Supporting an inquiry into abuse in state care

By Elizabeth Stanley

Over the last few months, the NZ government has faced multiple demands for independent inquiries: to uncover alleged war crimes undertaken by NZ military forces against Afghani civilians, to acknowledge NZ women who were forced to have their new-borns adopted, and to understand the experiences of the thousands who endured abuse within NZ’s state care system. To all these victims, the government’s response has been ‘no’, ‘go away’.

I’m sure that there will be many New Zealanders who agree with the answers from Cabinet. Inquiries cost money, they take time, and their ability to propel change is not always apparent. The government insists that it would be much better to just focus on future prevention of harms rather than dwell on the past. It’s an enticing prospect.

And, yet, victims’ stories continue to seep out. Just this morning, I watched four courageous Māori men – Ngā Mōrehu, the survivors – remember their state care experiences on TV3’s ‘The Hui’. Their testimonies of brutality and trauma were utterly shocking but they’re not exceptional.

Hundreds and thousands of New Zealanders have endured and witnessed similar physical assaults, sexual attacks, sadistic punishments and neglect under the state’s guardianship.

The relatively progressive policies and rules established for state care have often been disregarded. I recently interviewed dozens of care-leavers, all of them talked about violence, harms and pain. Of being separated from their siblings. Of being placed in dark, isolated secure cells for days or months at a time. Of being electrocuted for running away or being naughty. Of being told to shut up when they tried to complain about rape. Of totally missing out on education. Of being told that no-one loved them.

Many years later, victims live with the legacies of these violations, from depression to PTSD, severe anxiety, substance use, family violence, prison sentences. And, they have come forward in the hope that their experiences will be widely acknowledged, understood and responded to with care. Victims want an Inquiry and there are many reasons why we should support them.

We’ve not properly dealt with claims: The government insists that claims have been appropriately dealt with – the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) can provide compensation and individual apologies, while the now-closed Confidential Listening and Assistance Service (CLAS) heard from over 1100 victims. We know, however, that many victims have not yet come forward. Given its resources, CLAS carefully acted to not overstimulate demand, and many victims do not trust the MSD (the institution accountable for their victimisation) with their traumatic stories. In previous years, the Ministry operated with a culture of disbelief. And, the situation isn’t helped by having the ‘offender’ as the adjudicator of victim compensation. Many victims have not come forward under these conditions.

Further, agencies have focused on the individual experience. Some data on violations and impacts has been collated, however we have not even begun to understand how our institutional structures, policies and practices ensured that abuse was undertaken in such plain sight. Further, we really don’t know how different groups – Māori, Pasifika, girls, those with intellectual disabilities, among others – became targets for removals and how were violated in different ways. We have no sense of the generational nature and impact of abusive state care. How many trajectories into the prison system are connected to state care? How many children have followed their parent’s footsteps?

To prevent future abuse, we need to understand the past: Further information and analysis is vital if we are to avoid repeating mistakes. We have had several recent examples to illustrate that past lessons have not yet been learnt: the use of secure cupboards for autistic young children in schools; an Oranga Tamariki Bill that removed the state obligation to place removed Māori children within their whānau, hapu or iwi; the continuation of long lock downs for young people in prisons; the use of collective punishments with CYF residences; the funnelling of children through multiple care placements for administrative ends; an agenda to remove state accountability when children are harmed by private care providers. These things would not be suggested or occur if we really understood past abuse, or had developed an ethos of care and justice towards children.

Victims want a public apology: Many victims have appreciated the gesture of state apologies – after all, it’s a moment when the government acknowledges their victimisation. However, they continually point out that these apologies don’t go far enough. Individual apologies ensure that the government never really engages in ‘moral repair’ for offences. We often expect offenders to admit guilt and apologise, and we punish more harshly when they don’t. Why should it be any different when the state is the ‘offender’? Are victims so devalued that an apology doesn’t matter? And what of all those who have died, or cannot make claims, on account of their state treatment – are they not worthy?

Being heard can have transformative effects: We often take the view that inquiries provide ‘closure’ however, they also allow new openings. For victims, giving testimonies can be a transformative process. Victims report feeling less angry with the world. Tensions, built over decades, begin to dissipate.  Mental health difficulties ease. Covering over pain with substance abuse doesn’t seem as necessary. In understanding their own victimisation, offenders profess to being more open to change.  Victims consider trusting state institutions, to help them rather than hurt them. And, with new knowledge, state institutions are in a better position to assist. Changing the world of one offender, whose imprisonment trajectory would cost us $100,000 year, might save us $2m plus over a lifetime.

At the moment, many countries – including Australia and Ireland – are showing us the importance and value of inquiries into abuse. The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has just convened its last public hearing. It is identifying why and how abuse occurs, and is making clear recommendations on how it can be prevented. It is changing the legal and policy framework to avoid future harms and to challenge cultures of state-corporate impunity. It is doing tremendous work.

We should be doing the same.

Dr Elizabeth Stanley is a Reader in the Institute of Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. She is the author of ‘The Road to Hell’ and a signatory to the HRC’s Open Letter:  Never Again 

Image credit: Daniele Oberti

10 thoughts on “Supporting an inquiry into abuse in state care

  1. Thank you for this post. Especially in an election year, I doubt the government will have the fortitude to accept that an inquiry is wanted, needed, and owed to those who suffered in state care. Also, given the political (lack of) responsiveness to state-sanctioned wrongdoing in regard to Te Tiriti O Waitangi, I am beginning to form the opinion that perhaps a completely independent inquiry might be the most expedient option; if those in power don’t want to admit their wrongdoing (and in so doing perpetuate it), perhaps it is up to the people to take control.
    I am admittedly clueless as to the costs involved in funding a decent inquiry, although it’s probably quite a bit less than that involved in rebranding CYF or asking whether we want a new flag…
    Could crowdfunding be an option? Or philanthropic funding?
    Something needs to be done.

  2. Good peice Lizzy. Great to see the push for an Inquiry growing. Good also to the brothers up on Hui this morning. Thank you for your hard work and authenticity; for calling out systemic racism and state targeting of tamariki and whānau. Looking forward to seeing those who have been complicit in the abuse of our children ‘outed’. We know that many of them are still in positions of influencing decision making for our tamariki. Mauri ora.

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