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Saturday 10 October 2009

Whangai: The Maori Stake in Adoption Reform

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 25th August 2009

Why shouldn't any reform of the Adoption Act 1955 incorporate Maori values and family structures? We'll have to face this question when the reform takes place, so I thought I'd help shift the discussion forward now.
The Adoption Act 1955 is creaking at the seams. It is out of step with New Zealand society as well as with other New Zealand statutes that deal with fostering, guardianship and reproductive technology, which are open to eligible LGBT parents. Adoption reform seems to be the final frontier for LGBT parenting, which may be because in total, only about three hundred or so occur each year in New Zealand. Contraception, abortion and solo parenting have led to reduction of children available for adoption, and is the context that we have to work in.
However, it isn't only pakeha LGBT communities that question the current state of adoption law. As it preceded the current Maori renaissance and cultural resurgence that started in the seventies, the Adoption Act 1955 does not recognise the Maori customary practice of whangai adoption. For Maori, the concept of whanau extends beyond the narrow confines of the western nuclear family, to encompass grandparents, aunts, uncles and their offspring. This has certain advantages, because if one's genetic parents are going through a bad patch, grandparents, aunts or uncles or adult cousins can step in and take over for them. On my mum's side, there's Ngai Tahu ancestry, and that happened with one of my late aunts, given that my maternal nanna was a Catholic convert and didn't use barrier contraception, meaning that Mum has about fifteen surviving siblings!
Whangai adoption is important to many Maori because they see it as providing the essential set of kin-based relationship linkages that link tamariki and rangitahi with a set of responsibilities, obligations, belonging and identity with their ancestors and relatives. Unfortunately, narrow-minded pakeha assimilationism meant the fragmentation of many whanau occurred from the fifties onward, when Maori moved cityside, and monocultural housing and family assistance policies didn't exactly help matters.
And yes, in many whanau, takatapui and whakawahine are viewed as connected within the bounds of whanau, and participate in whangai adoption of tamariki and rangitahi if their birth parents are facing troubles and can't bring them up themselves as a result. Granted, this may not happen in some whanau and iwi where fundamentalist Christianity is prevalent, but it does occur in others not so afflicted. In other words, inclusive Maori customary values and practices are being undermined by exclusive and archaic pakeha legislation.
Of course, exceptions would have to occur where potential whangai candidates or whole whanau have alcohol and drug issues, but otherwise, whangai adoption seems an excellent idea, as it preserves Maori cultural values, language and culture, providing tamariki and rangitahi with a strong sense of inclusion and belonging, and makes sure that they don't go off the rails.
Granted too, John Tamihere (and Brian Tamaki?) are probably going to try and play awkward on this one (actually, Tamihere is already doing it). However, they may well end up getting told off by formidable old koro and kuia telling them that however those two might have been brought up, that's not the way things are done in their whanau, hapu or iwi, and never has been.
 I suspect that the Maori Party will readily concede the reality of the inclusion of takatapui and whakawahine within existing informal whangai adoption practice, and might well come onboard as a result insofar as our inclusion goes, although we will have to sit down, listen and build bridges in preparation for that process. Conceivably, existing whangai takatapui and whakawahine parents could contact the Maori Party and tell them about their lives and whanau responsibilities.
At present, New Zealand adoption law is surely inconsistent with the Treaty of Waitangi. If Maori want this to be rectified, I would not stand in their way. There is no reason why whangai adoption should not be included within any proposed adoption law reform. Indeed, I would welcome such a move, in the interests of bicultural progress and partnership.
Clearly, inclusiveness has more than one dimension. So be it.

D.Durie-Hall and J.Metge, "Kaa Tutu Te Puehi, Kia Mau: Maori Aspirations and Family Law" in M.Henaghan and W.Atkins (ed) Family Law Policy in New Zealand: Wellington: Lexis/Nexis: 2003.
New Zealand Law Commission: Maori Custom and Values in New Zealand Law: Wellington: New Zealand Law Commission: Supplementary Paper 9: 2001.
New Zealand Law Commission: Adoption and Its Alternatives: A Different Approach and A New Framework: Wellington: New Zealand Law Commission: 2000.
New Zealand Law Commission: New Issues in Legal Parenthood: Preliminary Paper 54: Wellington: New Zealand Law Commission: 2000.
G.Rurinui, A.Mikaere and G.Pitama: Guardianship, Custody and Access: Maori Perspectives: Wellington: Ministry of Justice paper: August 2002.

Craig Young - 25th August 2009

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