Most whānau do a good job of raising their children, and there remain practices that nurture and protect children from abuse and neglect. However, some families have life experiences that increase the danger to children within them.
Anne Salmond noted that in traditional Māori society ‘children were rarely hit and any harm to them was likely to provoke muru (plundering) raids from their kinfolk.’1 However, by the 1950s there was a much harsher use of physical discipline. Child advocates Amster Reedy and Hone Kaa argue that a reliance on physical punishment, including beatings, has no place in Māori tikanga.
Abuse and neglect
From 1978 to 1987 the Māori child-homicide rate was 1.15 times the non-Māori rate. However, between 1991 and 2000, the Māori rate rose to more than 3.5 times the non-Māori rate – of 91 children who were victims of homicide, 47 were Māori. In the early 2000s the Māori child-homicide rate was around 2.4 times that of non-Māori.
Media coverage of specific cases of Māori children who were killed or abused brought Māori parenting into sharp relief. Recognition of the disproportionate rates of homicide, abuse and neglect for Māori children compared to non-Māori children led many to search for solutions.
While stirring emotions, debates about Māori child abuse may obscure significant factors that increase risks for Māori babies and children.
Characteristics associated with perpetrators of child abuse and neglect are poverty, low educational achievement, youth, poor mental health including alcohol and drug abuse, being a victim of family violence as a child, and being an early offender. Māori are more likely to be affected by these indicators of socio-economic deprivation, which are both a result of and a cause of inequality between Māori and non-Māori. This inequity is likely itself to have a negative impact on good outcomes for families and children.
Māori teenagers have the highest birth rate – almost 2.5 times the rate for all teenagers in 2015. The outcomes for young mothers and their babies are good if they receive good social and economic support from those around them, including parents, neighbours and society. However, the combination of youth, few social supports and inexperience can lead to poorer outcomes for themselves and their children.
Emotional attachment between mother and baby, and father and baby, is crucial to the survival and thriving of Māori babies. It is most likely to occur when parents are embedded in and supported by a wider whānau.
Creating healthy families
Māori efforts to support whānau have focused on what they do well that increases the chances of raising healthy, happy and competent children. For example the Whānau Ora Taskforce, established in 2009 to develop a framework for a whānau-centred approach to whānau wellbeing and development, has identified a framework comprising five key elements: whānau action and engagement; whānau-centred design and delivery of services; iwi leadership; an active and responsive government; and funding.
Discipline without smacking
In 2008 Te Kāhui Mana Ririki was formed. This group is a national Māori child-advocacy organisation. Its primary role is to advocate for the needs of Māori children and young people at a national level. It fronted the Papaki kore – no smacking campaign. As part of this campaign Hone Kaa argued for honesty from Māori leaders about child abuse, and recognition of the role that wider whānau play in keeping children safe, promoting non-violence against children and acknowledging that Māori culture does not encourage harmful behaviour towards children. Kaa has argued that all Māori have responsibility for Māori children in abusive situations, and that the wider whānau, hapū and iwi are responsible for nurturing children.