $6.4m this year directly for whanau to form their own plans to improve their wellbeing.

We have travelled to four of the areas where the services are most in demand.
Monday: Tai Tokerau (Northland)
* Urgent review follows abuse of scheme
* Disabled uncle has new hope after 14 years on benefit
Doors open to decent housing and a better lifestyle
* More cash the key to better lives, says CEO
Today: Waikato-Tainui
* Dream of life in Oz unites family
* Children put first with help of family plan
* Engagement and support replace expulsion at school
* Tainui seeks investors to help build $20m centre
Today: Te Arawa (Rotorua)
Thursday: Tamaki Makaurau (Auckland)

Email: Whanau Ora
Visit: Te Puni Kokiri