After two weeks of deeply personal tales at the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care hearing, common threads began to emerge. Katie Scotcher reports, in a piece originally published on RNZ.
The setting was impersonal – a hotel conference room, with thick charcoal commercial carpet and name cards placed neatly on tables – but the stories told at the two-week-long Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care couldn’t have been more personal. Trembling people told stories of being placed in institutions or homes and then raped and thrashed, of having their hearts hardened or broken.
Yet after two weeks of unique stories, common threads were apparent: pain was passed down from generation to generation; Māori were disproportionately abused; disabled people were treated as numbers; abuse led to crime; and survivors were determined to speak out and stop it ever happening again.
Intergenerational trauma: ‘Anger at my father cost an innocent man his life’
When Dr Rawiri Waretini-Karena was first taken to Tower Hill Receiving Home for Boys in Hamilton, his five-year-old body was covered in bruises.
He would spend the next 12 years as a child of the state; moving from state home to foster parents to boys’ homes, and while he experienced physical violence at each, nothing compared to the abuse he experienced at the hands of his father.
Waretini-Karena only spent six months of his childhood with his whānau. In that time, he was blamed for his infant brother’s death and he set fire to the bed his father was sleeping in.
But he didn’t drop the blame in his father’s lap. He told the Royal Commission the abuse stemmed from much earlier trauma. His early ancestors lost millions of acres of land in the Waikato invasion and generations of his whānau became “intergenerationally impoverished as a result”.
His grandfather could only speak te reo Māori when he was taken by the state as a child in 1930. He was beaten until he learned English. His father was placed into care in 1954 and suffered traumatic abuse. He never dealt with this trauma, Waretini-Karena said, so he passed it on to his whānau.
Waretini-Karena had to find a way to survive it. “I would go into a trance as a coping mechanism for dealing with it and at that time no one helped me through that, in fact I didn’t really understand what was going on.”
Around the time he was released from state care, Waretini-Karena met up with a friend who had also spent time at Tower Hill. They heard about a five-year-old who they believed was being abused by his father.
Waretini-Karena, who is now a lecturer and researcher, told the inquiry he projected his experiences with his father on to the child’s father, and then went and killed him.
Later he found out the man hadn’t abused his son.
“I came to this conclusion that my own experiences of trauma, my own history, my own demons, my own anger at my father cost an innocent man his life. And so, I was convicted of murder and sent to prison,” Waretini-Karena told the inquiry.
People in the public gallery wept.
Crime and gangs: ‘A lot of kids in that world don’t know how to love’
Waretini-Karena wasn’t the only survivor to tell the Royal Commission he’d committed a crime. In fact, most people who gave evidence did.
One of New Zealand’s longest-serving prisoners, Arthur Taylor, boldly told the Royal Commission his 150-plus convictions probably wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t been placed in state care.
He was 11 when he was taken to the state-run Epuni Boys’ Home in Lower Hutt after being caught wagging school. At that time, he said, crime was “abhorrent” to him, but three abusive stints at the home changed that.
“I started absconding with other kids and they’d steal cars and we’d get arrested by the police and then I’d come into contact with the police and end up in their cells… I started to really take a dislike to the police because of the way they used to treat me and that’s, I guess, when it started.”
He went on to clock up convictions for dishonesty, fraud, perverting the course of justice, escaping, arson and aggravated robbery, among others, and spent a total of 39 years in prison. He was released in February.
While Taylor was probably the most well-known survivor to give evidence, the trajectory of his life story was common.
Fa’afete Taito now has a degree in sociology and Māori, but he was in his early teens when he first got involved with gangs. He was placed in a halfway home with patched members after several extremely violent stints at Ōwairaka Boys’ Home in Auckland.
He knew a few boys from state care homes who had already joined Black Power and the Mongrel Mob, but he was more interested in the King Cobras. By 16 years old, he was a fully patched member.
Taito became fully immersed in a world of violence and remained in it for decades, collecting convictions and drug addictions along the way and coming to believe his relationships should be aggressive, antagonistic and violent.
He told the inquiry, “Over the years I was in that world, I realised I lost the ability to love… a lot of kids in that world don’t know how to love. They don’t know what it means to be loved, they don’t know how to love back.”
Māori in care: ‘Māori were considered to be a dangerous under-class’
Taito’s experience was far from unique – between 1967 and 1976, 116,595 children were funnelled through the justice system, the Royal Commission was told.
While that figure might seem huge, another is just as alarming: 41% of those children were Māori. And those Māori were more likely to receive harsher sentences, meaning they were remanded to social welfare homes or borstals, often after spending days in police cells.
Sir Kim Workman joined the police in 1958 then had a stint at the ombudsman’s office before becoming the head of the prison service.
He told the Royal Commission Māori police officers were few and far between when he was on the force. By 1966, only 69 of the of 2698 police officers were Māori.
Workman said he was recruited into a force that suppressed its Māori officers’ heritage, lacked cultural understanding and believed it was fighting a war on crime. Young Māori were often seen as the enemy.
“For some police officers, Māori were considered to be a dangerous under-class. If a group of young Māori children were skylarking down the street, often singing and so on, they became a target for police attention. If it was a group of young Pākehā children doing the same thing, they were just kids having fun.”
Dr Oliver Sutherland, a fierce advocate for abuse survivors, shared a lifetime of work with the inquiry; compiling decades of research into a book written especially for the Royal Commission.
“When you looked at the sentences that they got, you discovered that those who got the softer sentences, being fined or getting periodic detention, they were more predominantly the non-Māori.”
While it is clear a disproportionate number of Māori children were placed before the courts, it’s not known how many Pasifika children were. When asked for the figures, Sutherland said the records simply don’t exist, they only show Māori and non-Māori.
It did not just take an experience with the justice system to enter the clutch of the state. Many Māori children were adopted, plucked from school, voluntarily placed there or taken from their whānau.
Disabled people in care: ‘We were just a number’
As well as Māori children, kids with learning and/or physical disabilities were often placed in care and remained there for their entire adult lives.
Robert Martin was one of them. His brain was damaged at birth by a doctor using forceps and was placed at Levin’s Kimberley Centre after his mother was encouraged to give up her “retarded” son and forget about him.
He told the Royal Commission that children at the centre were not loved or cuddled – they were just a number. “You were not given your own clothes; we had to share a pool of clothes and grab what we could get. We never had our own underwear.”
Martin, who is now a disability rights activist, said he missed out on things people take for granted – feeding the ducks, birthday parties, caring for their own pet. “Many children have a cat to cuddle and call their own. Children in institutions do not. I adopted cats and made them my friends but then I was moved and lost that friend.”
He was physically and sexually assaulted and neglected at the Kimberley Centre and in other homes, institutions and psychiatric hospitals.
Director of the Donald Beasley Institute, Dr Brigit Mirfin-Veitch, said some of this county’s most vulnerable were regularly restrained, neglected and abused in care between the 1950s and 1990s.
Regardless of the institutions they were placed in, Mirfin-Veitch said disabled people lived in constant fear and sexual violence was an inescapable and unchallenged reality. “They would keep quiet and hoped it wouldn’t happen again.”
She recalled the experience of one survivor who said they could often smell people who needed assistance to go to the bathroom but weren’t given it. “There were people who couldn’t move… most of those people were non-verbal and were trapped until someone got around to attending to them.”
Mirfin-Veitch concluded her evidence by telling the Royal Commission abuse and neglect was not in the past. There are clear gaps in the system, she said, that make it possible for disabled people to be mistreated in care and for it to go undetected.
Long time coming, long road ahead
Lawyers Sonja Cooper and Amanda Hill, partners at Cooper Legal, have helped 11,000 survivors bring their stories into the light and settle claims with the ministries of Social Development, Health and Education, as well as faith-based institutions.
Theirs was the longest testimony of the hearing, with their evidence lasting about four hours. That wasn’t enough time to run through the experiences of all their clients, but the stories they did share were harrowing.
Cooper said four staff members at Porirua Hospital in the 1970s held a young boy by each of his limbs, pulled him up and dropped him on the concrete – a punishment known as the concrete-pill. Others received unmodified electro-convulsive treatment, were threatened with lobotomies and forced to stand naked as staff touched their genitals.
The claims Cooper Legal, one of the only firms to help survivors take civil claims against the state and churches for abuse they suffered as children and vulnerable adults, has settled now total nearly $23 million. But Cooper said not one of their clients has received adequate compensation for the harm that has been done to them.
Like the survivors who battled for compensation, those that spoke at the Royal Commission were fighting too. They had to face and focus on the darkest chapters of their lives in order to share their stories. For many it was the first time they had spoken of their trauma. They described the cost of doing so – sleepless nights, exhaustion and anxiety.
But they had an overwhelming motivation – to protect the children currently in care. By sharing their own stories, they hoped to break the cycle and ensure no more children experienced the horrors they did.
*This hearing has finished but the Royal Commission of Inquiry won’t hand over its final report to the governor-general until 2023