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Karen Chhour: Why I'm calling time on a 'racist' Oranga Tamariki policy

When Kelvin Davis used Question Time to say that I view the world through a "pakeha lens" it was nothing I haven't heard before: "You're a whakapapa Māori but you're not kaupapa Māori"; "You're a plastic Māori"; "You're a born-again Māori". It just comes with the territory of being a Māori woman who doesn't always fit the left's comfortable stereotype.


Problem is, I don't think Kelvin is the only Labour minister who thinks what he said. The others might be smarter at hiding it, but they also worship identity politics.


They believe that who you are can matter more than what you do or say. How do I know this? That attitude is all through the policies they promote. Oranga Tamariki, the area I was asking Kelvin about when he made his comments, is just one example.


I came to Parliament out of sheer frustration around these kinds of attitudes and to fight them. As Act's Children's spokesperson and as someone who grew up in state care, I'm starting by fighting against what I view as racism within Oranga Tamariki.


I know a couple in Auckland who took on the huge responsibility of becoming foster parents. They took in a little girl, who for the sake of this story and to protect her identity, I will call Mary. Mary is part Māori. By the age of 7, Mary been put placed with different family members eight times, only to be removed again.


Mary's foster parents took her in and loved and cared for her. They believed they would be providing Mary with a home for life, giving her the stability she so desperately needed.


After two years of caring for Mary, they were told they had to prove they had Māori heritage, or she would once again be placed back with her whānau.


Oranga Tamariki claimed that the most important thing for Mary was being raised in a "culturally appropriate environment".


Oranga Tamariki was happy to take Mary from a loving home, the only place she'd ever had security and stability, and place her back with family members who were known to abuse her.


In fairness to Oranga Tamariki, it was following the law, something called Section 7AA of the Oranga Tamariki Act. Section 7AA means the chief executive of Oranga Tamariki has to consider the Treaty when making decisions.


Sure, 7AA may be well-intentioned. But it creates a conflict between protecting the best interests of the child and race-based factors enshrined in 7AA. This conflict has the potential to cause real harm to our children.


I was a Māori child in state care. I could have only dreamed of a loving home like the one Mary was placed in.


What I needed was what every child needs. To be loved, cared for, clothed and fed.


I bounced between the system and family for years. I still carry the physical and mental scars from that time. It didn't matter to me whether the adults I relied on were Pākehā, Māori, Chinese or African. I just wanted to be loved and cared for.


I came to Parliament to fight for that for other children.


Every MP who is not a minister gets to have a piece of legislation that goes into a ballot.


Last month, my Member's Bill was drawn from that Ballot. It repeals Section 7AA.


Since my Member's Bill was drawn, I have been called a racist. If anything, the opposite is true. My Bill will make Oranga Tamariki colour-blind. It will have to focus on all of the factors that a child needs, instead of placing race at the centre of their decision-making.


When this Bill comes up for the first reading in Parliament, the predictable and tiresome responses will come from the Labour Party, the Māori Party, and the Greens.


I ask them, before they vote this down, to think about Mary and what was best for her. A family who loved and cared for her? Or returning to her abusers?


Mary's foster parents traced their family tree back far enough that they could find enough of a link to say they were Māori. This twist also shows how bizarre the law is, Mary's foster parents are the same people, but something that happened centuries before they were born made it okay for them to parent.


Mary still lives with them. She has come out of her shell, she is doing well at school, she has a home for life where she is safe and is thriving. Thank goodness for that branch they found on the family tree, or Mary's story might have been very different.


I can only hope that my Bill gets a fair hearing because another child might not be so lucky.


Karen Chhour is a list MP and the Act Party spokeswoman on children and social development. This piece was first published in the NZ Herald.

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