Cultural Safety: Lessons From Maori Wisdom

Leon C. Fulcher

Cultural safety has its current origins among the Maori peoples of New Zealand. The reader is encouraged to consider how rituals of encounter that promote cultural safety might enhance the cultural competence of workers and improve the quality of services offered in a variety of settings. Family Group Conferences also support active family participation in the care and control of children while empowering family decision making and promoting safe practices.

In this article, child and youth care workers are introduced to the notion of cultural safety, which has featured prominently in nursing and social care practices in New Zealand for the past decade. Practitioners are invited to consider how rituals of encounter are important when engaging children or young people of any cultural origin, but especially those from outside the dominant culture in a given region. Cultural competence based on personal sensitivity and active learning can reinforce cultural safety through the sensitive use of rituals of encounter and Family Group Conferences, which empower families to take an active part in decision making about the needs of their children

Cultural Safety
Since 1986, child and youth care practice in New Zealand has been heavily influenced by recommendations contained in Puao-te-Ata-tzi (Daybreak): Report of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Maori Perspective for the Department of Social Welfare (Rangihau, 1986). Recommendation 10 was particularly important. It suggested that government take steps "to provide professional qualifying courses that meet the cultural needs of those seeking employment in New Zealand" (Rangihau, 1986, p. 40). After nearly 150 years of bicultural partnership between the Maori and the British Crown, the need to include culture in the education and training of child and youth care workers thus was finally acknowledged. In the course of their consultations, the Maori Perspectives Committee found that at the heart of the matter was a "profound misunderstanding or ignorance of the place of the child in Maori society and its relationship with whanau (family), hapu (subtribe), and iwi (tribal) structures" (Rangihau, 1986, p. 7 [italics added]). Health and social services workers of European ancestry had failed to understand the place of cultural influences in the development of Maori children, and this failure needed to be rectified.

Cultural safety is defined as the state of being in which a child or young person experiences that her or his personal well-being, as well as social and cultural frames of reference, is acknowledged�even if not fully understood by the worker(s) claiming to be there to help him or her. Furthermore, cultural safety means that each child or young person will be given an active reason to feel hopeful that her or his needs and those of her or his family members and kin will be accorded dignity and respect (Ramsden, 1997) it follows that family members and other kin are actively encouraged to participate in decisions with service providers about the future of their child.

Child and youth care professionals educated in the Western tradition of bio-psycho-social theories of child development have normally been taught to keep searching for data, often in the misguided belief that if we only knew more, answers would become self-evident. However, when it comes to working with children or young people of a culture different from our own, it is all too easy to arrive at false interpretations of child or adolescent development, with very deleterious effects on the lives of vulnerable children. If one accepts that cultures are intricate, highly-patterned systems of social inheritance through which each group of people attains and maintains the separate version of the humanity of its members, then one can see why it is that cultural safety needs to be considered very carefully.

Cultural racism occurs when the values, assumptions, patterns of learning and economic exchange, and lifestyles of the dominant group are regarded as superior or favored in one way or another over those of other groups. Like First Nations, Hispanic, and Black Americans, the Maori people of New Zealand experienced extreme disadvantage from the application of Western psychological theories and methods used by social and behavioral scientists to investigate Maori character structure. Postwar research findings identified character deficits that informed New Zealand social policies, with a resulting negative impact on at least three generations of Macri (Stewart, 1997). Indigenous people have been particularly susceptible to cultural racism in both the allocation of resources for responsive health and social services and in the way services are delivered. Simply trying to understand where people from a different culture are "coming from" can be in itself a huge undertaking.

Child and youth care workers seeking to pursue cultural safety in their own practice are encouraged to think about how each encounter is conceptually framed by a cultural context. This can be thought of as a doll�s house (Fulcher, 1998) in which one can locate the Matruska dolls used by Bronfenbrenner (1979) to articulate his ecology of human development. That "cultural metaphor" used a Russian child�s toy to nest a microsystem (the immediate setting where a child is, here and now) within a mesosystem (relationships with others in other settings that affect what is happening here and now with this child). These systems of influence close to each child are, in turn, nested within an exosystem (organizational and institutional structures that administer educational, social, and health care services) and a macrosystem (social and economic policy environment that sustains prevailing care ideals and maintains public order). Without the doll�s house, the Matruska doll metaphor leaves out the home associated with child and youth care practice in any culture and the meaning given to events that take place between worker(s) and child(ren) living there. It is important to learn that professionalism does not mean being able to manage any situation with every child or young person. Instead, it is important to start by affirming one�s own social and cultural identity and acknowledging our own cultural limitations or potential blind spots.

Rituals of Encounter
Rituals of encounter between worker(s) and client(s) are grounded in cultural protocols, regardless of whether one is considering a child�s cultural origins, a young person�s gang culture affiliation, associations with drug culiure, or escape from a culture of violence. The place that a child learns to call home and my people has a particular history and politico-economic legacy. It follows that each endounter with a child and her or his family requires that a cultural lens be included in one�s professional basket of biopsycho-social praxis competencies, along with baseline assessments of body temperature, weight and chemistry, perceptual capacities, cognitive functioning, affect, language, and motor functioning. The meaning that children or young people give to culture is constantly evolving as they seek to understand their current predicament and adapt to each new home environment and the experiences that take place there. Rituals of encounter�like transitional objects�enhance the quality of service outcomes for those facing significant life-changing events. If rituals of encounter convey appropriate meanings, then purposeful communication is strengthened. But in pressurized and stressful work settings, it is all too easy to find the professional focusing on bia-psycho-social problems and all but losing sight of the child or young person as a whole person.

If workers of European ancestry are not first aware of their own culture and their own feelings about race, ethnicity, and gender roles within that culture, then understandings of minority differences are likely to reflect negative valuations. It is not uncommon to find child and youth care workers practicing in the belief that human development proceeds along a single path on which some cultural groups have advanced further than others. The possible existence of parallel developmental tracks does not seem to have any place in their praxis orientation. The upshot is that children or young people from some cultural groups have culture whereas others are "civilized." All too often, minority culture remains little more than interesting exotica, esoteric misguided systems of beliefs, or quaint behavior. Through cultural assimilation, children are recognized as civilized beings, more able to behave in the dominant culture.

Bicultural rituals of encounter�yours and mine�form rhythmic interactions that are central to Maier �s (1979) Core of Care. Acknowledgment of cultural differences and the impact such differences have on each child�s life journey are closely linked to the meaning that children and young people give to events they experience with care-givers. When predictability in caring relationships is combined with a feeling of dependability in such relationships, a child�s whole being is proactively cared for, not just her or his bio-psycho-social functioning. Rituals of encounter that promote such proactive expressions of caring while ensuring cultural safety are critically important if child and youth care workers are to break the cycles of cultural racism that have disadvantaged so many. This begins with each worker�s taking responsibility for learning about the cultural practices of those living in his or her home region or areas from which children or young people from different cultures come into care. It is not sufficient to expect children and young people in care, or their families, to be the teachers of those employed to work with them. As Ramsden and Spoonley concluded, one of the objectives of cultural safety in professional education is to ensure that all workers will "examine their own cultural realities and the attitudes they bring to each new person they encounter in practice" (1993, p.l63).

Family Group Conferences
New Zealand�s Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act of 1989 (see Connolly, 1994) was the first legislation in the Western world to require that Family Group Conferences be convened prior to court consideration of state intervention in the care or control of children or young people (Wilcox et al., 1991). Over the past decade, Family Group Conferences have become the focus of international attention and are now part of professional practice in many Western countries (Hudson, Morris, Maxwell, & Galaway, 1996; Marsh & Crow, 1997; Pennell & Burford, 1995). This is not surprising; given the way Family Group Conferences empower families to participate more fully in decisions concerning the care of their children (Connolly, 1994). However, some workers invited to consider Family Group Conferences have expressed anxiety about acknowledging that families often hold the answers to care and control questions. Many professionals still operate on the assumption that troubled and troublesome behavior is explained through reference to early environment, heredity, socio-economic status, current living circumstances, and crises or negative events. Within such a psychological framework, culture is considered mere idiosyncrasy, and cultural safety is irrelevant.

The cultural origins of the contemporary Family Group Conference among Mann people place considerable importance on the relationship between celestial and terrestrial knowledge. Matters regarded as being earthbound are associated with terrestrial knowledge, which governs the physical world in which Maori live. Spiritual matters are associated with celestial knowledge. The two types of knowledge are so closely interwoven as to be virtually inseparable and are still essential features of daily activity among Maori people. In traditional Maori society, the child was considered a gift from the gods, boasting a royal lineage that could be recited back to Ranginui, the great Sky Father, and Papatuanuku, the matriarch Earth Mother. Each Maori child has a genealogy or whakapapa that locates him or her in ordered sequence through successive generations, providing a cultural identity traditionally ignored by Western theories of child development. Whakapapa recognizes common ancestry and extended family relationships that connect each Maori child to the universe. If not through the physical union of its members, then by common ancestry with the gods, all tribes can claim whanaungatanga or kinship relationships with one another.

Along with whanau, hapu is the other foundation structure that supports children in Maori society, and this notion of subtribe is very important when one is preparing for Family Group Conferences. Literally translated, hapu means, "to be pregnant" or the god-given state that ensures the maintenance and prosperity of whanau. The concept of hapu, carrying with it the physical and spiritual values noted above, has also been adapted to mean a collection of families or, as some might say, "the rellies." Generally speaking, hapu represent groups of whanau that are linked by whakapapa five or six generations long. Maori children, therefore, traditionally had a clearly defined place within their immediate family group. Equally important, however, was the support offered by kin groups in the wider subtribe to whom children could turn and on whom they could rely. It is this dynamic that is enshrined in the Family Group Conference, providing justification for family decision-making processes that locate each child within the wider extended family and subtribe. The Euro-American concept of birth parent "ownership" of a child is not even contemplated.

Figure 1: illustration of a Maori ancestral meeting house

As shown in the illustration of a Maori ancestral meeting-house in Figure 1, one can see how family and subtribe structures, along with whakapapa (genealogy), support each child (Te Tamaiti) at the pinnacle of their ancestral house. The four corner posts of that house illuminate the significance of the language (Reo), kith and kin relationships (Whanaungatanga), the land (Whenua), and spirituality (Wairua) in Family Group Conferences with any child. Language (Rev) is a foundation element of any culture, providing the mode of expression for a family value base. Maori believe that language is a child�s inheritance, bequeathed directly from the celestial Sky Father and the terrestrial Earth Mother. A child�s native language and traditional manner of communication are therefore central to the identity of that child and to the rituals of encounter needed to ensure cultural safety. In the planning and implementing of a Family Group Conference, the language of meaning for each child and his or her extended family members is critical to successful outcomes. Those involved in facilitating Family Group Conferences need to be ever wary of using professional, technical, or legal language to heighten confusion, undermine empowerment, or promote hostility.

As the word suggests, whanaungatanga derives its meaning from the base word whanau. This structural pillar in the metaphor captures the essence of connections between kith and kin. Whanaungatanga celebrates family and family ties, through which one finds clearly acknowledged relationships that support each child. When social workers fail to locate family members or choose to ignore the contributions made by others because of misguided notions of confidentiality of directives about cost containment, the outcomes of a Family Group Conference are already predetermined. If one accepts that there are always positive as well as negative influences to be found within a wider kinship network, the importance of involving all these perspectives in a Family Group Conference is self-evident.

Whenua is the word meaning the "placenta" or home of the unborn child, but it also identifies the land to which each child is connected. This relationship to a place is both spiritual and physical. One�s association with and appreciation of ancestry and place of birth is very special, making it easier to understand why indigenous peoples place such fundamental value on the land of their ancestors. Scottish and Irish children make similar distinctions when asking questions like, "Where dae ya come fae?" and "Where dae ya stay?" which capture distinctive meanings given to birthplace and home address. Preparation for any Family Group Conference therefore needs to give careful attention to where a child�s people come from and now live, as well as explanations for why it is that the child might now be in a different place. Otherwise, the influences of modernization and family migration can easily leave children vulnerable to a further loss of identity.

The literal translation of wairua is "two waters, � but the term is used here to embrace the spiritual realm of Maori culture. Wairua permeated throughout all facets of Maori culture, and without it, one could not affirm a true sense of identity. This spiritual dimension and difficulties associated with managing it are linked to the high incidence of mental health issues in New Zealand presented by urban Maori who have been alienated from their culture. It was, and still is, through practices such as karakia. incantation, meditation, and prayer that order can be reaffirmed. The fourth pillar supporting the child in Maori society, wairua cements the union between physical and spiritual realms. In contemporary Western societies, it is all too easy to ignore the spiritual realm that embraces each child, whether defined in terms of religious doctrine or acknowledged in the intuitive and creative ways in which children adapt to adversity. Professionals often find it easier to ignore spirituality than to acknowledge its importance for different children and families.

Implications for Child and Family Practice
In conclusion, a handful of questions are posed for those persons seeking to use rituals of encounter that reinforce cultural safety in the care and control of children. The same questions can be used to facilitate Family Group Conferences in the delivery of more responsive child and youth care services.

Question 1: "Is this child safe now?" it is not sufficient to think only of physical safety and security when one is addressing this question. As has been shown, the issue of cultural safety must also be paramount because cultural safety is what gives meaning to specific acts of caring. Nor must one ignore physical safety and security in favor of cultural safety, because it is all too easy for child and youth care workers to dabble in things about which they know very little and thus risk placing a child or young person at even greater risk. A recent Scottish example showed how, in sending a young person in care home to family members on the weekend, insufficient attention was given to the care and control of this child�s behavior while at home; her drug-taking behavior intensified, with fatal results.

Question 2: "Where does this child and her or his people come from and how connected is she or he to the cultural traditions of those people?" It is argued here that no work should commence with a child or young people for more than a few days without someone helping them compile a family genogram. The aim should be to establish what that child knows about the important people in her or his life, including extended family as well as nuclear family networks, and might usefully give attention to aunt and uncles, as well as grandparents and others whose care may have once been vital in that child�s life. Good bio-psycho-social pediatric and mental health services would not contemplate a treatment regime without a thorough diagnostic workup. Similarly, social workers and child and youth care workers will find service outcomes enhanced through reference to culturally responsive rituals of encounter when engaging each new child or young person and his or her family referred for services.

Question 3: "What is the story about how this child came to be here and to what extent is he or she able to tell that story now?" The application of crisis theory enables the worker to think of how an admission to care, custody, or abuse notification enquiry represents a significant event in the life of each child and family. If this is the first event, effective resolution with child and family following the initial crisis is likely to increase chances of successful service outcomes for all concerned. With each successive failure, the probability of long-term negative impact seems to increase geometrically. Through helping a child or young person reestablish a sense of personal and cultural identity, such rituals of encounter enable worker(s) and child(ren) to engage in purposeful relationship building that promotes cultural safety.

Question 4: "Where are the people who might offer the longest term security and cultural safety for this child and how can we engage them as quickly as possible in decision making about her or his future?" Sadly, rather than being viewed as essential participants in any successful care plan, many parents and family members are dismissed as being responsible for their children�s problems. And all too frequently, social and healthcare agencies operate in a monocultural fashion where administrative procedures reflect cultural arrogance and control rather than offering rituals of encounter that guarantee cultural safety.

Question 5: "How does my/our cultural identity influence the meaning we give to events and our guarantee that this child�s life will not be made worse off as a consequence of our having been involved in his or her care?" Anderson, Richardson, and Leigh (cited in Leigh, 1998, pp. 173�174) identified seven principles considered essential to culturally competent practices that promote cultural safety in the care and control of children and young people. These are paraphrased here as a cross-cultural pledge for child and youth care workers:

1. I accept that I have much to learn.

2. I appreciate regional and geographical factors related to people of different cultures [in my region], how individual[s] may vary from generalizations [made] about their regional and geographic group, and how regional groups vary from the [wider] cultural group.

3. I follow the standard that knowledge is obtained from the person in the situation and learn about the situation from that person before generalizing to others.

4. I demonstrate the capacity to form [and sustain] social and work relationships with people from contrasting cultures.

5. I will engage with mutual respect and conscious effort to reduce power disparities between myself and persons of a different culture than my own.

6. I am able to obtain [and work with] culturally relevant information in professional encounters.

7. I can engage in processes of mutual exploration, assessment, and beginning-level problem solving with people of different culture and status from my own.


Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Connally, M. (1994). An act of empowerment: The Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1989. British journal of Social Work, 24, 87�1 (111.

Fulcher, L. C. (1998). Acknowledging culture in child and youth care practice. Social Work Education, 17, 321�338.

Hudson, J., Morris, A., Maxwell, C. & Galaway B. (Eds.). (1996). Family Group Conferences: Perspectives on policy and practice. Leichhardt, Australia: The Federation Press.

Leigh, J. W. (1998). Communication for cultural competence. Sydney, Australia: Allyn & Bacon.

Maier, H. (1979). The core of care: Essential ingredients for the development of children at home and away from home. Child Care Quarterly, 8, 161�173.

Marsh, P., & Crow, G. 11997). Family Group Conferences in child welfare. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Pennell, J., & Burford, F. (1993). Family group decision making project implementation report (vol. 1)St. John�s, Newfoundland, Canada: Memorial University of Newfoundland, School of Social Work.

Ramsden, I. (1997). Cultural safety: Implementing the concept. In P. Te Whaiti, M. McCarthy, & A. Dune (Eds.), Maj i Rangiatea: Maori wellbeing and development. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press.

Ramsden, I., & Spoonley, P. (1993). The cultural safety debate in nursing education in Akaroa. New Zealand Annual Review of Education, 3, 161-174.

Rangihau, J. (1986). Puao-te-Ata-tu (Daybreak): Report of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Maori Perspective for the Department of Social Welfare. Wellington, New Zealand: Department of Social Welfare, Government Printing Office.

Stewart, T. (1997). Historical interfaces between Maori and psychology. In P. Te Whaiti, M. McCarthy, & A. Dune (Eds.), Maj i Rangiatea: Maori wellbeing and development. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press.

Wilcox, R., Smith, D., Moore, J., Hewitt, A., Allan, G., Walker, H., Ropata, M., Monu, U., & Featherstone, T. (1991). Family decision making, Family Group Conferences�Practitioners� views. Lower Hutt, New Zealand: Practitioners Publishing.