Māori adoption – tamariki whāngai or atawhai
In Māori society, children were often brought up by relatives who were not their birth parents. These children were known as tamariki whāngai or atawhai. There was no secrecy – in most cases they knew how they were related to everyone. They knew their birth parents and had contact with them. Whānau, hapū and iwi took part in making whāngai decisions. Inheritance practices varied between different tribes.
Adoption of Children Act 1881
New Zealand became the first country in the British Empire to make legal adoption possible when it passed the Adoption of Children Act in 1881, 45 years before England did the same. The intent was to make sure that those who were willing to take in and bring up related or unrelated children could become their only legal parents.
At first there were very few adoptions, especially of babies – older children were useful for domestic and other labour – and no secrecy was involved. Until the Second World War, it was seen as right for mothers to keep illegitimate children, as a public punishment and a warning to others. Because it was so hard for single mothers to earn a living, many illegitimate children were sent to orphanages or industrial schools.
Different rules for Māori
In the early colonial period, customary Māori adoption had legal status. But from 1901 Māori adoptions were not recognised legally unless they were registered in the Native Land Court. This was the first in a long line of legal steps that undermined the status of customary adoption.
A Waitangi Tribunal claim was made on 1 September 2008 on behalf of all Māori who were adopted, fostered or made wards of the state through government welfare systems. It stated that the Crown, in breach of its Treaty of Waitangi obligations, prejudicially affected Māori by passing and enforcing the Adoption Act 1955.
In 1909 it became illegal for Māori to adopt non-Māori. It was only when the Adoption Act 1955 was passed that adoption for Māori was brought under the same rules as adoption for Pākehā. However, being treated the same as non-Māori meant that many adopted Māori children lost knowledge of their whakapapa.