The Starfish Factor

  • Tariana Turia
Social Development and Employment

Once upon a time, there was an old man walking along the foreshore.  

It was low-tide and the beach was covered with thousands of starfish, left high and dry, stranded by the tides that had left them behind.

The man contemplated picking each one up and throwing them back out into the surf but as he looked at the masses in front of him, he reasoned that this would be an impossible task and so he continued on his way.

Not much later he came across a little boy who was frantically throwing starfish upon starfish back into the sea.  The old man stopped and spoke to the child - "what are you doing?"

"I'm saving the starfish" said the little boy.

"But isn't that a waste of time?" asked the old man.  "There are so many here that you can't possibly save them all, so what does it matter"?

The little boy looked slowly up at the man, and then carefully, deliberately reached down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the water. 

"It matters to this one" he explained.

I am delighted to be with you today, to open this national conference of the New Zealand Family and Foster Care Federation.

I want to firstly mihi to everyone here, who has responded to the challenge to make life matter to someone else.  

You have dug deep within your heart, to make room for another; to express your love and your commitment towards shaping their future.  I commend you all, for the generosity of spirit that such a commitment represents.

I want to be upfront with you from the onset - and tell you that I have very strong views about the concept of care, and the intrinsic relationship of kin, or what we call whakapapa. 

It is my absolute belief that no child should be viewed in isolation, but always as a member of a wider kin group - the whanau or hapu - that have traditionally exercised responsibility for the child's care and placement. 

To be whanau is literally to be born of; to whangai is to feed and nourish, to create the sustenance that allows every child to thrive but also whangai means to reconnect to whakapapa.

And I am delighted to see in your organisational title, the concept of te kotahitanga maimoa whangai o Aotearoa.  It tells me that you have taken on the concept of whangai - recognising that the wellbeing of our children is directly linked to their sense of identity.

Let me go back to the starfish story.

It used to be the case in Aotearoa, that children in care were thrown into the great sea of opportunity; free to sink or swim.

Our fragile little starfish would be given a new life - and in the case of many Maori children - a completely new identity.  

For some tamariki Maori that new identity was a fictional one.

They were told they were the most precious pearl plucked from a Pacific paradise; or perhaps a more exotic origin.  They might have grown up thinking that their brown skin came from the fact that they were actually a Princess from Portugal or Brazil - not like all those Maori kids running around them.

For others of our children, it was thought a new name might make all the difference.  Perhaps Kiri, like the famous opera singer; or a simple name like John or Jane instead of the multi-syllabled mouthful that would only create havoc when it came time for the teacher to call out the roll.

Now if you know anything about starfish you will know they can readily regenerate parts of their body.   Starfish with one or two large arms and three or four tiny new ones are known as sea comets.

Our modern day nation has many thousands of sea comets, who have struggled with their experiences of fostering or out-of-kin placements, and have tried, valiantly, to start again, to grow another limb, to explore another habitat.

Tomorrow morning, you will hear the stories that evolved from the research of the Open Homes Foundation in their interviews of young people who had spent time in foster care.  

One of the themes that came through was that as children, they did not know why they were in care and not living at home, and this ‘not knowing or not being exactly sure' had impacted on them in a variety of ways.

Another of the presentations - from John Gregson, child and adolescent psychiatrist - will focus on attachment trauma and other aspects of the sadness some of our foster children live with.

This sadness, this sense of not-knowing, is one of the greatest challenges - and tragedies - inherent in family and foster care.

For it is my view that the greatest sea of opportunity lies in one's own birth waters. 

I believe that the physical, social, cultural and spiritual wellbeing of every child is inextricably related to the sense of belonging to a wider whanau group.

Coming back to the starfish family again, I wonder if we appreciate how many distinctive and amazing creatures are clinging to our rocky shores.  

There is the prickly eleven-armed star - the pekapeka or papatangaroa; the sturdy reef star, patangaroa.   Or there is the elevated cushion star - kapu parahui rahi - which has the most dazzling surface of white, yellow, orange, red, purple, blue and green.

Of course the star itself in the Ratana faith - and indeed many other spiritual movements - is a symbol of greatness that we hold dear to our heart, ‘star of wonder, star of light, star of beauty, guide us to thy perfect light'.

We cannot pretend to ourselves that every starfish is the same, that one size fits all.  

We must make the commitment, strengthen the links that help every child to know they are a child of wonder.

We do our children a great disservice if we remove them from their birth family and fail to retain the connections which make every child unique.

The connections with one's birth family is something that I know the organisation Grandparents raising Grandchildren places great priority on.

This is, of course, not a new realisation. 

Back in 1989, the report of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Maori perspective for the Department of Social Welfare, recommended that the Maatua Whangai programme in respect of children, should return to its original focus of nurturing children within the family group. 

The Committee had heard several complaints of children placed with foster parents outside of the kin-group who had met the child's immediate and material needs but without any attempt to find foster parents within the hapu. 

It's that ultimate grief - ‘we gave her everything she could want for - but something was always not quite right'.

The Committee was told that the hapu was rarely consulted, sometimes as an omission but more usually through a positive opinion that the hapu had no right to be involved, or because of an exaggerated emphasis on confidentiality.

It gives me no joy to know that 21 years on since Puao-te-ata-tu was published, that we are still seeing situations of Maori children being placed in what I call ‘stranger-care'; that is people outside or their wider kin-group or hapu community : some 46% of Maori children in care fall into this category.  It is not good enough to continue this disconnecting practice.

And indeed, the responsibility to look at how Maatua Whangai should develop within Child, Youth and Family is a current and ongoing priority for both me and Minister Bennett in this Government.

I have to say that I was really impressed in the meeting that I had earlier this year with your chief executive, Iris Clanachan, to learn of the emphasis she is placing on kin care as providing a unique foundation for every child to grow up in.

And I will be really interested to learn of the progress that you make, in following a set of best practice standards for whanau and foster care.  It will be of great interest to me, to know how whanau themselves are involved in designing, developing and monitoring these standards.

Who better to assess the quality of care than whanau?

This is a question that I was brought up on - the challenge of how we nurture and grow our children to their full potential.

I was raised firstly by my grandmother, and when my grandmother died, by an aunt and uncle.   My aunt died when I was only eight and so I then went to live with another aunt and uncle.

Some might describe such a childhood as unsettled; lacking in stability or security.   I disagree.

I believe I had an extremely privileged upbringing because I knew, that with every breath that I took, every word that I spoke, that I was being watched over and my future was being shaped.  

All of these ‘caregivers' instilled in me the values, the beliefs, the principles that I would now describe as Whanau Ora.

They shared with me their knowledge of whakapapa - our genealogical imprint.   They opened my eyes to our history and our taonga tuku iho - the inherited treasures of our people. 

They were visionary - inspired by a sense of future possibilities - while always reminding me of the importance of remaining connected to the essence of who I am.

They created in me the drive to meet my obligations to my extended whanau, to always remember where and who I came from, and to honour the legacy they had left behind.

It was a very loving philosophy but also a strict one, which centred around the notion of collective responsibility - valuing and respecting all who belong to us.

In turn, when George and I started our own family we also reached out and ensured we extended our care to all those who needed a loving pair of arms wrapped around them.

We have never believed that parenting responsibilities stop once your children leave home.

We are just as determined to have input into the growth and wellbeing of our 25 mokopuna and 18 mokopuna tuarua as we were with their parents and grandparents.

And we extend that same watchful eye to all of the mokopuna from our nieces and nephews, our cousins, our whanau.

I do know the experience of bringing up children who are outside of kin - and if I was to be perfectly honest I would have to admit that despite our best intentions we were never able to give these children everything that they needed.

Because although we could care for them with abundant love; clothe them, feed them, be there for them when they needed; we were unable to make the intimate connection with their own bloodlines that someone within their own kin could.

And I know too, of the immense challenges of raising children who have begun life in difficulty.

It takes extraordinary parenting skills to restore these children to the sense of wonder that is inherent in every child.

This organisation has a massive challenge and an incredible opportunity in front of you, as you work to uphold your core beliefs that all children have a right to a positive family experience.

My presentation today is to encourage you all to search far and wide across families and whanau, to make the connections that every child deserves.  

Together - the birth family and the foster family - can indeed achieve wonders, that help make the difference, to let every child know they matter.

Tena tatou katoa