Cultural Lessons

Carol-Ann Churm used the Isabel Schwarz Travel Fellowship she won last year to look at how social work practice in New Zealand has benefited from Maori cultural values and practices

Cultural differences are a marked feature of New Zealand society and there are many lessons for this country in the way they have set about bridging the divide. In New Zealand I observed the way in which the dominant, European, white culture interacted with the Maori culture, a process that may have clear parallels with my own experience at home of mediating between the deaf community, particularly sign language users, and the dominant hearing culture.

My main concern was to examine the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act 1989 in practice. The introduction of this legislation broke new ground in New Zealand. It has often been characterised as the only child care law in the world that seriously acknowledges and embraces cultural difference by attempting to incorporate the aspirations of the indigenous population.

The Act is a reflection of historical, social and financial issues unique to New Zealand. After the government formed the Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Maori Perspective in the Department of Social Welfare, intensive consultation with the Maori community led to a number of publications including one called Puao-Te-Ata-Tu – meaning Daybreak – which contained proposals to deal with “all forms of cultural racism”.1 Children and families were at the heart of the document.

It is now accepted that Maori staff are an essential source of skills and information about the minority culture, particularly when it comes to appreciating the position of a child or young person in relation to their wider family. Maori family structures are referred to as whanau, hapu, or iwi, terms that gesture towards wider family and tribal networks. This contrasts with our western, individualised view of children.

Social workers are trained so that they can go about establishing relationships with the “tangata whenau” – the local Maoris or “sovereign people of the land” – in the right way. Each locality has a particular protocol for forming these relationships. Training manuals help to explain the essential details.

One result of the changes to bicultural practice is that staff in the Department of Social Welfare, educational establishments and other public services have relevant knowledge, undertake training, and deliver their services in culturally appropriate ways.

Family group conferences evolved in New Zealand as a direct result of the Act. Now they are becoming such an established aspect of practice in parts of this country, it is worth remembering that they are based primarily on Maori decision-making processes. The underlying principles are familiar: family empowerment, and the paramountcy of the safety and well-being of the child.

I saw at a session of a youth court the outcomes of several family group conferences for youth justice. In contrast to our own system, the role of the co-ordinator in New Zealand is independent, the length of time to set up the meeting might be longer and a greater number of family members may be present. The intention is to consider how links can be forged between the young offender and the family groups.

The co-ordinator’s job is concerned with consulting with the parties, preparing family members for the private family time which follows the giving of information, getting everybody ready for answering questions, and making sure everybody understands what the options might be. There is a strong emphasis on the conference coming to an agreement, and, in care and protection cases, there must be a plan to protect the child. In youth justice cases, the emphasis is, instead, on reparation, as making good is an important matter, being responsible for one’s own actions, and having respect for the victim.

International interest in family group conferences is rapidly growing and with good reason. There is much value in consultation, in having time to set up meetings, so that information can be exchanged and power-sharing with families increased. The essential differentness of a culture can be incorporated as part of the process. This applies as much to deaf people as to Maori people, enabling deaf cultural norms to be appreciated, understood, and communication needs addressed. Some things I saw challenged social work values as we conceive of them here. Confidentiality is not high on the Maori list of priorities, so that ethical dilemmas we would have in this country about passing on vital information about a child’s background would not apply in the same way. Such information is often seen as best shared.

In sharp contrast the issue of confidentiality is one that greatly concerns the deaf people with whom I work, anxieties that are often compounded by professionals who fail to recognise the complexity of the situation. But my interest in Maori culture arose partly because of the difficulties deaf families face in getting social services to understand their needs – I thought the New Zealand social work scene might offer solutions to the problem of how deaf children and families could have their culture accepted and integrated into local practice.

The concept of deaf people as a linguistic minority in New Zealand remains relatively undeveloped, mainly due to strict oral policies in deaf education and the only relatively recent formation of the Deaf Association of New Zealand. While there has been a history of linguistic oppression in the country – specifically of the Maori language – deaf people have had the additional battle of winning acceptance for their community and culture, as well as dismantling the medical model of deafness.

I visited three services for deaf people, including one which was attractively called the “Deaf Nest”. This is a group for young deaf children who, as part of their play group activities, have sign language “practice time” – the term “nest” has been taken from similar language groups for young children learning Maori. In New Zealand there have been progressive legislative, political and policy changes but, on the other hand, there is much concern about public expenditure and so services, including Maori ones, have perhaps not developed in the way originally hoped for. But I did see evidence of the “awareness of the numerous Maori views of the healing processes, analysis, reflections, and challenges which come within the gamut of what we call social work”.(2)

Sadly the amount of social work literature from New Zealand available in this country is relatively sparse. Much of the literature displays a readiness to explain Maori symbolism, where it is relevant, much of it being concerned with family and with the powerful connections between Maori people and their land.

I particularly enjoyed reading about and listening to how myths that “deal not with particular social orders, but with problems that confront us all regardless of our origins”(3) were woven into social work practice and literature. This is relatively rare in the UK. Though it was among the more rewarding aspects of my visit, it is probably the most difficult to explain and share.

Carol-Ann Churm is a social worker with deaf people, Wakefield community and social services

(1) Department of Social Welfare, Puao-Te-Ata-Tu (Daybreak), The Report of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Maori Perspective for the Department of Social Welfare, 1988
(2) H Walker, He Whakamarama, “Tui tui tui tuia…” in Te Komako, Social Work Review, New Zealand Association of Social Workers, January 1995
(3) M P Doolan, Family Responsibility In Action – The New Zealand Experience, presentation to The International Society for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, 1994

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