A team of scholars say the legal practice of closed adoption raised "disconnected" people, and is a form of violence.

The scholars are part of a three-year project entitled Whangai and the adoption of Maori: healing the past, transforming the future.

The project has been successful in this year's round of Marsden Fund applications, receiving $845,000.

"The era of closed adoption is not behind us yet, not by a long shot, however that urgently needs to change."

Hosted by Te Wananga o Raukawa, it brings together academics from throughout New Zealand to study the effects closed adoption had on Maori and how the practice of whangai could improve adoption practices in the future.


Te Wananga o Raukawa spokeswoman Ani Mikaere said that the practice of placing infants with strangers and effectively severing their relationship with their roots and whakapapa, is completely foreign to Maori.

However, between 1955 and 1985, tens of thousands of Maori were adopted, cutting ties to their birth whanau, hapu and iwi.

Mrs Mikaere said this could not be more different from the practice of whangai, which has an emphasis on the maintenance of familial connection.

The project will bring the adoption of Maori and the practice of whangai together in a single study for the first time, and will include the experiences of subjects' wider whanau, rather than concentrating solely on the birth and adoptive parents, and the adopted person, creating a broader picture of the intergenerational effects of closed adoption.

It will also consider healing and social change, with a particular focus on the role of whangai. She said that for Maori whakapapa is "the key to know who you are and how you fit into your wider kin group, your whanau, hapu and iwi".

"What closed adoption did, not only to the adoptees but to the wider whanau, was that those whakapapa links, in many cases, were completely severed," she said.

"Many Maori involved in [closed adoption] either had their sense of connection disrupted for many years and had to come back as adults and try to reconnect, or for many of them they have never been able to reconnect, so that connection has been severed not just for them but their children and mokopuna and forever into the future."

Mrs Mikaere said that severing from whakapapa is "almost the worst possible thing you could to a Maori person".


"Our project has described it as a form of violence against the people who were subjected to it," she said.

"[Through the project] there is certainly a strong desire for us to try and heal some of that damage that has been done."

She believes the body of information they collate should shed a lot of light into New Zealand's foster care and adoption systems.

"Some of those principles of whangai, we believe, have a lot to offer in terms of what we do with children who are taken from their birth families," she said.

"Research suggests every people has a deep yearning to know who they are and where they come from. I suspect people who have been subjected to closed adoption all over the world have that burning question. This project could be found valuable well beyond the Maori community."

Despite the knowledge of how closed adoption can be damaging, closed adoption is still lawful in New Zealand.

Ms Mikaere said that the law even favours closed adoption.

"Even though in practice lots of people say they would prefer to have an open adoption, when something breaks down or goes wrong, the law backs the adoptive parents in severing all connections," she said.

"The era of closed adoption is not behind us yet, not by a long shot, however that urgently needs to change."

She said that as a result of the project the Adoption Act might be brought onto the parliamentary agenda.

"From the experience of the past we hope to look at what we can do better in the future."
Anyone who is interested in learning more about the project is welcome to get in contact with Ms Mikaere on ani.mikaere@twor-otaki.ac.nz