The Royal Commission into abuse in state care: where is the survivor voice?

This is a guest blog by Kerri Cleaver (Kāi Tahu, Kāti Mamoe), Social worker, PhD candidate.

Is the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in State Care and in the care of Faith-based Institutions (RC) a safe place for Māori and survivors to talk about their experiences and what should we be doing to support them as social workers? It is a question that’s been rolling around my head for quite some time now. I am a survivor.

My story of abuse in the foster system isn’t long, it didn’t go on for years and the traumatic effects for me are now mostly healed and now somewhat subtle in their visibility so it is not something that I put out there. It has been difficult enough through my adult life batting off all the judgements and consequences of being a foster system survivor so I’ve kept the paedophile foster parent experience a secret. It was a tough decision deciding I would engage with the RC, somewhat influenced and inspired by the work of many survivors who have laid bare their experiences for the sole purpose of getting a Royal Commission. Because I want children and young people to be safe, nurtured and have their mana enhanced when they interface with our child protection system, I felt an obligation, to myself, my profession and to my iwi to engage. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi “be the change you want to see in the world”. But lately I have been reflecting on the question “is this process safe for me as a Māori woman?” and what is our role as social workers to support our whanau going through the RC process?

As a educator working with social work students around bi-cultural practice it is clear that bi-cultural social work is about the processes we engage in with whānau. It is how we engage with a Māori whānau view of their needs and how we whakamana that while often working through some quite difficult realities. As a Māori wahine survivor, the RC is no different than this.

It is about processes and if those processes whakamana me and my experience. For it to be anything other than a colonial process, which our government systems are steeped in, it would need to be shaped from the beginning quite differently and incorporate Māori ways of engaging and doing.

The RC came out of a push and a growing understanding that pretending that abuse didn’t and doesn’t happen to children and young people in care doesn’t stop it from continuing to happen. We have had the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service, the Expert Panel Review, and more recently a Review of Māori Claimant experiences going through the historical claims process with MSD. They have all highlighted that there is a need to hear the truth from foster system experienced people and to make changes to the system as a response.

I was fortunate enough, as a foster system survivor to be part of a working party for our Ngāi Tahu response to children and young people, Tōpuni Tamariki. The group was made up of experience from all angles and we were there from the start. Because I have been part of this process and I know it works, I know that when you legitimately view the people as the experts rather than those with professional roles (survivors can also bring significant professional experience) then you only enhance the outcomes. Tōpuni Tamariki has been evidence of this.

The RC has made many decisions to date and is ready to start leading interviews with survivors this month, yet the Survivor Advisory Panel, tasked with providing ongoing expert knowledge to the commissioners is yet to be put in place, as is a Māori Strategic lead. The RC has consulted widely on the “terms of reference” and more recently at “engagement meetings”. But consultation does not mean partnership. Consultation is not a demonstration of joint decision making powers nor does it allow survivors in the space where the decision making table is planned and constructed. In my kindest moments I completely understand that doing things differently is difficult, that even seeing that there might be an alternative way of constructing a RC might be invisible to most. However we should always bring it back to Te Tiriti, to our understandings of partnership and co-constructing together, inherent in Article One. As a Kāi Tahu wahine social worker, I place Te Tiriti as the centre of everything. So I was interested that the RC in the terms of reference consultation had “include reference to the Treaty” as a consultation question. To me Te Tiriti is not consultable, it was legislated by way of the Treaty being signed in 1840, and remains the basis by which New Zealand is an established nation of Māori and Pākeha. To me this highlights the incongruence between the RC and me, as survivor. To me the constructing of the RC from the beginning needs to incorporate the tino rangatiratanga of Māori survivors in the process, not as an add on.

How should I, as a Kāi Tahu wahine, trust this process when my voice is not represented at the decision making table? The basic tenet of survivor as expert has been side-lined as an add on or consultation step rather than an essential part of the team.

Let’s also consider the statistics of the Māori in the state foster system. Puao-te-ata-tu (1986) recorded that 40% of those in the foster system were Māori. In 2017 the recording of Māori in care was found to be inaccurate and undercounted for reasons ranging from visual membership as a basis for inclusion to an inability of dual ethnicity classifications (ibid, 2017). When the dual ethnicity issue was addressed in 2017 that number rose to 69% of children in foster care numbers. In the release of statistics from the Oranga Tamariki Safety of Children in Care Report, Quarter one- July to September 2018, 83% of the recorded 130 cases of abuse in care were Māori while we made up 69% of the in care population. All of these statistics highlight that Māori will make up the majority of survivors of abuse in the state foster system. The RC needs to ensure that Māori survivor needs are equally represented.

Hera Douglas and Donna Matahaere-Ariki wrote a report for the government in July 2018 titled Review of Historical Claims Resolution Process. Through this review Māori survivors of the state foster system outlined their experiences going through the MSD claims process. The important key themes that claimants identified were their cultural needs were not met, recognised or catered for and they wanted principles of tikanga, mana, aroha, whakapapa, whanaungatanga, manaakitanga and pono to underpin the process, citing the need to “accommodate a collective and inclusion approach”.

In the past few weeks and months there have been many issues raised by many survivors around how the RC has been going about their work. I have outlined those that concern me the most. We all require all our concerns to be at the forefront of any RC plan moving forward.

An RC approach to working with Māori survivors needs to accommodate the reality of these statistics and the feedback already collected by survivors in other systems reviews. To the Royal Commission I say: the Survivor Advisory Group needs to be implemented now as paramount importance and consideration, and the scope of the group needs to be seriously thought through. The RC needs to take steps towards an approach that incompasses Survivor expertise as the center of its processes. Additionally, there should be a re-focus on Te Tiriti and Māori ways of doing to ensure that we, as Māori, turn up and when we do that we have our mana upheld.

In the absence of this and given the current processes already underway, as social workers we will be tasked with supporting survivors through our daily work as they journey through this system. I suggest that we do not remain bystanders. We absolutely need to whakamana our survivors and ensure that this process meets their needs. We need to push for a process that allows Māori and Māori women to feel safe. And we need to be mindful of how trauma represents itself in various forms. We must be ready to respond to this trauma, be ready to support people through the process, particularly when the RC itself is lacking in the fundamentals that would make the process survivor focused.

Nbt. I have specifically addressed state foster system survivors in the RC process. I acknowledge the needs of survivors from faith based abuse and that they will have specific needs which are not identified in this article.

Image credit | Marco Monetti

Referenced Articles

Douglas, H. & Matahaere-Ariki, D. (2018). Review of Historical Claims Resolution Processes; Report on the Consultation Process with Māori Claimants, July 2018. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Social Development.

Expert Panel Expert Panel. (2015). Modernising Child, Youth and Family, Expert Panel: Interim Report. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Social Development.

Henwood, C. (2015). Final Report of The Confidential Listening and Assistance Service, 2015. Wellington, New Zealand: Department of Internal Affairs.

Oranga Tamariki (2018). Safety of Children in Care; Quarter One- July to September 2018.

Rangihau, J. (1987). Puao-te-ata-tu, The Report of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Māori Perspective for the Department of Social Welfare. Wellington, New Zealand.

One thought on “The Royal Commission into abuse in state care: where is the survivor voice?

  1. I’m supporting a client and the process is very flawed. We are waiting for copy of the State file and in the meantime it is estimated a 3 wait for the interview process. The expectation that the RC want to hear my clients story is unreasonable. I agree with the comments in the article how do we ensure our clients remain safe.
    ACC should be offering specialist trauma training for social workers and counsellors.

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