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Old Doll Sitting in Empty, Dark Room

SocietyNovember 18, 2017

Revictimisation is a real risk in a state care abuse inquiry. Here is how to avoid it

Old Doll Sitting in Empty, Dark Room

Around the world, there are many abuse victims who have been saddened, angered or re-victimised from inquiry processes. These are the lessons for New Zealand, writes criminologist Elizabeth Stanley.

This week Aaron Smale has been sharing personal stories of state abuse of indigenous people in New Zealand, Australia and Canada, and asking what we can learn as New Zealand prepares to launch an inquiry. Read the series here.

The government has a long “to-do” list for its first 100 days. One action – an inquiry to deal with abuse in state care – has allowed many New Zealanders to breathe a sigh of relief. After years struggling to get their voices heard, the government finally seems ready to listen.

These things can be easier said than done. Around the world, there are many abuse victims who have been saddened, angered or re-victimised from inquiry processes. Even with the best of intentions, these official responses can add to the damage.

So, what should we avoid? Here are my top eight tips.

Don’t take a focus that is too narrow

There are some who think we should just engage with sexual abuse, in line with the ongoing Australian Royal Commission. But, as the Australians are finding, this means that many victims get left behind. It means that victims of violent or psychological abuse are still campaigning to be heard. We need to account for the whole range of abuse and neglect in state care if we are ever going to understand how to repair, monitor or prevent it.

But, don’t take a focus that is too wide

At the same time, we don’t want to include almost every act of abuse against every child or vulnerable person. Doing so would be extremely difficult, almost incapacitating. Having an emphasis on ‘state care’ would allow us to focus on those situations where state agencies have a specific duty of care. This would include social welfare placements but also hospitals, special education homes, youth justice facilities, among other places. It would exclude other relationships of care, such as when children attend private school settings or community youth clubs, scouts or sports teams.

Don’t just hear about ‘historic’ abuse

Our previous attempts to deal with abuse, through the Historic Claims Unit in the Ministry of Social Development, focused on events that occurred before 1993 (an arbitrary cut-off date based on officials viewing that health, education and welfare sectors had improved their processes to manage complaints). This dividing line doesn’t make sense, especially given that abuse continues. If we want to prevent abuse, we must get to grips with our current system, and hear about events from all periods.

Don’t downplay victims’ interests

Inquiries fail when they are not trusted by victims. In the UK, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse struggled when one Chair, and then another, resigned as they had links with individual and institutional abusers. Victims did not believe these well-qualified judges had the necessary independence to prioritise their interests. Our Commissioners must be transparently non-aligned to those institutions that have abused victims, ignored their interests, and played a role in silencing their claims.

Don’t hide findings

Although media reporting has increased over the last year, most New Zealanders know very little about this abuse, how it happened, who was involved, or its impacts. We cannot discuss imprisonment, offending, gang membership, mental health problems, homelessness, or other intractable social problems, without acknowledging the extreme impact of state abuse. Its reach is complicated, and it crosses generations. We don’t yet ‘get it’ – and we need public hearings alongside a well-developed approach to community engagement to solve that. Any final public report must be filled with victims’ stories and widely publicised.

Don’t just follow individuals

It is always tempting to use Inquiries to pull out the ‘worst offenders’. Some abusers are especially horrifying. But, much abuse and neglect occurred as a result of structural or systemic issues. It emerged out of colonisation, institutional racism, economic inequalities, entrenched sexism, a cultural reliance on harsh child discipline, as well as beliefs that certain children were ‘lesser’. These don’t create the same headlines, but they underpin exactly why abuse permeates through state care. Why Māori children continue to be removed and incarcerated in intolerable numbers. Why nothing much happens when victims complain. These realities must also be emphasised.

Don’t be toothless

Inquiries that do not have legal powers to force witnesses to appear or to subpoena documents have found that they have often been ignored. Key agencies or workers don’t engage. They avoid hearings, and ignore recommendations. In doing so, inquiries become nothing more than a talking fest. Not much changes. We need the powers of a Royal Commission to shift the terrain. And, we need to ensure that recommendations are followed through by building an ability to track compliance and institutional change within the Commission’s work.

Don’t allow past mistakes to stand

Commissions have the ability to begin rectifying harmful treatments. There are many aspects to this in changing laws, policies and practices. But, to highlight one: any Commission should develop and run a transparent compensation scheme, and to independently adjudicate on previous compensation given to victims. This is especially important in NZ, given the lack of past transparency and that compensation was awarded by the very institution (MSD) that many victims saw as their abuser.

It is a tricky road but we know that powerful independent Commissions can have monumental impacts on victims, their families and communities. They provide ‘closure’, especially when dovetailed with meaningful public apologies from the highest-ranking state officials. However, they also allow new openings. For victims, giving testimonies can be a transformative process. Similarly, hearing these accounts will change the way we think about our country, and will create new demands on us to act on that new knowledge.

The next few months will be crucial for the government, to hear from survivors of abuse and their advocates on what is needed.

Let’s do it once, and do it properly.

Elizabeth Stanley is a Reader in Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington. She has spent over two decades researching commissions that respond to state violence, and she recently wrote ‘The Road to Hell: State Violence against Children in Post-War New Zealand’, that tracks the experiences of 105 New Zealanders abused in social welfare homes and reports on what they say should happen next.

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