Making sense of being in care, adopted or whāngai

Published: May 23, 2023 · Updated: May 23, 2023

There are many children in New Zealand raised by people other than their birth parents. This qualitative study and literature review explores the perspectives of children and young people and those who care for them.


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.

Key findings

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.