November 12, 2019

Notes on the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care

By Mitzi Nairn

Abuse In State Care Logo



I attended the opening day and the third day of the inquiry session in Auckland, along with several members of the Auckland Committee on Racism and Discrimination (ACORD), a group from the 1970-80s. We attended to support Oliver Sutherland, who was giving evidence based on ACORD’s work and his ongoing research.  At this stage the inquiry was developing the context so the commissioners would be better able to understand what survivors would be telling them. The inquiry is a response to repeated calls to make these experiences public, and ensure that such things never happen again.

The first witness, Judge Carolyn Henwood, presented a summary based on her long experience of inquiring into state care, hearing from previous inmates and people in prison telling about their lives and the effects of their time in the care of the state. Children, especially Māori children, going into state care have entered a ‘pipeline’ leading to prison. I felt unutterably sad because it is 40 years since ACORD helped to set up a People’s Hearing about children in state custody when it proved impossible to get any response from the government of the day. Maybe the names of the institutions, the workers involved and the dates have changed, but the story and stories haven’t.

All governments have proved intransigent and didn’t want to know. While there have been previous official inquiries, none have brought actual changes, none have been picked up by media, and none developed into public demand for real change.

As a society, we don’t really care about children; that’s probably why we tolerate so much domestic and family abuse. Once a child is “in care”, we have even more reason not to care. I don’t think it’s because we assume that the child is now being cared for, I think it’s because we can now put the child into the category of “bad child”. We ignore that the child might have got there because of “bad parents”. The child was probably “in trouble” – with the police, with school, “disturbed”, “unmanageable” maybe “a runaway”. So she or he deserves the consequent situation, is somehow now undeserving of a safe and satisfying life. Out of sight, out of mind.

What we learnt from ACORD’s hearing

One of the things pointed out by education psychologists in 1979 was that although truanting from school may often have been the main factor getting the child into trouble, education in many of the homes was haphazard, and only aimed at very low levels; and solitary confinement denied all access to it, or reading material or even comics.

I vividly remember at the ACORD inquiry a specialist in international law pointing out that many of the treatments used in some of the homes would be in breach of the Geneva Convention on the treatment of adult prisoners of war. These included beating, or forcing exercise to exhaustion; worst of all, solitary confinement for prolonged periods in a stripped cell (i.e. without any stimulus at all).

Modern psychologists consider that prolonged solitary confinement without any stimulus is likely to cause psychosis, especially in children. It is a tribute to the resilience of many children that they managed to survive. Often they were mainly sustained by inner rage and maybe disturbed – but what and who disturbed them?

Sexual abuse

It is clear to me now that in 1979 we overlooked sexual abuse. It didn’t occur to us to ask some questions. We had learned that the children assumed that we (and all adults) knew what went on. So they answered direct questions, probably with some puzzlement that these adults were asking about things we already knew. But they didn’t volunteer information. There was probably shame involved also, because what had been happening to them was not only painful but also humiliating.

We failed to pick up that most of the homes were actually safe havens for abusers. I think the majority of the abusers were rapists, but I hesitate to use the label paedophile, which suggests preference in relations and the possibility of affection, whereas what went on were acts of violence and domination.

We did recognise that girls were shamed and humiliated, such as by having to ask male wardens for toilet paper and sanitary towels, which were issued one at a time. Sometimes toilet paper was issued one square at a time. Girls were often crowded into cells where there was no privacy and meals had to be eaten near open toilets. At the Inquiry we heard about frequent vaginal inspections being carried out, even on prepubescent girls, after any time away from the home.

The costs of state abuse

At this Inquiry I became acutely aware of the immense costs and losses to our society. Hundreds of people turned into prison fodder. Adults poor at forming relationships, because they had no consistent experience where they could learn relational skills. (At the ACORD inquiry we heard that for many of the boys the only people in the homes from whom they had felt any warmth were the -frequently Māori – kitchen staff.)

Hundreds of people had unrecognised and untreated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  People’s lives were blocked at rage, expressed in violence.

Hundreds of people might have been educated effectively so that they could hold jobs and contribute to society. Some could have excelled in higher education. We know this because of the relative few who have managed to move on, usually later in life, to roles of leadership and community development.

The sheer numbers are staggering, adding up to thousands of children in care every year.

The impact on Māori children

More than half of those children were Māori. At every point they were more likely to enter the pipeline  from being in areas with more police monitoring, being picked up, taken into police custody, prosecuted, remanded in custody (in police cells, often with adult prisoners), and sent into care. In the homes there was no cultural support, cultural education nor development of positive identity as Māori. Being Māori was bad.

Being in care, those children were away from home for several years, virtually cut off from their families, so often lost contact. By the 1960s many of them were the kids of street kids, with little hope of reconnecting with them, and with no knowledge of tikanga.

I am really hoping that this time this government will take the report seriously and redo the whole area, putting proper care structures in place. There needs to be a specific department, not a wee bit tacked on to Social Welfare. Tikanga Maori must be in place. There needs to be a career structure with thorough training for people who staff homes. There needs to be ongoing supervision of the homes and an independent complaints system. Maybe the Office of the Commissioner for Children could be expanded to provide such oversight.

May 19, 2016


I’d actually agree with people who say “I’m not racist”. I think racism is essentially the characteristic of the society we live in and all of us are caught up in it. Most of us are well adapted to living in a racist society. Of course, there are a few bigots who are enthusiastic and consciously participate rejoicing. Then there are lots of us who are uncritically accepting of how things are, or who have the luxury of putting it in the too hard basket. A growing number are trying to live in a resistant way.
It is good to have had a discussion on radio. If media would stop reinforcing the settler-coloniser mindset, I think the pace would pick up. However Jenny Rankine is doing a thesis about racism on social media, and at present that is a nightmare of prejudice where bigots romp and evangelise!
After focusing our energies on institutional racism, we haven’t had much impact on personal prejudice as yet.  However there is some evidence that attitudes follow change rather than initiate it, and again that takes a change of generations to show up.
Remember that anti-racism theory says that if nothing changes, whether the dominant group are glad or sad about it doesn’t really matter.  It is changing what happens that counts.
April 29, 2016

Modernism and the colonisation of New Zealand

Colonisation of NZ falls within the era of modernist project(s) and also at a late stage of British imperialism, when both the techniques and justifications were well-established. This accounts for a lot of settler attitudes and actions. For example, assumptions about their own superiority and entitlements were not thought of as questionable, but as knowledge. Somewhat garbled Darwinism was rife. The English were the fittest, and therefore destined for survival, at the expense of ‘inferior’ humans and all other species. Self-appointed scientists, all over Europe and North America, pursued the study of extinction as an interesting and inevitable phenomenon.

Buller and his ilk sent thousands of the skins and skeletons of birds back to the Natural History Museums of Europe, in Buller’s case this included the shooting of the last Huia. Read the rest of this entry »

April 25, 2016

Oops! Nasty!


booms the leaflet in front of me advertising a “new” book. It may be recently published, but it sounds like recycled Pakeha prejudice and colonization crap to me. Nothing new there! The leaflet features old favourites like:

reversed racism
Maori privilege
no full-blooded Maori(s) left
Maori ceded sovereignty
Maori violence
benefits of colonisation for stone-age people Read the rest of this entry »

January 22, 2016

This land is your land

FILE - This undated file photo shows folk singer Woody Guthrie playing his guitar and singing. Guthrie's writings, recordings and artwork will land in his native state after an Oklahoma foundation bought the collection, with plans for a display that concentrates on his artistry rather than the populist politics that divided local opinion over the years. Guthrie, known for the anthem, "This Land is Your Land" and his songs about the poor and downtrodden, is remembered mostly as a musician, composer and singer, but was also a literary figure and an artist, said Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society.   (AP Photo/File)

Woody Guthrie (undated)

Early in the US depression (1929-1939) Guthrie abandoned his family and joined the migration of Oklahoma farmers (Okies) off the land they had impoverished (made into a Dust Bowl) and on to California looking for work, any work. He learned their blues and other songs creating a strong foundation for his own song writing. But it was not until February 1940, while the US was sitting on the sidelines of World War II, that he penned what may be his most well known song: This land is your land.  You have probably joined in singing the first two verses at least once in your life. Just in case they have slipped your memory here they are. These verses have been covered by numerous performers since the 1960s: most recently in a full-length performance at President Obama’s inauguration in 2009 by Pete Seeger and others.

This land is your land, this land is my land,
From California to the New York island;
From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.

Read the rest of this entry »

January 13, 2016

An Open Letter to Tourism New Zealand and Qualmark

My  partner and I opted to become domestic tourists this summer and undertook an epic road trip from Auckland in the North to Nugget Point in the South. We stayed with friends, family and at holiday parks on the way, engaging with a number of tourist operators, going on boat trips, to art galleries etc. As part of this journey, we encountered many international tourists curious about our country.

As domestic tourists, we came with a base-line understanding of the history of Aotearoa, Te Reo and tikanga Māori. We were disappointed that many of the tourist operators we encountered, including those with Qualmark endorsements, did not seem to share this basic understanding. We note the following concerns from our travels:

Read the rest of this entry »

November 20, 2015

Conversations Around a Flag: Getting our history straight about the 1834 Te Whakaminenga Flag.

This blog reflects concerns about how our history is being told, especially with regard to our country’s first flag, the 1834 Te Whakaminenga Flag. Set out below are emails on this subject, sent to the Treaty Worker movement and New Zealand’s Flag Consideration Panel.

united tribes variation
Read the rest of this entry »

October 26, 2015

The Rugby Haka Debate

Attacks on Māori tikanga and taonga routinely place Pākehā who wish and work for a Tiriti-based future for this country in an invidious position. The targets of the assault are not ours and we rarely have the knowledge and spiritual connection to them that would support a direct defence. At the same time we know that there must be a vocal opposition to the attack because, as our Pākehā lore has it, silence means consent. An example of such attacks was provided by a Listener editorial that questioned the rightness of All Blacks performing a haka before international matches. The following was my attempt to challenge the thinking and claims behind the editorial.

Read the rest of this entry »

September 10, 2015

New Support for School Boards Around Te Tiriti o Waitangi Application

School boards are accountable for the performance of their school and student achievement. This includes making decisions that support Māori learners to enjoy and achieve education success as Māori. Congratulations to the New Zealand School Trustees Association for their new publication and resources to support trustees in their efforts to implement Te Tiriti o Waitangi. The resources include i) Te Tiriti and school governance information booklet, ii) board activities and inquiry scenarios and iii) video clips offering inspirational stories of school and community change.

school boardstiriti postThe governance booklet focusses on supporting boards moving from rhetoric to practices which are evidence-based and culturally responsive. It provides support to embed Te Tiriti o Waitangi into strategic planning, explores honourable kāwanatanga (governance) and provides up-to-date evidence on Māori students’ achievement. For the busy board member, the clips share powerful stories of how different schools have been proactive in this key area of school life – affirming Māori language, identity and culture in order to benefit the whole school.

September 8, 2015

Critical Curriculum Guide to Māori and Pākehā Histories: From Primary to Secondary

If our future is one where Te Tiriti o Waitangi is honoured, it makes sense to teach our children a critical history of Aotearoa New Zealand. In order to do this we need curriculum and resources for teachers to embed this thinking throughout our primary, intermediate and secondary education system.

Tasmin Hanly, a senior Pākehā educationalist who has twenty-five years teaching experience, is currently developing a robust curriculum to support anti-racism education. Tasmin works part-time lecturing at the Auckland University Education Department and has been part-time writing the curriculum. In order to fund this project she has mortgaged her house, but needs us to give a little to make her dream come true. Tāmaki Tiriti Workers have meet with her and reviewed the draft documents and fully support this undertaking.

give a little post pic2

The curriculum consists of six unit booklets that make a box-set for education centres to purchase, copy, do professional development, read, plan and teach from. The content chronologically covers Te Ao Māori o Nehera, British Isles, Two Worlds Meet, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, Pākehā Responses, Māori Responses. Optional junior and senior activities and integrated curriculum term-overviews are included. It is a single programme to help educators plan and teach their approach to New Zealand’s Māori and Pākehā cultures and histories cohesively.

This curriculum can practically support New Zealand Curriculum goals which require New Zealanders to be knowledgeable about Māori and Pākehā, to understand histories of their relationship and enact Te Tiriti o Waitangi. It can effectively enact Ministry and other related educational policies that expect educators to do this. It has been written in response to research findings that teachers have outdated knowledge about Māori and Pākehā histories and a lack of accurate history, Te Tiriti and Māori knowledge. Teachers also avoid controversial content and believe younger students cannot manage this content.

The curriculum initial target audience is primary schools, principals and practitioners but it can also be professional development for all educational levels such as secondary and ECE, including school Boards of Trustees. It has been written for both mainstream and Māori pathways, and practitioners of all ethnicities to teach students of all ethnicities.

Contact Tasmin through her give a little page.