We must create strategies to address negative ethnic stereotypes which result in too many tamariki put into care, writes Anton Blank.

The Children's Commissioner's report on Child, Youth and Family reveals a familiar pattern of over-representation of Maori within the system, for all the wrong reasons.

At 14.6 per cent Maori constitute the largest minority within the population of Aotearoa, yet they account for 51 per cent of New Zealand's prison population. The figure is even higher for Maori women at 58 per cent of women in prison.

Five years ago, in a discussion paper about the New Zealand criminal justice system, Kim Workman found that Maori were five times more likely than other groups to be arrested. Workman argued that the issue was structural racism. Only last year the United Nations warned that New Zealand's high incarceration rate of Maori was a breach of international law.

In the report from the Children's Commissioner, Russell Wills, we see how this pattern of incarceration begins with Maori children.

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Maori children constitute 25.6 per cent of New Zealand children, and 58 per cent of children in the care of CYF, which confirms what we already know about tamariki Maori, who experience more child abuse than other groups.

Once they are part of the Child, Youth and Family system, however, they are treated differently to other groups. They are more likely to be taken into care and spend time in CYF institutions. A whopping 68 per cent of children in these institutions, which are quasi-jails for teenagers, are Maori.

I worked for CYF for 13 years in a range of social work roles during the 1980s and 1990s. A basic tenet of social work practice at the time was that taking a child into care was a last resort. It went further.

Decades of research had shown that state care was inherently harmful to children, and the longer they were in care, the greater the damage.

At a briefing about his report this week I asked Russell Wills whether this was still the case and he was emphatic; state care is a terrible option for children. Why then, this propensity to send Maori children to institutions?

I don't believe CYF staff set out to make racist decisions about Maori children. However, unconsciously non-Maori and Maori staff make subtle assumptions about the best interventions and outcomes for these kids.

These attitudes can be held by social work clients themselves. Some of the whanau Maori I worked with back in the day wanted their children taken into care, and if they were teenage offenders, was I able to lock them up?

This bias is very present in New Zealand schools. Last year researcher Hana Turner found that teachers had highest expectations of Asian students, followed by Pakeha, then Pasifika. Teachers had very low expectations that Maori children would achieve academically. Expectations set the bar for achievement. If teachers don't expect them to do well, Maori children will fail.

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There is a negative and unconscious bias towards Maori children here, and everyone is part of the socio-political system that perpetuates it.

For the past 30 years, developments in psychology have shown human behaviour, beliefs and attitudes are shaped by automatic and unconscious cognitive processes. These habits of thinking mean that people very subtly favour their own; that is they warm to people like them and treat them more favourably. This is the law of attraction.

So, very kind, caring and egalitarian New Zealanders may hold negative ethnic stereotypes and attitudes of which they may not be fully conscious.

While there is ample evidence of a bias towards Maori, decision-makers are typically reluctant to explore the issue and develop strategies to address structural and personal racism. The term racism is by nature polemic. It is a turn-off for liberal Pakeha who embrace Maori culture and celebrate the biculturalism central to our national identity.

If, instead, we think in terms of unconscious bias, and recognise that we are all captured by it, there is hope, and we can develop strategies for change. CYF staff would have developmental training, for example, to explore their biases and develop strategies to mitigate this in their decision-making.

In 20 years, 30 per cent of New Zealand children will be Maori. If we do not address these biases, which we have talked about for decades, the outcomes will be perilous. A brown underclass, which Dr Hone Kaa coined The Polynesian Timebomb, will continue to fill our institutions.

If we get it right, however, this demographic represents a significant opportunity in terms of our cultural, economic and social development. Maori potential is limitless.

• Anton Blank is a writer and publisher. He is also a consultant to the Maori SUDI (Sudden Unexplained Death of an Infant) prevention programme Whakawhetu, and the Public Health Association.