Child and youth voice research findings

Making sense of being in care, adopted, or whāngai

AUTHOR: Oranga Tamariki

This 2021 foundational study looks at the experiences of young people who are not living with their birthparents and explores how they make sense of these situations.  It involved interviews with 13 young people, as well as with caregivers and social workers. 

Key findings from the interviews with young people included:

  • Children and young people mostly learn about their situations when they are young or early in the process. 
  • They are mostly given age-appropriate information, although some young people felt they could be told earlier and could be given more honest explanations. 
  • These conversations happen over time as a child builds their understanding
  • Children’s understanding is supported by being able to have honest conversations with significant people in their lives, and by being able to ask questions. 
  • Children in the care of family members might struggle to understand that they have been ‘in care’, instead they see it as living with family. 
  • Being told conflicting information and not having someone to talk to hinders children’s understanding.
  • There are a range of meanings associated with being raised by people other than birth parents, with young people usually experiencing a mix of positive and negative meanings 
  • Positive meanings for the young people included: they had a better life with more opportunities and support, they were part of a whānau or family, they felt loved and special. 
  • Negative meanings for the young people included: feeling unwanted by birth parents, feeling that they are to blame, struggling with being separated from birth family and worrying about them, feeling different to others, not knowing their stories, being disconnected from whakapapa and culture, not feeling loved by caregivers and feeling as a burden, fearing their caregivers or parents might die because of their older age, dealing with stigma, being moved and not having a sense of home, and in some cases, being abused.
  • Children and young people in care said they don’t use the term ‘in care’ and use other terms instead to avoid the stigma associated with it, as do their caregivers. 
  • Those who are adopted are mostly comfortable with the term ‘adopted’, and so are their adoptive parents. 
  • ‘Whānau’ is mostly used instead of ‘whāngai’ as whāngai is a normal part of what makes a whānau. 
  • Most young people talk about their situation only with those they are close to, and some don’t tell others at all.
  • While many children and young people have close relationships and feel a sense of belonging with their caregivers and whāngai and adoptive parents, some don’t. 
  • Many children and young people’s relationships with their birth parents are complex, whether they are close or not. 
  • Relationships with birth siblings are especially important to children and young people’s sense of belonging to their birth whānau or families.
  • Whakapapa connections are an important source of belonging for many tamariki and rangatahi Māori – both to their whānau and to their hapū and iwi. 
  • Some children and young people have relationships of belonging with both sets of parents and with their whānau or families, where these multiple connections give them a greater sense of belonging.

The qualitative study is accompanied by a literature review

Read the full report

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