Indigenous peoples throughout English-speaking countries have had their children taken away by the state for generations. Most countries have faced up to this legacy but New Zealand has been in denial about its own Stolen Generation – a group now known as Ngā Mōrehu (The Survivors).
The new Labour government has agreed to set up an inquiry into historical abuse of children in state care between the 1960s and 1990s as one of its priorities in the first 100 days.
In this three-part series we look at stories from New Zealand, Canada and Australia, and ask what New Zealand can learn.
In part three, one man’s story of surviving state care in New Zealand.
*content warning: physical and sexual abuse against children
The social worker pretended to be kind to Tyrone Marks. But her one small act of deception propelled him into an odyssey of abuse.
His family was large and poor. But whatever struggles he had growing up paled in comparison to what happened when the social welfare worker turned up when he was six.
“One day they just came; told me they were going to take me out to buy some clothes for me.”
“I even remember the name of the social worker. She made me feel like I could trust her and all she was doing was making sure I had brand new clothes and shoes and stuff.”
“Where everybody else got lunches when they went to school, I didn’t. With shoes I was the last on the list. I never really got any, I had to go to school in bare feet.”
“So this lady was telling me she was buying me some new clothes so I jumped in the car. I was none the wiser what was going to happen from that point onwards.”
“They said they were buying me some clothes and bringing me back home. But that’s not what they were doing at all.”
Instead of taking him to get new shoes the social worker drove through Napier and took him to the airport. He was then put on a plane to Nelson.
“These nuns came to pick me up. I had no idea why I was there. I’d never had anything to do with nuns. I was quite freaked out actually as a kid. I knew I was a very long way from home, I couldn’t just open the door and walk home again. I tried but I didn’t know where I was. That’s where it all started from.”
For Marks it was the beginning of a journey through a number of state welfare institutions over eight years. It’s an experience that over 100,000 other children went through from the 1940s through to the late 1980s. Most of the children were Māori.
This childhood incarceration happened at a time when Māori were moving to the cities in increasing numbers in the post-war period. It was the first time many Pākehā had encountered Māori in large numbers. The urban shift was the culmination of land loss and economic struggle that led to a vulnerability in the new and, at times, hostile environment.
Māori were particularly targeted by police and social agencies, being picked up for minor infractions like truanting from school. Poverty also attracted the glare of state welfare institutions.
By the 1970s upwards of 80% of the children in state welfare institutions were Māori.
The details of what those children endured during this period of institutionalisation has gradually seeped out over the years.
But the institutionalisation of Māori children has uncanny parallels with the institutionalisation of indigenous children in other English-speaking countries built on colonisation. And the results are the same.
For Tyrone one of the results of the abuse he suffered in state institutions was a burning anger. Fifty years later he believes this response was completely logical.
“They’d dragged me out of my house, lied to me and dropped me in the middle of nowhere. So that’s why I was angry. I just didn’t think that that was right. That were lying to me and then whacking me because I wouldn’t listen to them.”
Eventually the nuns couldn’t handle his behaviour and sent him back to Social Welfare.
“I think the final straw was they used to make everybody line up and you had to show your underwear. You had to show them to the nuns before you went to bed. If you had gold in them, and I always had gold in mine because I didn’t wipe my arse properly, they made you scrub them.”
“As a kid we never had undies anyway at home. So this was a new thing. This scrubbing shit, you know, I just wasn’t into that.”
“It was my turn to show my undies and I threw it in the nun’s face.” He roars with laughter at his own childhood audacity.
“Boy, did I get a hell of a hiding for that. I got held down by the senior boys while I got whipped by the nuns. After that, that’s when they threw me out. I’d just had enough of that sort of behaviour, I just didn’t think it was right.”
The nuns dropped him off at the airport and told the welfare department to pick him up.
From there Marks would spend another eight years in various homes and adult psychiatric institutions. At every turn there were forms of abuse that he would react against, which increased the severity of the next institution he was sent to.
At Holdsworth welfare home he encountered a staff member that had sexually abused him at a previous institution, Campbell Park. He reacted badly to this staff member’s presence and ran away with other boys.
“We’d just had enough of the way they had been treating us. We were running away from it. That abuse was by this guy and a lot of the housemasters. They were just horrible to us. Even the teachers, the so-called teachers. Using fists.”
“We just wanted to go somewhere where there wasn’t anyone doing these sorts of things to you. I dunno where. We stole bikes and started riding. Wherever we ended up was wherever we were going to end up. That’s it. But it wasn’t going to be there.”
“Unfortunately for me I crossed the wrong side of the road at the wrong time.
“I just didn’t make it to the other side of the road in time. I still have the memory of the car running me over. Until I hit the road and I was knocked out. Because I was stuck to the bike, I was dragged underneath the car for quite a distance.”
If that should have been the end of the nightmare, it wasn’t. After being treated in hospital for horrific injuries for several months he was moved to an institution that is now notorious – Lake Alice, an adult psychiatric hospital that was the subject of media attention in the late 1990s. The coverage exposed horrific treatment of both adults and children.
“They used that [accident] as an excuse that I’d suffered some sort of brain damage so they could put me in Lake Alice. They were always dying to put me in some sort of institution like that.”
“When I got out of hospital, the caretaker from Holdsworth, the general maintenance guy, chucked me in the back of the van to take me there. I didn’t know what it was. I thought it was a hospital.”
“Straight away I was put in this adult ward with the mentally disturbed-type patients. The first night I was there I was sexually abused. I’m a little kid in with all these mental patients. Just left there. No explanation as to why I was there or anything.”
“I smashed his head in with a chair. The next day I was electrocuted.”
During the 1970s Lake Alice used electric convulsive therapy on a regular basis. But in many cases it wasn’t used as therapy but as punishment for things as trivial as children not eating their vegetables. Children in other institutions who were seen as troublesome were sent to Lake Alice by staff. After the first electrocution, Tyrone’s behaviour deteriorated and he was given the punishment three to four times a week without any anaesthetic.
“They wouldn’t tell you you were getting it, they would just grab you and take you upstairs. You knew you were getting it. They rounded us up like sheep into a day room, like sheep ready to be slaughtered.”
“Then they hold you down, it was like you were being murdered. The fucken pain is so severe, you’re convulsing your whole body. They’d turn it down, you’d sort of come right and then they’d flick it back up again.”
“If you were getting electrocuted by the electric chair, this is no different. The thing is, that’s a higher voltage. It will kill you. This is to make you suffer. It can kill you, it has killed people. It can fracture your skull, break your bones in your legs. Remember, I’m not fully repaired from my accident. I’d smashed my pelvis, legs, my arms, my whole skull was fractured. And then they were electrocuting me. The same hospital board that saved my life were running this place as well. They were trying to take it away again.”
For the next four years he was moved around different welfare institutions. He doesn’t have good memories of any of them.
Today Marks is the lead claimant in a case taken to the Waitangi Tribunal.
The claim alleges that Māori were disproportionately represented in the welfare institutions and there needs to be an independent inquiry to understand what happened and why.
It states that the government isn’t acknowledging that most of the children were Māori, and that “it will not admit publically that what happened was wrong.”
For Marks, he’s never had any real answers to a number of questions that he’s been asking since he was six.
“Maybe it was right for the Social Welfare to intervene. But they should have intervened and made things right instead of treating me the way they did. They should have just left me where I was. I wasn’t sexually abused at home. I might have been mistreated but, shit, I wouldn’t have had to suffer all the other things that I went through. All I’ve done while I was in there was survive. What I’ve done in my life after that is survive. That’s all.”
“They left me uneducated. They took away what I didn’t have anyway. And then treated me like shit. Let me be abused at their hands and other people’s hands.”
“But why? Why?”
Tyrone Marks’ account of his time in institutions can veer between anger and a brutal humour. At times he falls into silent reflection.
“I’m actually quite happy, as long as these guys are happy,” he says, nodding towards his young son and daughter. He also has four adult daughters. “That’s all I care about.”
“These guys have their dreams and aspirations and I’m right behind them. It’s like all my other kids. That’s my life now.”
He pauses for a moment, looking at his kids.
“But it’s sad because I’ve never had the answers as to why they done it to me in the first place. I’m 57 this year. It looks like I never, ever will get the answers. The thing that hurts me the most is why they did it at all and then just call us all a bunch of liars and we deserve the life that we had. I’ve seen that written too.”
“And they’re waiting for us to die so they can save the government some money. They just breach every principle, ethically, morally and they don’t take responsibility. We’ve had to take responsibility for everything we do in life.
“But they don’t. They haven’t.”
Whether or not Marks and others get the answers they’re looking for will depend entirely on how much power is given to an inquiry that has been promised by Jacinda Ardern’s new government. Will the inquiry look into the behaviour of all state institutions involved, not just the residential homes themselves? Will Ardern give the inquiry the powers to investigate her political mentors, Helen Clark and Annette King, who offered the victims of Lake Alice an out-of-court settlement? A settlement that did virtually nothing to investigate how such horrific abuse had been allowed to take place. Will the inquiry be able to investigate not just this kind of abuse but the institutional failures and political responses that surround it, right up to the present day?
The then Prime Minister and Health Minister’s response to Lake Alice set the tone of the state’s response to historic abuse in all other state institutions. It set the direction of not only the Labour government but the National government that followed when it came to tactics of how to deal with victims of state abuse – deny, deflect, downplay, and if you really have to, defend.
One such defense was the White trial in 2007 (under the Labour government). It was heavily suppressed and one of the few cases that made it to court, mainly because the thought of being chewed out by a QC in a court room was too daunting for victims. It was a test case that focused on a victim Earl White (not his real name) who had been sexually and physically abused at Hokio Boys Home and Epuni.
Like the childhood abuse itself, the experience of the court trial was both humiliating and severely traumatic for him and a number of other victims who were called to verify what occurred at places like Hokio.
The upshot of the trial was that the judge agreed with the facts of the allegations but the state escaped consequences because of the statute of limitations, a technicality that does not apply in criminal cases.
There has already been destruction of important documents (including staff records) in New Zealand and obstinate withholding of others. An Official Information Request a year ago to Paula Bennett’s office, asking for all correspondence between her, the chief executive of of the Ministry of Social Development Peter Hughes (who is now head of State Services) and Crown Law on how they dealt with the issue of state welfare abuse, has been ignored. The reply I got in one email included a refusal to release information about an eight-year-old girl – I’d never requested any such information.
The Minister of Social Development and the Prime Minister herself are being advised ‘by officials’. These are likely to be the same officials in Crown Law and MSD who had been advising the government previously and who have been carrying out policies that have denied justice to victims. This previous advice was not in the victims’ interests so those same officials are now compromised when it comes to independence.
Some victims and victim advocates believe that these Crown bureaucrats and lawyers – who in many cases have shown outright hostility to victims in the past – should not be allowed to shape the terms of reference of an independent inquiry. The perpetrators cannot now pretend to be the saviours.
If an inquiry is to be meaningful and robust it will need to scrutinise the behaviour of not just the staff on the ground, but it must also examine how other Crown agencies protected the state’s reputation at the expense of the victims’ rights and welfare. It needs to include the discussions and decisions of Cabinet, the advice of Crown Law, as well as the responses of the police and courts, and it must include events that run right up to the present.
Promising an inquiry is one thing. Holding one that has credibility and will produce a meaningful outcome is another. The new government needs to set terms of reference that give an inquiry the powers and the resources to go where it needs to, to ask the questions that need to be asked. Any cutting corners on this will be a betrayal of the victims. It will also be an obstruction of justice that is long overdue and increases the risk that the state is doomed to repeat the mistakes of history.
Tyrone Marks is one of thousands of men and women that have been waiting their whole lives for someone to take responsibility for their broken childhoods and shattered lives. It’s a pretty straightforward request:
“I know my story. But I want to hear the state tell its story. I want to hear them give their explanation for what they did to us.”
Aaron Smale @ikon_media
A version of this story also appears on AlJazeera.com