Academic journal article Social Policy Journal of New Zealand

Cultural Identity and the Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act 1989: Ideology, Policy and Practice

Academic journal article Social Policy Journal of New Zealand

Cultural Identity and the Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act 1989: Ideology, Policy and Practice

Article excerpt


This paper considers the directive contained in the Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act 1989 to maintain a child's cultural identity when they are placed in foster care following substantiated abuse or neglect. The paper examines changes in defining cultural identity, in particular ethnicised cultural identities, with a focus on the contestable and unstable nature of cultural identity. It considers the case both for and against the references to cultural identity in the Act, and examines how the political context influences how cultural identity is defined. Some aspects of social work practice and relevant research are discussed.


The Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act 1989 (the CYPF Act) operates on the principle that, where possible, the primary role in caring for and protecting a child or young person lies with the "child's or young person's family, whanau, hapu, iwi and family group" (s.13[b]). However, when a child is not safe within their family, then the Act says they should be placed in "an appropriate family-like setting, in which he or she can develop a sense of belonging, and in which his or her sense of continuity and his or her personal and cultural identity are maintained" (s.13[f][iii]). Further, it states that when placing children in care, "priority should, where practicable, be given to a person who is a member of the child's ... hapu or iwi ... or, if that is not possible, who has the same tribal, racial, ethnic or cultural background as the child" (s.13[g][i]).

This article discusses section 13 of the CYPF Act, exploring the theoretical and ideological positions, historical particularities and political influences on its construction. It will investigate how these directives might be implemented in both policy and practice, with particular reference to Pakeha, iwi Maori, Pasifika and multiple-ethnicity populations. Selected practice issues for social workers who have to implement this section of the Act with children and their families are also explored. Some of the research on the relative importance of cultural identities when placing children is outlined. The article also attempts to draw together some elements of the culture debates from sociology, psychology, social policy and social work literatures. It proposes that while the Act promotes a simplistic, singular, discrete and objective notion of cultural identity inextricable from ethnicity and kinship ties, in fact cultural identities are contestable, situational, often multiple, not necessarily related to ethnicity or ancestry, and subject to ideological and political influence. The article concludes that while reference to cultural identity is in general positive, care is required when applying the policy so as to avoid the reproduction of essentialist and even racist ideologies.


The CYPF Act was the result of a lengthy process of consultation with various Maori groups following the release of a report entitled Puao-te-Ata-tu (Day Break) by the Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Maori Perspective for the Department of Social Welfare (1988). This report was an in-depth critique on the then Department of Social Welfare and the Children and Young Persons Act 1974. Both were found to reinforce institutional racism, which resulted in high numbers of both iwi Maori and Pasifika children entering foster care (Connolly 2001, Cheyne et al. 1997). Iwi Maori wanted greater input into the new legislation to ensure they were granted more influence in the care and protection process. Their input was taken into account as part of a much wider international emphasis within the social service arena on the weakness of services based on universalist principles. Methods based on these seldom met the needs of minorities, who were often some of the neediest groups in society (Cheyne et al. 1997). Furthermore, the Treaty of Waitangi provided a constitutional imperative for including Maori values and concepts within legislative frameworks, something the previous two decades of Maori protest in a wide range of areas had highlighted (see Spoonley 1988). …

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