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.

December 16, 2014

Alternatives to anti-Maori themes in news media

Recently the contributors of Treaty Blog received an email regarding a new educational resource. Called “Alternatives to anti-Maori themes in news media”, it is a media booklet created and shared by The Treaty Resource Centre. It is available both online and, by request, in hard copy.

The news media are not neutral or objective. Studies show that the news repeats and reinforces negative themes about Māori that date from the earliest days of colonisation.”

There are thirteen themes presented, flowing from ” Pākehā as the norm” to “Ignorance and Insensivity” and ” Māori success”. It reveals the negative attitudes that prevail in our current climate and offers alternative actions and statements that can be used to counter these themes.  The Treaty Resource Centre says “These negative themes present Māori interests and what Māori do as problems, or as being on the margins. They also help make Pākehā control over institutions, resources, society and culture seem right and natural. “
This is a living document. The Treaty Resource Centre encourages you to submit examples of your own. The Treaty blog authors also encourage your additions – the more information shared, the quicker we can challenge and change the current paradigms in the media and other arenas.

Go to the website to view and contribute and please share this fantastic resource widely.

October 19, 2014

New Institutional Racism policy for Public Health Sector

Institutional racism is defined as an entrenched pattern of differential access to material resources and power determined by race, which advantages one subpopulation while disadvantaging another. In short it is a form of structural violence that is a key enabler of health inequities.

After a robust consultation process, this month the Public Health Association (a peak public health organisation) endorsed an institutional racism policy that had previously been ratified by the Health Promotion Forum (a peak health promotion organisation).  It would be great if it had been a Ministry of Health policy or one or all of the District Health Boards but it is a critical stepping stone. This policy sponsored by the PHA Special Interest Group on Institutional Racism will now be a lever to encourage public health/health promotion practitioners and organisations to consider what their contribution will be to ending racism in our sector. The endorsement of this policy puts anti-racism praxis back on the agenda, puts Te Tiriti o Waitangi back on the agenda.

Watch this space – may the public health sector have the courage to apply our values of social justice, equity, aroha and take collective action to transform public health policy making and funding practices.

View new institutional racism policy.

Heather Came

September 18, 2014

Rebuilding from the Ashes: Institutional Racism and the Christchurch Rebuild

Editors note: I recently attended the Human Rights Commission’s annual Diversity Forum and was shocked to learn of the conditions of Filipino workers involved in the Christchurch rebuild. In the session I attended it was compared to modern slavery. Although not the usual focus of this blog, we felt it was important to share this story of what is happening in our neighbourhood.

New Zealand is a society that prides itself on its openness to ethnic diversity and its commitment to liberal democratic principles of freedom and equality. Many national and international surveys, including ones conducted by the Asia New Zealand Foundation, have noted a consistent theme: we are an open and inclusive nation in principle, but often fall short of our ideals in specific situations; and where particular immigrant groups are concerned, New Zealanders favour white immigrants over immigrants of other ethnic or racial origins. Asians are consistently received with less warmth than whites in New Zealand, and consistently report more experiences of prejudice and discrimination than other groups. The most frequently reported instances are a) in public places, where hostile or aversive racism commonly takes the form of verbal denigration by a stranger, and b) in the workplace, where subtle, or symbolic racism in job seeking and career advancement leads Asian migrants to have on average the lowest wages of any cultural grouping in New Zealand according to the 2006 census.

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August 16, 2014

Party positions on institutional racism

Given it is election season a group of committed public health practitioners asked all the political parties what their position was on addressing institutional racism. Below are the responses received in alphabetical order, note lengthy responses have been edited. We hope this information will help you make an informed choice about which political party to support this election. Let’s wipe out institutional racism!

Click here to read each party’s position on institutional racism.

May 4, 2014

An opportunity to challenge institutional racism within the public health sector

The Ministry of Health are currently consulting on how public health services are purchased. Provided within this blog post are a selection of informative links and the link to a submission template. Help challenge institutional racism within the administration of the public health sector by contributing your voice to the consultation process.- ed.

There has been great consistency in how public health services have been purchased by the Ministry of Health over the last twenty years based around the  Public Health Service Handbook.[1]

The Ministry of Health buy a range of health protection and health promotion services from environmental health, through to tobacco control services, problem gambling and health promoting schools. These services are traditionally brought from Public Health Units (based at District Health Boards), from Non-Governmental Organisations like Mental Health Foundation and the Heart Foundation, through to Primary Healthcare Organisations like Manaia Health and Māori Health Providers like Ngāti Hine Health Trust.

 shopping list

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March 26, 2014

Ngā Pae Māramatanga: Target of Institutional Racism?

In recent weeks it has become exposed that Ngā Pae Māramatanga (New Zealand’s only Māori Centre for Research Excellence) has not been short-listed by the Royal Society for ongoing funding. Long-time anti-racism activist Mitzi Nairn had something to say about this and suspects this decision has something to do with institutional racism…

The current funding crisis facing Ngā Pae Māramatanga seems to me a perfect example of how institutional racism is perpetuated. No malevolent intentions are involved, just the sort of group which is usually given the task using their usual criteria. The group, in this instance the Royal Society, seems to have no idea how culturally loaded their criteria are. No idea how culturally loaded their terms of reference are. I believe there is nothing in their terms of reference about the need to address racism, much less to balance out the long-term effects of racism; no responsibility to deliver on devolved obligations under Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

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December 23, 2013

Belated Response to Muriel Newman on Institutional Racism

I recently stumbled upon a disturbing blog posted on 14th July 2013 by Dr Muriel Newman from the right-wing think tank New Zealand Centre for Political Research. It was about a subject I am passionate about – institutional racism. Her post is riddled with misinformation and factual inaccuracies that, in the interests of informed debate, I feel moved to unravel for the discerning reader.

The following points address only a handful of the inaccuracies in her post.

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