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.

Sport and fitness are among the top priorities for families that have developed Whanau Ora plans in the Rotorua area.

A preliminary analysis of the first 22 whanau plans developed with Rotorua's Te Arawa Whanau Ora collective has found that 11 - more than for any other goal - target fitness and exercise.

The other big goals are career advice and budgeting (10 whanau each) and tertiary education (9).


Alone among the 34 Whanau Ora consortiums formed, Te Arawa's nine-agency collective includes a sports body, Te Papa Takaro (Sports Foundation) o Te Arawa.

Chief executive Paora Te Hurihanganui says the agency has always worked in a "Whanau Ora" way, concerned with people's broader wellbeing as well as sport.

"Sport is non-threatening as opposed to a clinical application," he says. "Our people come because sport is nice, and then things start to come out."

Te Papa Takaro has become a leading trainer for Whanau Ora workers on how to use a whanau planning system called PATH (Planning Alternative Tomorrows with Hope), a Canadian model adapted for Maori by Auckland researcher Kataraina Pipi.

It held an introductory weekend on a marae last October and has followed up with 30 whanau.

"The PATH planning is about dreaming," says Mr Te Hurihanganui. "One of the guys, his main goal was to smile because he hadn't smiled for 20 years. So we put in a plan about him smiling so he could feel better about himself, and then he could reconnect with his family, which he had been separated from because of his addictions."

The money involved in developing such plans is tiny in the context of, say, the country's $22 billion welfare bill. About 0.2 per cent of that, or $40 million a year, is going into Whanau Ora to help the consortiums develop more integrated systems and to help families develop whanau plans. But there are still questions about whether taxpayers' money is going to the most needy families.

The Te Arawa programme of action says Whanau Ora is aimed at "whanau with a range of needs (high, complex, moderate, low)".

"Whanau Ora is for everybody," says Merepeka Raukawa-Tait, who chairs the Te Arawa regional leadership group.

"I believe that every Maori family should have a whanau plan."

The programme of action says whanau aspirations include "reunions, haerenga [trips], trips to ancestral sites of significance" and "strengthening te reo Maori".

Te Arawa Whanau Ora project manager Ngaroma (Mala) Grant says she would not put money into family reunions, but that the collective is committed to people "knowing who they are and where they are from".

Israel Hawkins of Wera Aotearoa, a Rotorua trust outside the collective that has been funded to help develop 30 whanau plans, says many of his Whanau Ora clients come to him through weekend cultural and language workshops he runs for Corrections Department offenders, as well as from teen parent units and word of mouth.

Ngaroma Grant says the referral routes that bring families to Whanau Ora planning, such as the justice system and Rotorua's two Maori primary health clinics which are the cheapest in town, ensure that it reaches those in most need.

"I think we are reaching the most needy," she says.

"But I think there are more that we haven't got to yet, way more."

* 27,732 people said they belonged to Te Arawa tribes (excluding Tuwharetoa) in the 2006 census.

* Te Arawa settled historic claims to the Rotorua lakes in 1994.

Te Arawa Whanau Ora
* Comprises nine agencies employing 287 staff with budgets worth $13.8 million a year.

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