Talking my walk from the inside out

I hail from Ngati Porou. I am an independent social work supervisor at MoaInTheRoom. I have been practicing social work for 25 years and at least 10 of those years in direct family group conference practice. I am half way through a three-year PhD in social work at Massey University. I am also an Iwi Kaiwhakaruruhau through Te Korowai Aroha o Aotearoa.

I want to take you back to a time when some of you may remember, bellbottoms, psychedelic clothes, platform shoes and disco dancing the night away. Whilst you were doing this, I remember a little blonde-haired, blue-eyed Māori girl being ripped from her whānau and incarcerated into a hostile environment. A kid that had to fight almost daily to protect herself from the varying abuses that approved adult caregivers subjected her to. I’m a survivor of abuse in state care and whilst we are gathered here talking about the state of social work, there are kids in care who have been taken from their whānau and many of them will experience psychological, sexual, physical and cultural abuse.

My decision to be a social worker was shaped by my own experience of being raised in institutional care as a ward of the New Zealand state. Some have said this makes me too close to the topic, emotional and unable to be objective. Well my response to that is, social work IS emotional, being Māori heart and soul, working with whānau who have had intergenerational state abuses impacting them, is emotional. My ability to see from the inside as well as outside makes me perfect to do this mahi. The point I am making is that the act of alienating a child from their cultural roots is in itself a fundamental abuse on that child – and one that this current system does not recognise. Now I’m not talking about where there is a clear and established need to uplift a child from harm.

I am talking about practice with whānau has become so risk adverse our babies are uplifted in the first instance regardless of the concerns and then its sorted out later. Once kids are in the system it is really hard to get them back – decisions and actions have to be defended by those in power. It is very seldom roses and happy families for these kids. May I be clear at this point I don’t speak on behalf of all tangata whenua. My views are my own. Although they have been well informed by the research participants I have been working with.

I was going to talk today about the research, instead I am going to talk about how we are constitutionally bicultural (in principle at least), ethnically multicultural, but institutionally monocultural. So monocultural that appropriate Māori representation on the CYF review panel was ignored. This demonstrated an intolerance of Māori and just how much casual racism is taking hold. Take for example, if numbers of our children in care were a justification for appropriate representation then the CYF review panel then members would almost all be Māori. Hei aha we are here to talk about the future of social work – a position we seem to be perpetually in. Convincing ourselves that we are making change occur even if it is incrementally…always trying to get there…but WHERE is there?

We have been doing this since Puao-te-ata-tu, which we keep promising to return back “to the spirit of” but never quite get there either. In my supervision work with social workers I am always reminded of how many have no idea what this document is about. So given its significance, allow me briefly refer to it: Puao-te-ata-tu described the effect of institutional racism within the Department of Social Welfare (now Ministry of Social Development) as individualistic and state centered dispensing of social services. This nurtured attitudes and practices that discriminated against Māori. Puao-te-ata-tu produced a number of significant recommendations, the first two were about tackling institutional racism and eliminating deprivation. Without addressing these two in the first instance, the other recommendations about making the social welfare system more culturally responsive, would be ineffectual (Ministerial Advisory Committee, 1986).

Puao-te-ata-tu (breaking of the dawn) never got to see the light of day because the very thing the document sought to irradiate – institutional racism – blocked it. Those in positions of power to effect and implement those changes did not want to share that power. In the same vein as we see ‘partnership’ and ‘biculturalism’ being flouted under te Tiriti auspices. The point I am making is that in the 30 years since, nothing has changed for Māori, they remain unacceptably over represented in all systems – systems that are fundamentally eurocentric and monocultural, not bicultural.

Let’s talk about the myth of bicultural frameworks (as defined by topdown policy makers) – it was huge in the early 90s. Bicultural practice was intended as a way of working across the whole of youth justice and care and protection. Ae, there were pockets of really good practice as there are today, but it didn’t fly. Essentially, there is no such thing as bicultural practice inside statutory social work. If the system is monocultural, that’s what it is. If you are a monocultural social worker, that’s what you are. All the culturally responsive guidelines and ‘Māorified’ frameworks and risk assessments in the world will never make you capable of seeing through a te ao Māori lens.

Māori and our Pasifika cousins are true bicultural practitioners, they exist on a day-to-day basis in two often opposing world views, their own and the colonisers. No and I’m not taking away from the mahi that our chief Māori advisors or any of our tangata whenua leaders are currently working on, but for me “regurgitating” bicultural frameworks and “reinvigorating” cultural responsiveness is just keeping ourselves in work – always getting there without knowing where, THERE is. Our child protection system as is the adult prison system is a self-generating machine of supply and demand transacting profitable brown units and providing the jobs we all love and love to hang on to. We maintain the status quo.

And the myth of ‘cultural responsiveness’ (the state homogenised version). Another popular term bandied around the ministries. How do we know what it is and how it works when there is no actual evidence of cultural responsiveness working for our people? How do you quantify or qualify something without knowing exactly what it is? Is it karakia at the beginning of a family group conference? Tikanga is infinitely more than a Rimu veneer grafted onto monocultural one-size-fits-all process. That’s not responsiveness that’s glorified tokenism. The same way a harakeke weave design, or graphic of a ponoumu pendant adorn the CYF website and ministerial reports. Or “dial a powhiri” at the start of a social work conference – all of that equates to cultural appropriation, not responsiveness. It’s taking not giving.

Let me put it this way, painting a kowhaiwhai on the front of a child protection or youth justice residence still makes it a residence where our children are locked up. We need to move the narrative to WHY our children are mass-incarcerated in the first place. Yes. I’m talking about the targeting and commodification of Māori children.

To illustrate this statement, in October 2010 major youth justice reforms titled, Fresh Start came into effect, including significant changes to the youth justice provisions of the Children Young Persons and their Families Act 1989. These changes were intended to transform youth justice, particularly the family group conference and not least, re-address the “Māori problem” of Māori over representation. Some of the key changes included new and extended formal Youth Court orders, more programmes and interventions and the ability to put children (12 and 13 years) before the youth court.

However, since the reforms, Māori have gone from half to more than two-thirds of the total children and young people in both youth justice and care and protection residences, whilst the Pakeha numbers have dropped (CYF Practice Centre, 2014). The success of the reforms were hailed in operational reports by way of fewer, Police apprehensions, family group conferences and formal court orders (MSD, 2012). However the operational reports stopped hailing the success in 2012 when the stats on Māori did not show that the reforms had addressed over-representation (MSD, 2012). Reinvigorating doesn’t work either – our people continue to be targeted and our children removed from their cultural roots.

Institutional racism of rife across all the ministries and some of the worst-biased practice is aimed at women and Māori and if you are both you get a double dose. Two-thirds of the notifications CYF receive are through referral from Police resulting from family violence incidents. Wahine Māori talk to me about being “microscopically scrutinised” in every aspect of her life because she is Māori and in a violent relationship. This is separate from whether she is actually a fit parent or not. She still has to endure the process of not only protecting herself and her children, but also from the scrutiny and stigma she experiences from agencies and frontline workers.

Māori women I interviewed in my research described frontline practitioners as generally ignorant, arrogant, controlling, bureaucratic, and prejudiced. Yet those same practitioners and their agencies lack basic key knowledge about child abuse and family violence. For example, not knowing the impact upon the mental health of a whānau or not understanding that it takes resources for women to leave a violent relationship. These women/mothers are expected to be solely responsible for protecting their children. Thus, the responsibility of the perpetrator of the abuse is often not a factor in securing safety for children.

Children can be removed from their mother because she has failed to protect them from being exposed to family violence when in fact it is the perpetrator who is compromising the safety of the children. It seems that mothers must bear the burden of protecting their children even though they are often unable to protect themselves. Whilst we are all busy telling her to leave and judging her for not. Leaving is not a simple choice because these women live in fear of what happens next, especially when previous attempts to leave failed. Leaving often only happens when the violence had worsened to the point of fearing for their lives, and often without the necessary supports to leave successfully.

Now let’s talk about the myth of cultural competence – the Social Workers Registration Board approves social workers as culturally competent to work with our people, but the truth is most practitioners working in the helping professions have no idea how to work with whānau at a grassroots, kaupapa Māori level. Here’s another example, a wahine who has been fighting the system for six years to have her son returned to her talked about how in Family Court judge often asked her what Māori things meant, such as, what does whanaungatanga and manaakitanga mean? What does whānau and whakapapa mean? What is wairua?

If our social workers and Family Court judges do not get te ao Māori then what chance do our people have? This monocultural system is oppressive and contributes to the cultural genocide of Māori. Taking our kids from their cultural roots and not returning them is “state terrorism on whānau” (whānau violence) and is a violation of that child’s Indigenous human rights. Why on earth would you want to work for a system that is diametrically opposed to Māori well-being?

We all have a choice about where we position ourselves. We can remain contractually gagged through our organisations or choose find creative ways of speaking out on social justice issues or supporting others to do so. But the point is all of us has a choice about how we use our voice, how we work with whānau to truly uplift them. Life is short, be the person you want to be, who your ancestors intended you to be. Some of you may be aware that we exist in a really unique time in the her-story of the world. Whether we realise it or not we are all part of a current global conscientisation, an uprising of Indigenous nations who are reclaiming their land, their intellectual property of old, and their relationship with mother Earth.

Be a part of this movement, the time is right now, for it will never come again.

Mauri ora koutou katoa.

See Paora at:


CYF Practice Centre (2014). Key statistics and information for media. Retrieved from

Ministry of Social Development (2012). Fresh Start reforms in operation progress report. Retrieved from

Moyle, P. (2012, December). A Moa in the room: Māori practitioner’s experiences of family group conferencing. Paper presented to the International Development Conference: Integrating Research, Policy and Practice. Auckland University, Auckland.

Moyle, P. (2013). From family group conferencing to Whānau Ora: Māori social workers talk about their experiences. (Unpublished masters thesis). Massey University, Palmerston North.

Moyle, P. (2014). Māori social workers’ experiences of Care and Protection: A selection of findings. Te Komako, Social Work Review, 26(1), 55‐64.

Moyle,P. (2015). Māori-Lived-Experiences of the Family Group Conference: A selection of findings. Retrieved from


Video of this korero posted at

See Maori experiences of FGC at:


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