Moves by iwi to see children moved out of state care and into homes connected to their wider whanau are a good first step, but there is scope to build further on such arrangements by providing pre-approved safe homes on marae for children in need of care and protection under the Oranga Tamariki Act 1989.
Although social workers take all steps necessary to identify family/whānau carers for babies and young children to prevent uplift by way of court orders, there needs to be a backstop in place to ensure homes are always available for at-risk children within their iwi.
Each iwi could be offered the chance to get a fast-tracked approval for a home within the marae, under the control and supervision of a few kaumātua.
As a front line lawyer with over 21 years' experience in the field, I know from experience it is more often than not that such family/whanau members are either unable to be found, or unable to satisfy Oranga Tamariki that they are indeed safe for the child, and sometimes the situation is just not safe for the immediate family to be supervisors.
Often, direct family members simply do not have the space, or the time, to supervise young mothers with babies, nor the strength to control the imposition of either a violent partner, or drug/alcohol issues in their homes. This limitation is perfectly understandable, even for the most dedicated of family members. These situations come with high needs, intense dynamics and requirement for firm boundaries to ensure control. The social worker does not sit on the shoulder of the carer who puts their hand up to assist at midnight.
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Furthermore, housing of families is already a serious issue for this country. The waiting list for Housing New Zealand homes is significant. There are no emergency housing provisions available for mothers who wish to leave their abusive partners (short of being on a list for women's refuge. And those situations are often not suitable for new-born babies and mothers, given the crowding there).
On many occasions, Family Group Conferences involve whānau who themselves have had children removed from their care, have limited space, personal domestic violence or drug issues in their home and sometimes simply refuse to be involved in the daily care needs of a child.
What is lacking is the resource both financially and practically to ensure compliance with the Act, and to place a child in an environment as close to possible as being whānau, with the least possible legal interference, which maintains the child's emotional and psychological bonds with its parents.
Many marae are already well-placed to help support at risk children within their iwi group.
There already exist in many places in the country, marae with respected elders and kuia who could take more control over the wellbeing of their whānau and given the chance to do so, would step up.
There is already provision within the Act (under section 396) to approve iwi as carers, but this section of the Act is often under-utilised.
My idea is that each iwi could be offered the chance to get a fast-tracked approval for a home within the marae, under the control and supervision of a few kaumātua. Those elders, this home and the living situation could be approved in advance by the local Oranga Tamariki, depending upon the status of their existing relationship with Oranga Tamariki, and could provide a soft space to land for at-risk mothers and babies.
There are provisions in the Act that allow for "family whānau agreements" to be put in place whereby the mother and baby could go to live temporarily for six months, but renewable by agreement, and there could be strict tailored conditions in place to ensure safety.
Without such pre-approved homes, this section of the Act is underutilised (especially in
emergency, new-born situations) as there is not sufficient time or family buy-in to provide whanau placement otherwise.
A policy known as "Hui a Whānau" could also be used and facilitated by those kaumātua in
charge of the pre-approved house/whare. Hui a Whānau is currently a policy operating within Oranga Tamariki, but not in legislation.
Effectively, the elder and that home are the "custodians" of the child by agreement from the family, without having recourse to the Court.
In short, we need to stop pretending that "whānau" - being the immediate family - is always going to be able to step up. But the above solution still fits with the requirements of the Act, and simply ensures that each iwi has a suitable home/supervisor at all times available in case immediate family are not suitable for Oranga Tamariki.
• Toni Brown is a foster parent, solicitor and director at K3 Legal in Auckland