Making sense of being in care, adopted or whāngai

Making sense of being in care, adopted or whāngai …
01 Apr 2023
Making sense of being in care, adopted, or whāngai…
01 Oct 2021


This foundational research looks at the experiences of young people in care, adopted or whāngai and explores how the children and young people involved make sense of these situations.

The qualitative study and the literature review focused on three groups:

  • young people in care
  • young people who are whāngai
  • adopted young people.

The study and review sought to better understand:

  • how children and young people learned about being in care, adopted or whāngai
  • how their understanding of their situation changed over time
  • what meaning their situation has for them
  • how their situation affects their sense of identity and belonging
  • what language is used to describe their situation and relationships.

Context was provided through a document review looking at social work practice and how children were informed of their care status, and from interviews with social workers.

This literature review was updated in May 2023 to include:

  • Te Tiriti o Waitangi and 7AA
  • Pūao-te-āta-tū and the Mātua Whāngai programme
  • perspectives and literature of Māori adoptees who experienced closed adoption
  • discussion of the history of adoption legislation in New Zealand and the impact on the lives of Māori adoptees
  • a highlight on the practice of whāngai and display how the values from te ao Māori are woven through it.


Literature Review:

This literature review was conducted by exploring New Zealand and overseas literature through the academic portal of Google Scholar. The literature sources include journal articles, government reports, academic theses, and grey literature.

Most literature found was international and was largely based in countries within the United Kingdom, as well as the United Stated of America and Canada; findings related to whāngai practice were based on New Zealand literature.

  • The review focuses on foster care and family-like living environments, while excluding research on residential care.
  • The literature introduces foster care, adoption and whāngai practices.
  • One limitation of the literature review is the research into the traditional practice of whāngai due to the difficulty of finding relevant sources. Another contributing factor is that neither of the authors were Māori, so our understanding and interpretation of findings regarding to this practice may be limited.
  • Another limitation of this review is that different countries have different legislation and practice around care and protection. This means the circumstances of the children “in care” in these countries might be different to
    those in New Zealand. Furthermore, examples of tamariki being in the care of family members were not seen due to the literature focusing on fostering by nonfamily members.
  • Finally, while care, adoption and whāngai practice are different concepts, in reality the lines between these arrangements are not so clear cut. For example, many whāngai children can be formally adopted; or Māori children in state care, who are in whānau placements can have similar experiences as whāngai.

The following research questions were used to frame the exploration for the literature review.

  1. When does a child’s awareness grow about being in care, adopted or whāngai?
  2. What causes them to come to an understanding of being in care, adopted or whāngai?
  3. How do caregivers, social workers and families talk about being in care, adopted or whāngai with children? What language is used to discuss being in care, adopted or whāngai?
  4. What meanings and feelings are associated with being in care, adopted or whāngai and how does it develop over time?
  5. How does it affect a child’s identity?
  6. Where do children and young people feel they belong in relation to their birth and caregiver/parent whānau, hapū and iwi?

The literature review is structured into three sections with each section exploring a child’s sense of understanding, meaning, identity, and belonging in relation to being in alternative care arrangements.

  • Making sense of being in care.
  • Making sense of being adopted.
  • Making sense of whāngai.

Qualitatiave Study: 

Who were the groups we were interested in

We wanted to explore experiences of young people who were not raised by their birth parents. We chose to initially focus on three groups: young people with experience of being in care of Oranga Tamariki (state care), adopted young people and whāngai young people. Detailed description of these groups can be found in the literature review.

In summary: Young people in care

When children are not safe, New Zealand’s care and protection legislation allows for them to be removed from their parents’ care and placed in the custody of another party. A child who is placed in statutory custody for this reason is referred to as being ‘in care’. Most custody orders are made in favour of the Chief Executive (CE) of Oranga Tamariki— Ministry for Children (Oranga Tamariki) – this is sometimes referred to as being in state care.

However, custody orders can also be made in favour an individual person. When children in state care are unable to return into care of their birth parents, they can transition from state care into a permanent care of a caregiver, where the permanent caregiver has the custody of the child. Often children transition into permanent care of the caregiver they have been living with while in state care.

The living arrangement made for a child in care is known as a placement. When a child is in an ‘out-of-home placement’, they can be placed with family or whānau caregivers, with non-whānau caregivers (foster care), with Child and Family Support Services (CFSS), iwi social services, residential placement, boarding school, etc.

In this study, we focused on young people with experience of being in care including state and permanent care and placed in ‘family-like’ types of placements – living with a whānau or non-whānau caregiver for a long period of time. We interviewed young people who were between 15 and 25 years old.

Adopted young people
Adoption is the legal transfer of parenting rights and responsibilities from birth parents to adoptive parents. Legally, adoption replaces all the child’s birth family relationships with those of the adoptive family. We interviewed young people who were between 17 and 21 years old.

Young people raised as whāngai
Whāngai is a customary Māori practice where a tamaiti (child) is raised and nurtured usually by another relative, rather than their birth parents, either permanently or temporarily. From a Māori worldview, tamariki are carriers of their whakapapa and cultural knowledge, making them precious taonga (treasures) that need to be protected by their whānau and hapū. The practice of whāngai protects the cultural rights of tamariki as it is the whānau who raise them. We interviewed young people who were between 15 and 25 years old.

Caregivers, adoptive parents and matua whāngai
In this study we also listened to the experiences of caregivers, adoptive parents and matua whāngai (whāngai parents). We focused on exploring their knowledge and perspectives, including experiences of raising younger children.

Some of the caregivers we interviewed were caring for children who were in state care. Others were caring for children who were in their permanent care. Some of the caregivers were members of a child’s family or whanau (whanau or family caregivers), and others were unrelated (non-whanau or non-family caregivers). Of the whanau caregivers we talked with, all were grandparents of the children. In terms of ethnicity, almost all of the rangatahi Māori we interviewed were cared for by Māori caregivers. All of the Pakeha young people we interviewed were with Pakeha caregivers.

Social workers
We were also interested in social workers’ experiences, including both social workers for the child and social workers for the caregiver. Their perspective was explored for only a small part of this study.

Research questions

The following research questions guided our study:

  1. What is the requirement in legislation and policy to inform children about their care status? What role do social workers and caregivers play in informing children and supporting them over time to make sense of their situation?
  2. Are children aware of being in these arrangements? How do children learn about being in these care arrangements and how do they understand it over time?
  3. How do caregivers, social workers and families talk about this with children? What language is used to discuss being in care, adopted or whāngai?
  4. What meanings are associated with being in these arrangements?
  5. How does it affect a child’s identity? Where do children and young people feel they belong in relation to their birth and caregiver/parent whānau, hapū and iwi?

The majority of this study is based on qualitative methods, with a complementary document review. Document review was used to answer a part of the first research question about policy and practice requirements to inform children of their care status and support them over time. Interviews were used to gather experiences of young people, caregivers, adoptive parents, whāngai parents and social workers.

The majority of the interviews were done kanohi-ki-te kanohi, face-to-face, with a few exceptions which were online interviews, where this was preferred by the participant. Researchers were experienced in engagement with young people and interviews with Māori were done by a Māori researcher. Information gathered in the one-to-one and group interviews was analysed using a qualitative thematic analysis method and the Bridging Cultural Perspectives approach, which allows collaboration between Māori and non-Māori researchers and bringing Māori and non-Māori streams of knowledge together. This collaboration included a series of sense-making workshops and conversations and a collaborative writing process. In the report, we used quotes extensively to preserve the authentic voice of participants.

This study did not gather views of young people who were not aware of their care status. This was due to ethical considerations around unnecessarily exposing young people to distress that might be caused by revealing this information.

The study also excluded other young people who were not raised by their birth parents, such as orphans, or those whose caregivers receive the Unsupported Child benefit. As this study is exploratory in nature, we accept this limitation of the scope and note the potential of exploring other groups’ perspectives in future studies. Since the establishment of Oranga Tamariki in 2017, there have been a number of law, policy and practice changes regarding support of children in state care and their caregivers. The young people and caregivers we interviewed often reflected on their experience before these changes came into effect. This is reflected in the use of the former name of CYFS (Child, Youth and Family Services) by some participants.

Finally, due to difficulty with finding participants for this study, participants were recruited using a snowball technique – some of them were recruited using Oranga Tamariki social workers, caregivers, others were recruited via researchers’ personal networks.

Key Results

The literature review found that:

  • Children who had been in care were able to understand their care history from a young age. However, children currently in care could be confused and poorly informed about their situation. 
  • Being in care can impact a child’s sense of identity and there can be stigma attached which leads them to hide their situation from their peers.
  • Whāngai was important in maintaining links to culture, language, land and history, and supported children to develop a positive sense of identity. 

The qualitative study found that:

  • Social workers were aware of children’s rights to be informed of their care status, and to have this explained in an age-appropriate way, but felt they wanted to spend more time with children to support their understanding. 
  • Children were mostly informed of their situation at a young age or early in the process, but some felt they could be told earlier, and given more honest explanations. 
  • Caregivers didn’t always have full information about a child’s background, especially if the placement was temporary or uncertain. 
  • Children and caregivers tended not to use the term ‘in care’ and found other ways to describe their living situation that avoided any associated stigma.

Helping children make sense of being in care, adopted or whāngai were:

  • Knowing their whole story, and the story being strengths-based
  • Seeing their situation in the context of if they had stayed with their birth parents
  • Being given realistic explanations
  • Affirmation of friends and whānau, and normalising their family/whānau experience
  • Access to social workers and counsellors when needed.
Page last modified: 25 Oct 2023