Confronting a dark chapter of our national history

Meetings have begun around the country to set up the structure and hearing processes for the government’s $80 million Royal Commission into the Historical Abuse in State Care and in the Care of Faith-based Institutions.

Sonja Cooper 

Commission chairman, former Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand, says the purpose of the meetings is to gather feedback on how the four-year inquiry should be run and what it should cover.

“They are a valuable way of informing commissioners of the expectations of interested parties, and testing the approach the Royal Commission will take,” he says.

“Commissioners are developing processes to ensure the inquiry is run fairly, impartially and in a manner responsive to what survivors tell us. They acknowledge the critical importance of listening to the voices of survivors and their supporters.”

The commission is also preparing an easy-to-read one-pager on the terms of reference, confirmed by the government in November last year.

“This will soon be shared publicly so people can see clearly and easily what it means and what is in, and out of, the scope of the inquiry,” Sir Anand says.

The commission has also revealed the broad parameters under which it will hear evidence.

Private listening forums will be set up to hear accounts of abuse directly from survivors and their whanau. Individuals and organisations will also be able to provide evidence at public hearings around the country, and the commission will hold round table discussions with key parties relating to the themes that emerge from the inquiry.

“It is a priority for commissioners to ensure survivors are safe at every stage of their engagement with the Royal Commission,” Sir Anand says.

The commission has also agreed on its values: reciprocity and balance; independence and determination; transparency; and aroha. During the next few weeks it will test these values to ensure they are appropriate for all stakeholders, particularly Māori and Pasifika groups.

While welcoming the inquiry, Wellington-based human rights lawyer Sonja Cooper says some of her clients will be devastated about the timeframe.

The commission will focus on cases between 1950 and 1999, with discretion to look outside this period. But Ms Cooper says her firm has more than 100 clients born after 1990 and their voices are unlikely to be heard.

She wants the timeframe extended to 2017, saying the government appears keen to label abuse as a thing of the past. She also contends the commission needs longer than two years to present an interim report, given that a confidential forum set up in the mid-2000s for people who had suffered abuse took seven years to report back its findings.

And she says the inquiry is likely to hear from more people than the 1200 who used the forum, including whanau of survivors.

“If that is to be done with any integrity at all, I just cannot see how it could be done in two years. Even with four years I think the Royal Commission will be struggling with that sort of timeframe.”

Ms Cooper has fought long and hard to get justice for New Zealanders abused as state wards.

“The fact that we represent 500 [of these clients] is, in my view, just the tip of the iceberg. My calculation is that we are acting for only about 1% of the potential victims. The abuse was essentially in every institution run by Social Welfare and it was pervasive. We are probably talking about three generations of broken people because our client group spans 18-year-olds through to 60-year-olds.”

Ms Cooper says the time spent in Social Welfare homes set her clients up for lives of crime and violence, and estimates 80% had spent time in jail.

Some of her clients, like Mark (of Christchurch), recounted harrowing stories. He and his brother were placed into care when their mother abandoned them. His brother got lucky and was fostered by a couple who gave him a good start in life, and he went on to become a senior sergeant in the police. But seven-year-old Mark ended up in a Social Welfare home and did not learn to fully read or write until he was 25.

Mark was just one of hundreds of children from difficult backgrounds who were taken under the wing of the former Department of Social Welfare and housed in institutions all over New Zealand. The department was supposed to shelter, rehabilitate and educate them in a loving and caring environment but, in many cases, nothing could have been further from the truth.

At 12, Mark was transferred to the Kohitere Boys’ Home near Levin and soon found himself in a “house of horrors”.

“I was actually frog-marched in there with my arms up behind my back, through the gates and we came into this compound. I freaked out a little bit because there was a concrete floor with a drain in the middle. There was a boy lying in one of the corners and he’d been beaten up or had a fight. I remember thinking, what the hell is going on here?”

Mark says staff delighted in dishing out harsh punishment for the slightest misdemeanours. Beatings and bashings were the order of the day, with little attempt to address the issues in his life and give him a fighting chance to get on in the world and put the past behind him.

It got so bad that he ran away, but he didn’t get far before being returned to Kohitere and locked up in a cell. “The general punishment was seven days or 14 days in the pound but if you ran away you did three months,” he recalls.

At 15, when he was released from the clutches of Social Welfare, it was inevitable that – as someone with next-to-no money, no one to support him, virtually no secondary education, and an almighty grudge against authority – he would get into trouble. And he did. Drugs and petty crime became the name of the game and for 10 years he drifted in and out of prison. It was the only way he could survive in a society from which he had been marginalised.

But, as he lurched from crisis to crisis, his world gradually spiralling out of control, it dawned on Mark that life needn’t be this way.

The turning point was the birth of his daughter. He was determined to give her everything he had been denied in his childhood. He knuckled down to a back-breaking job in a timber yard, put his daughter through school and created a warm and loving home environment.

And, along the way, he joined hundreds of other former state wards in their battle to get an apology and compensation from the government for the physical, mental and sexual abuse that had been meted out to them.

His hopes were raised when he was summoned to Wellington for an interview with Social Welfare officials who, he says, agreed to a deal on compensation.

It would have paid off an $8000 debt he’d incurred over the years – and left a bit over for a family holiday – but it never eventuated, and that’s when Mark made the biggest mistake of his life.

To pay off his debtor, he decided to grow marijuana in his bathroom and sell it, but a neighbour dobbed him in to the police and he lost the lot. One stupid decision threatened to undo everything he’d done to turn his life around.

Another abuse victim was 50-something Brian, a broken man whom the years had not treated kindly. He was made a state ward at the age of 10, after running away from an alcoholic and violent father. Tragically, life in the Social Welfare home proved to be worse than the one he left behind. He suffered abuse at the hands of the man who was in charge of caring for him and decades later he was still deeply traumatised.

“He was supposed to wake me up a couple of times at night so I could try and stop wetting the bed. And every time he came in to wake me up, he would sexually abuse me. And if I said anything, he used to hit me and force me to sit in the closet.”

What happened to these men were not isolated incidents – they occurred with monotonous regularity in a number of homes.

Keith was 10 when he was sent to the Epuni Boys Home in Lower Hutt. After his father’s early death, his mother couldn’t cope and Keith was introduced to a world he never knew existed.

“On one occasion, a housemaster got a young fella who had a tattoo on his hand … and the housemaster scrubbed it out with a wire brush in front of us and that kid screamed his head off.”

Keith writhed and squirmed in his chair as he recounted his experiences, his face twisted and tormented as he struggled to get the words out, especially when it came to describing what he suffered at the hands of his own abuser.

“He would find a pretext to send me to my room and he would come and abuse me. I wasn’t raped but I suffered what I consider to be serious sexual assaults. It left me with nothing but a broken soul really. I’ve basically still got this 11-year-old kid that I carry around with me who won’t rest, who still wakes me up in the middle of the night.”

Those who committed these acts have largely gone unpunished – many now dead, or unable to be found. Their former victims’ only hope of getting justice was lawyer Sonja Cooper, who has relentlessly campaigned for a formal inquiry into the abuse suffered by state wards and a proper process through which they could get compensation rather than having to go to court – an option that she says rarely yielded much of a result.

“I could count on my hand, one hand – and I have been doing this work since 1995 – the number of claims that have been settled to date,” she says. “The offers have predominantly been nominal, they certainly don’t reflect the gravity of what’s happened to our clients and they certainly don’t address the long-term impacts the abuse has had on our clients.”

Almost a decade on, the government, with the establishment of this new commission, has now seemingly come closer to Ms Cooper’s way of thinking.

And even if some of its parameters are not completely to her liking, there is reason to hope that it should go some way to confronting what Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has described as “a dark chapter of our national history”.

The commission’s interim report is due at the end of next year. Its final report, with findings and recommendations, is due to be submitted to the Governor-General in January 2023. 

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