New ways of thinking about the influence of cultural identity, place and spirituality on child development within child placement practice.

Author:Sharley, Victoria


The policy and practice of family placement within the UK can be understood as the archetypal separation of a person from their physical environment. Yet the intersection of 'person with place'--both past and present--has been argued to be crucial for identity formation (Sheldrake, 2001; Canda, 2008; Crisp, 2008). 'Place' is considered not just as a geographical position but as a space connecting a person's narrative with their environment (Sheldrake, 2001). Inspired by the author's experience of working closely with a Maori community in Napier, New Zealand, this short article draws on a Maori spiritual framework to interrogate western theoretical frameworks and concepts commonly deployed in the context of family placement. In so doing, it offers a new way of thinking about the influence of cultural identity, place and spirituality on child development within placement practice in the UK.

An alternative framework

A body of work has drawn on Maori social work literature to explore the intersection of 'person (identity) with place' through an application of the concept of spirituality within western social work practice models (Zapf, 2005a, b). According to this perspective, people can have deep spiritual connections with the physical environment in which they live, creating a sense of belonging and attachment to that place. Maori cultural identities are directly connected to the physical place where many generations have shared their history and lifestyle in coexistence, stewardship, co-operation and harmony with the natural world (Zapf, 2005b). Zapf (2005a) cites Spretnak (1991, p 91) in explaining spiritual values that start from the assumption that people and nature (land) are inextricably linked:

A people rooted in the land over time have exchanged their tears, their breath, their bones, all of their element--oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, all the rest--with their habitat many times over. Here nature knows us.

People are not viewed as separate from but as part of the natural environment, which is conceptualised as a living system that is a source of energy and knowledge (Zapf, 2005b). Referring again to Spretnak (1991, p 90), Zapf emphasises how the physical environment does not provide a passive backdrop to human action but is a 'sensate conscious entity suffused with spiritual powers'. This profound interconnected ness of persons to land and place has been summarised by the metaphor of 'I am I and the Environment' (Ortega y Gasset, 1985, cited in Zapf, 2005a, p 6), or 'I'm not in the place but the place is in me' (Suopajarvi, 1998, cited in Zapf, 2005a, p 6). This view is one of relatedness and interdependence of all life forms within an all-encompassing and integrated whole, which enables coexistence and a profound sense of belonging (Coates et al, 2006). It is through belonging that all life forms can thrive and develop, and realise their unique identity within relationships that are mutually beneficial (Coates et al, 2006). Under standing the importance of wairuatanga, the Maori expression of the spiritual dimension and the spiritual connection of a person to all dimensions of their world, is therefore significant for practitioners in conceptualising Maori cultural identity (Munford and Sanders, 2011).

Further, for Maori, an important spiritual connection concerning 'place' is a person's position and ancestry in their whanau (wider family grouping), iwi (tribe) and hapu (sub-tribe) (Ruwhiu, 2008). The position that a person has within their whanau involves understanding the relational and familial connections across generations. Ancestral relationships provide clarity about the obligations, rights, roles and practices for connecting with people within and outside the whanau (Munford and Sanders, 2011). This is significant for Maori because respecting the position of a person within their whanau, iwi and hapu is crucially important for protecting mana (honour and respect accorded to a person). Whanau connections within and between generations are thus important in providing a deep sense of shared history and cultural identity (Munford and Sanders, 2011).

How might this alternative framework interrogate western theoretical frameworks and concepts commonly deployed in the context of family placement for 'looked after' children?

This section considers four western theoretical frameworks and concepts that have contributed to understanding and intervention within child placement practice in the light of the alternative Maori framework linking identity, spirituality and place. These are: the ecological model of child development; resilience; attachment theory; and a strengths-based perspective.

The ecological model of child development

The ecological or bio-psychosocial...

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