November 12, 2019

Notes on the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care

By Mitzi Nairn

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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.

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