Constant switches in care through history, but what progress has there been for Māori?

5:50 pm on 21 March 2022

By David Cohen*

Analysis - That creaking sound you may have noticed the other day at the Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry was indeed the familiar sound of a rather old pendulum swinging.

Dame Tariana Turia

Dame Tariana Turia who helped set up Whānau Ora. Photo: RNZ

The inquiry's latest round of 25 public testimonies looked into the typically dismal Māori experiences of residential care, which were served in many cases with a hefty dollop of critical race theory as a way of explaining everything about the staggeringly high number of indigenous kids and young people who passed through the system in the last half of the 20th century.

Not surprisingly, given the painful stories at the heart of the matter, it concluded with a call for a new kind of welfare model - "of Māori, for Māori, with Māori" - in the years ahead.

Hmm. Haven't we been here before? Well, yes, actually, we have, many times.

The history of child welfare in New Zealand, especially but not exclusively when it comes to young Māori, is a history of a pendulum swinging back and forth - between housing the young in centralised institutions or else leaving them in their own communities.

Each option carries its own risks and rewards. Hence the official tendency to switch directions every few decades.

The first big whoosh took place in 1916. That was in response to widespread public disquiet over conditions at a girls' residence in Christchurch known as Te Oranga, later Kingslea.

Youngsters at the institution were routinely stripped and flogged by a notably joyless matron, Harriette Petremant, who argued that "the things they do I am sure no normal child would either think of or dare to do".

The man who put paid to that was a Scottish émigré to New Zealand named John Beck. He established something called the Child Welfare Branch. He wanted young people back in their own communities or at any rate as far away as possible from any institutional system with whip-wielding fruitbats like Petremant running the show.

Soon, only a couple of those institutions remained in business, one in Caversham, Dunedin, and another centre for older boys located in the rolling fields of Levin.

A generation on, however, this was no longer the style after a couple of girls in Christchurch, Juliet Hume and Pauline Parker, took turns holding Parker's mother down while bashing the older woman to death with a half-brick.

The sadistic 1954 murder - the subject of the Peter Jackson's strangely lauded Heavenly Creatures - was one of the genuinely macabre events that helped create its own momentum for reconstituting a residential system later that same decade.

Thirty years on - which is to say, the time of the first real Māori cultural renaissance and during a period in which the two dozen state-run places around the country had effectively become holding pens for brown-skinned kids - the pendulum was swinging back to community-led solutions again.

Once again, the change was spurred in Christchurch. (Why do these things always seem to happen in Christchurch?) But this time, it came from the inside.

Mike Doolan, a residential administrator at the Kingslea facility, became convinced that the system had long ago passed its use-by date. Later, as the country's residential chief, he set about dismantling it altogether.

Early in 1986, Doolan and his team arrived one evening at Te Takere Marae, near Patea, in South Taranaki to look at ways of putting things right. A young woman at the gathering recognised him from previous encounters. The pair locked eyes. She walked over to where Doolan, tears now rolling down her own cheeks, and started to speak.

"Mr Doolan," she began, "with the best will in the world you cannot do this for us."

Doolan was having problems keeping his eyes free of mist as well. "That was when it moved from here to here for me," he explained years later, pausing mid-flight during an interview in his native Christchurch to point first at his head and then his heart.

She had brought home, finally, "the fact that we couldn't do it, but also that we were working with the best will in the world. And hearing both of those things meant everything to me".

The woman at the centre of this passing but pivotal scene was Dame Tariana Turia, who later went on to become an early co-leader of the Māori Party. She would also have the opportunity of making good on her sentiment by helping usher in the Whānau Ora, another by Māori, for Māori, with Māori moment.

Even then, however, work was being done on establishing the youth justice facilities, which themselves have also become a monumental headache.

And so it goes, on and on, back and forth, a matter perpetually unresolved.

It's a fair bet that both Doolan and Turia were among those watching last week, and an even fairer bet that both would have experienced a momentary pang of recognition at the latest "new" proposal made this past Friday. And they would be right.

When arrangements change on the care and protection front yet again, as they surely will, it will be history as much as progress that has spoken.

*David Cohen is a Wellington writer and the author of Little Criminals: The Story of a New Zealand Boys' Home. He supplies regular analyses for RNZ of the Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry.

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