Inquiring into institutional abuses

Guest post by Carole Adamson

I am writing this blog post to assist my own comprehension of the current debates over the extension of the inquiry into the abuse of children in state care into the realm of those abused whilst in the care of faith-based organisations.

To all those abused in state care, I acknowledge you and the truth of your experiences

To all those abused in faith-based care, I acknowledge the lifting of the silences that have added to the damage done

To all of us with a history of abuse, may we continue on a journey of healing

I celebrate this extension, which for me represents the lifting of denials and obfuscations that have characterised the churches’ refusal to shoulder responsibilities for crimes committed. For me, it denotes a further lifting of the inappropriate cloaks of secrecy and power, mantles so easily placed on the shoulders of people whom society has taught us to respect: teachers, priests, youth workers and sports coaches. With great power comes great responsibility, and the inquiry is, after all, a call for the assumption of responsibility for wrongs committed.

But I also take on board te Tiriti-based critique mounted by Paora Moyle and others, who rightly argue that removing the focus from the responsibility of the state will defuse and deflect the generationally-experienced impact of state processes on iwi Māori , and will wrongfully remove the spotlight from the impact of colonisation in Aotearoa. Aaron Smale, in his insightful Newsroom article, raises an equally valid concern that the extension of the inquiry into the actions of the churches will result in a dilution of intent and a loss of momentum, if not a deliberate sidestepping by both church and state.

So how do I, as a Pākehā social work educator, born British outside of any Treaty framework, practising now in what I hope is a politically-informed and Treaty-aware context, make sense of this? My answers to myself and others come out of my own experience of institutional abuses.

I started off my practice life in England, to where I had returned after finishing high school and university in Aotearoa New Zealand. Armed with a psychology degree, I rocked on up to the County Hall in the British city to which I was moving, and asked about getting a social work job. No, they said, in this country, you need a social work qualification to work with vulnerable children – but you can, if you like, work in residential work, 24/7, with such kids, without such a qualification. (As an aside, this was back in the late 1970s – but how much has changed in New Zealand since then? What qualifications do the state and NGO residences require?)

So, for three years I worked in a local authority assessment centre before moving on to get a social work qualification. During that time, the warden (i.e. the boss) was Keith Laverack. I can mention Laverack by name, as any Google search will identify both his background, and his crimes. All the time that I and my untrained colleagues worked with these young people, Laverack was grooming and abusing many of the young boys. There are suspicions that he did not act alone. But his offending – over a quarter century in youth residences and special schools – was not uncovered and punished for another ten years. He then was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment. I could talk about layers of ‘not knowing/maybe suspecting’, of boundary and role confusions, of ignorance about the dynamics of abuse and paedophilia, of the costs of whistle-blowing. All of those things fuel my personal commitment in my own practice. But essentially, people like Laverack were enabled by the dynamics of power.

In the British context, the power dynamic was, and is still, largely constructed by class. Very few of the children admitted to local authority care were middle class; maybe 1% were not white: the abuses that most of them experienced were made visible by poverty, by the reach of the state into the lives of struggling people. Those with power – social workers, teachers, local authority managers and psychiatrists in the Laverack scenario – were enabled and protected from exposure by their positions of power. The processes used are familiar to our experience in Aotearoa: the silencing of alternative voices, the preference for cover-up over the assumption of responsibility by the organisations mandated with the protection of the vulnerable. When concerns over Laverack’s behaviour began to surface, his local authority employer moved him sideways into a position of greater responsibility. We hear of similar tactics used by the churches here – and perhaps also within state institutions – to sidestep publicity and the legal assumption of responsibility.

So the news of the extension of our own inquiry into institutional abuses against children and young people represents to me a challenge to the entrenched misuse of power. In Aotearoa New Zealand, our social work debates are so often shaped by the dynamics of colonisation, the hegemonic power of one set of peoples over those of another culture, the tools of which may be either muskets, economics, religion or imported models of education and welfare.

How do we contribute to the debate over the extension of the inquiry? As I commented at the beginning of this post, I applaud the spotlight’s wider focus on the abuses of power within both state and faith-based institutions. I think the victims and survivors deserve that. But we also need to recognise the dynamics of power in our country and in this inquiry, which continue to play out according to ground rules established by the state. To construct the inquiry without explicit mention and support for te Tiriti-based processes of inquiry and resolution is to further perpetuate the injustices done to generations of young people, their whanau and the generations to come.

Image credit : The Naked Ape

2 thoughts on “Inquiring into institutional abuses

  1. Re-“In the British context, the power dynamic was, and is still, largely constructed by class. Very few of the children admitted to local authority care were middle class; maybe 1% were not white: the abuses that most of them experienced were made visible by poverty, by the reach of the state into the lives of struggling people.”
    Thank you so much for bringing this difficult to explain aspect of abuse in institutional care into focus.
    A pervasive aspect to this exists in NZ, and many OECD culturally Euro, UK and US based former colonies. Present day public commentary about people living in poverty, excludes all aspects of cultural victimization with the exception of focusing on of the effect of classism and racism on indigenous people of color, and more recently migrants from impoverished and war torn countries.
    As has been well documented historically, overt racisim and classist rhetoric and the reality of experience perpetrated these societies continues to be a part of public conversations about these subjects. It is difficult to find a public, or even private conversation about “poverty”, “welfare” or “abuse” without being made aware of the racialized presentations which are present in all aspects of examination and cultural administration of welfare and related, often state and faith based social services.
    People of ALL cultures have sections of the population who experience of poverty. The present day effect of this on people of all cultures is that people who live in states and countries which provide a social services safety net, most often have to rely on social services for personal survival.
    In Western countries social services recipients of many cultures experience a racialized culture within social services delivery, where their individual personal cultural identities is subliminal to whatever prevailing indigenous culture is promoted – ironically in the name of “human rights” in regard to racism.
    As you point out, “maybe 1% were not white:”. And even so this reality pervades for social services recipients whose identity falls outside the category of “indigenous or colored” heritage.
    The effect of this manifests as a deliberate layer of institutional abuse for the many people subject to “poverty alleviation” regimes established by State authorities throughout Westernized culture in dual ways.
    First, is the reason of “historical racism” which promotes indigenous people of colonization ‘deserving present day victims’ in the promotion of the public conversation cause of institutionalized abuse, and in the conversation of public repentance.
    This has an effect of dividing the prevailing cultures into dual cultural classes- the culture of abundance- being “white” and the culture of “poverty”- even for indigenous and “colored” people who overcome poverty, there is a view which describes them as “heroic warriors overcoming humble circumstances” It is an arguable fact that this can be experienced as a culture of being “patronized”.
    Secondly, although in reality, (historically), maybe (only) 1% were not white, when taken into institutional care, logic follows this statement represents the sector of the “white” cultural population who experienced family alienation as a result of “welfare” administration” and poverty, and also reinforces cultural alienation, by supporting indigenous culture within social services delivery.
    In present day “welfare recipient” living environments, people from Western cultures experience an imposed cultural separation because they are living in poverty, in line with the theory that “if you are from a “white Euro” heritage, then members of your own culture view your existence (or continued survival) as “undeserving”.
    The reality means that often, people who are “white” and forced into poverty and collecting”welfare” face a double stigma. They are at risk of bearing the brunt of a reverse peer orientated “retributionalized” living environment, especially when social workers and others who have authority over their personal lives are actually belong to indigenous or colored immigrant cultures, and, encouraged by the prevailing culture of social services recipient “shame”, they allow their attitudes towards social services recipients to be informed by the racialized public conversation about the association with indigenous “colonization” and poverty and welfare recipient culture.
    In NZ for that percentage of the NZ “white” – or “Pakeha” who experience poverty, this manifests as being instiutionalized abuse in the form of being alienated from their own individual cultures, by their cultural peers, and by being forced into an indigenous culture, which is considered historically to be of “lesser value” than “Euro- white” culture and which neither includes them as of right, and may actually leave them vulnerable to “retributionally” based peer and authoritarian institutional abuse, based on (deniable) indigenous cultural classism.
    This still happens across all NZ’s social services. This is often referred to as “reverse racism”, which is a “weasel” or “nonsense” term. Racism is “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superiorism in whatever context it is referred to”. This environment makes it very easy for racism to exist and very difficult for victims to call out the perpetrators, especially if the perpetrators are indigenous people or “people of color”. In this instance the victims of this type of abuse are considered “fair game” by both fractions.

  2. Kia ora RSW whaanau. Thank you Carole. Great blog. Interesting that the very points I raised in my submission, largely came to pass. Including te tiriti appearing 12 sentences down in the terms of reference preamble. A document that is about as vague and survivor (or whaanau/family group) unfriendly as one could not hope for. For me the BIG shiny cannon that got rolled out has a jar of powder puff for amo and reads as Crown Law top heavy to protect very snr officials rather than victims/survivors. Anyway hoping that RSW will allow me to signpost my submission for interested readers on this very important kaupapa. At: https://pmoyle.wordpress.com/2018/04/20/submission-on-the-terms-of-reference-for-historical-abuse-in-state-care-royal-commission/

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