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Design: Archi Banal.
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SocietyDecember 20, 2023

Survivors’ perspectives on the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care

Design: Archi Banal.
Design: Archi Banal.

Conversations Spinoff staff have had with survivors have caused tears on both ends of the phone, but what has this process been like for survivors?

This article is part of The Quarter Million, exploring the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in State Care. Read the introduction here and the rest of the series here.

Content warning: This feature describes physical, sexual and emotional violence, child abuse and neglect. If this is difficult for you and you would like some help, these services offer support and information: Auckland specialist service Help, 0800 623 1700; specialist men’s service Male Survivors Aotearoa, 0800 044 334; and Snap (Survivors network of those abused by priests). Please take care.

The Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care has been a historic step forward for Aotearoa-New Zealand – that was the sentiment shared by survivors, commissioners and other participants at one of its wānanga earlier this year. Since February 2018, the commission has looked into the neglect and physical, sexual and emotional abuse children experienced at the hands of so-called “caregivers” on the government payroll and in faith-based institutions. Rachel Walkinton, who works in the commission’s survivor directorate, said their processes have been “guided by a survivor-centric trauma-informed approach.”

Some 655,000 children went through state or faith-based care during the commission’s half-century scope (1950-1999), with an estimated 250,000 of them being abused at 1,600+ facilities. Those sites, like youth boot camps, foster homes, church facilities, orphanages and psychiatric hospitals, were staffed mainly by “angry, violent men,” said sexual abuse survivor turned advocate Ken Clearwater. He called the commission process “a one-off. You may never get a chance to do something like this again.”

Ken Clearwater speaks at TedX Queenstown 2012.
Ken Clearwater speaks at TEDxQueenstown 2012. (Photo: Paul Green/TEDxQueenstown)

In The Spinoff’s introductory article of our Quarter Million series about the inquiry, Reweti Kohere further explained its mandate. “They’re set up to establish the facts of an event, educate the public about what happened and why, provide a factual foundation that exposes gaps or weaknesses in existing policy or law, and recommend reforms to prevent similar situations from reoccurring.” In March 2024, the final report for this independent inquiry, including the recommendations, will be released (though there have been multiple delays in the process already so further postponements may occur). Although the government doesn’t legally have to action the commission’s advice, as Kohere said, “it would politically hurt a government if it were to dismiss the commission’s work, and survivors would once again be let down.”

Whether or not the new National-led government accepts the recommendations of an inquiry established by its Labour-led predecessor, the royal commission process has centred the experiences of survivors in order to provide a space for them to speak of their experience as well as inform the public of the atrocities that went on for decades. Without their testimonies this investigation wouldn’t exist. But what has the commission process been like for these brave individuals? 

Survivors felt unheard before the commission 

In his write up, Kohere mentioned that through the royal commission, “victims and survivors are being heard – and believed. That hasn’t always been the case.” When survivors sought justice, redress or recognition before 2018, their pleas largely fell on deaf ears. While they were children, adults would often write them off as lying kids when allegations arose. When he was a resident at Christchurch’s Marylands school, Mr HZ told police about its abusive environment. They figured he was lying, ignored his complaint and returned him to Marylands. Similarly, Dallas Pickering, who lived in foster homes, said at one of the commission’s hearings, “I feel like I was not believed or listened to because I was a child speaking up against a white, middle-class Pākehā family.” 

The location of Marylands School on a map.
The location of Marylands School. (Image: Archi Banal)

Survivors also felt unheard as adults. Joan Bellingham, a former resident of Prince Margaret Hospital, said that over the years she “tried numerous ways to get recognition and redress. It felt like no one would listen to me or believe what happened to me.” Some ways she tried to seek justice included paying expensive lawyers to fight for her in court alongside putting in an ACC claim for scalp burns and chronic headaches from electric shock therapy (a so-called “treatment” historically used on institutionalised gay people like Bellingham). Through that problematic process, Bellingham said she didn’t receive sufficient support. “I constantly felt like I was battling uphill to get people to recognise me or believe what I was saying actually happened.” She’s not alone, said Clearwater. He told The Spinoff that survivors primarily want to be believed and understood – and since 2018, the royal commission has provided that opportunity nationwide. 

Part of one of The Spinoff's Quarter Million comics, with this one being about Joan Bellingham.
A tile from one of The Spinoff’s Quarter Million comics, with this one being about Joan Bellingham.

Not only did survivors historically feel unheard, but previous redress was inadequate. Early attempts focused on financial redress without educating New Zealanders about survivors’ experiences. A United Nations committee for eliminating racial discrimination found New Zealand’s monetary redress focus was concerning because it failed to expose the abuse’s systemic causes. Tupua Urlich, a foster home abuse survivor, called early redress unsatisfactory, disrespectful and incapable of making up for abuse. Bellingham added that it was disillusioning and “almost as bad as the original abuse”. She spent her inheritance on lawyers seeking redress, but it took getting her local MP Jim Anderton and her doctor involved to achieve meaningful progress, which Bellingham said is “incredibly disappointing”. 

Her early redress amounted to a “wellness payment” of $4,000, $4,250 for legal fees (which, combined, she calls a “paltry” sum) and an apology without any admission of the Crown’s liability. A lawyer advised Bellingham that the $4,000 wellness payment might need to be paid back to the Crown because of tax and ACC implications. (Her ACC claim for shock therapy scalp burns and chronic headaches took 12 years and amounted to $11,500. The government said the damages this claim covered overlapped with the wellness payment.) “How could the Crown pay us compensation only to take it back again?” she asked. 

When Mike Ledingham and his brothers brought abuse allegations to the Catholic church, they were disappointed with the result. He said, “They did what they’ve proved good at – ignored, delayed, deferred, detracted.” It wasn’t until the story went public in the NZ Herald that the church finally made meaningful contact, albeit to say they had no money for redress at the time. A year later, in an attempt to stop the flashbacks and nightmares caused by a year’s worth of media coverage, the brothers accepted a financial offer from the church. Afterward, “we never heard from the church again,” said Ledingham. 

The commission as an attentive ear

For many survivors, the commission represents the first time anybody affiliated with the New Zealand government has genuinely listened to them. Anti-violence campaigner Rua Maynard told The Spinoff, “prevention [of violence] begins with raising awareness,” which he sees the commission as doing through listening. But after disappointing earlier redress, some survivors were sceptical about the commission. They were “giving us nice food beforehand and stuff, and I kept saying no, I don’t want it. Whenever there’s something good, something bad happens,” Eddie Marriott, a survivor from Marylands, told The Spinoff. But he eventually decided survivors should share their stories to raise awareness, and other survivors voiced similar sentiments. 

Urlich mentioned that he is speaking up so “no other children endure the abuse I did while under the care and protection of the state.” In the hopes her experience isn’t repeated, Bellingham brought up her trauma, its long-term effects and her difficulties with earlier redress. Pickering agreed and said she shared her story “to help other children not have a childhood like mine.” She mentioned that she didn’t have anyone to share her stories with before the commission, so she “kept it all to myself”. Similarly, in a video on the commission’s social media, Alison Pascoe said the commission gave her the courage and freedom to speak about her three decades of experience in psychiatric hospitals. Pascoe hoped more survivors would share their stories to hold the 1,600+ institutions to account. 

The commission has published reports on many of those 1,600+ facilities, making the stories of their survivors finally accessible to the general public. Survivors even had a hand in creating and designing some of the reports. For example, Marriott told The Spinoff how he and other Marylands survivors helped design and name its report. Giving survivors some agency in this process stands in stark contrast to how they were treated by their so-called carers, who, through abuse, stole their agency as children. 

While the commission has meant thousands of New Zealanders have had to relive their trauma, often for the benefit of the general public, it can also offer them respite. Scott Carr, a survivor from Wellington’s Epuni boys home and Aotea/Great Barrier Island’s Whakapakari camp, said the commission provided him with pastoral care. Through the commission, he received six weeks of free counselling. As an indication of the low expectations heading into the experience, Carr said the six weeks of counselling was worth much more than the “pittance” of monetary compensation he received from the government. “I am really thankful for the support the royal commission has given me,” he said, adding they “helped more than any other organisation in my life.” 

The location of Whakapakari on a map.
The location of Whakapakari. (Image: Archi Banal.)

Free counselling from the commission has been offered to and taken up by survivors across the board. Alongside counsellors, the commission has also set up survivors with social workers, psychologists, psychotherapists, nurses and rongoā maori practitioners, explained Walkinton. She said the commission’s wellbeing team were available to offer survivors the above professional support at all public hearings.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing

Despite offering much good, the royal commission process has forced survivors to painfully relive their childhood trauma. As Shanti Mathias put it in her story about Marylands, survivors sharing their stories “comes at a personal cost to survivors. They’re not just telling a story, they’re reliving the darkest moments of their lives.” 

“It literally takes you back to that place as a child, and it’s traumatising,” affirmed Clearwater. Ledingham agreed with Clearwater, and speaking from his and his brothers’ perspective, he added that media coverage can be particularly difficult on survivors. In the media, survivors’ stories play out in the public sphere for all to see. Speaking more generally, Bellingham used the word “cruel” to describe what it is like to make survivors retell their stories in forums like courts. She said these experiences resurface trauma. Over email, Walkinton from the commission’s survivor directorate admitted, “Along the way, survivors have told us what has worked for them and what hasn’t in terms of our engagement. We acknowledge that we didn’t get everything right, but we learnt along the way and continue to learn.” 

Although the commission has done good for their lives, survivors still identified room for improvement. For many survivors, one issue was the high cost of keeping the commission afloat. “Whatever money put in to do this is money that the survivors won’t ever see,” Clearwater said. “A lot of survivors are saying, well look, these people are getting paid this big money to do this. We’ve got nothing.” However, Clearwater acknowledges that if you’re going to set up initiatives like the royal commission then they need to be appropriately funded to be effective.  

Another problem identified by Carr was the limited, selective nature of the questions commissioners asked. He said the questions didn’t allow him to describe his experience fully. What’s more, compared to his verbal evidence, his official commission written statement wasn’t entirely accurate; he said it was “ dumbed down, suppressed and manipulated”. A lawyer who represents survivors attested to The Spinoff that Carr is not alone in that feeling. The differences between Carr’s official statement and the kōrero from his interview with The Spinoff are stark. Carr’s statement says his parents were neglectful (which he categorically refuted to us) and underplays how violent Epuni was compared to Whakapakari. He called these differences between his verbal explanations and official written statement “smoke and mirrors”. 

A scene from the Whakapakari camp.
A scene of the Whakapakari camp. (Design: Tina Tiller. Still from ‘Breaking the Barrier’, directed by Bryan Norton.)

However, Clearwater offered a different perspective. Sometimes fellow survivors, like Clearwater, conduct the interviews, which he said leads to different questions and more authentic representations of survivors’ experiences. Clearwater said that when conducting interviews while employing this approach, “the survivors were quite comfortable”. But most interviews were not conducted by survivors. 

Another criticism concerns the final report’s delay. Plenty of reports on specific care facilities have been released, but the commission’s final overall report was delayed from June 2023 to March 2024. Clearwater believed the delay was over its vast scope – 1,600+ facilities and an estimated 250,000 survivors. “Nobody except us on the ground, on the coalface, knew how big this was going to be,” he explained, whereas the government believed their four-year time frame was realistic. “Well, it was never, ever going to be that simple.” Still, the extra nine months gives commissioners more time to provide the best possible recommendations, Clearwater added.

The final report’s delay means the implementation of the recommendations will also be pushed back. This delay affects all survivors, but in particular, those who are on or near their deathbeds. “You’ve got the survivors who haven’t got a lot of time left on the planet because of their health,” Clearwater said. “So they’ve waited years to get this, and now they’re going to have to wait another four or five years before something comes out of it.” This statement became a sad reality last year: Allison Pascoe, a survivor mentioned above, passed in September 2022. She’ll never see the report’s recommendations – which aim to stop people from having experiences like hers – come to fruition. 

Responding to criticisms about the commission’s process, Walkinton said survivor feedback has helped them “improve the way it goes about its mahi and respond to gaps identified by survivors.” (See their survivor feedback reports.) She gave The Spinoff the example of the 14 advisory and reference groups established to advise on areas of expertise and lived experience. Walkinton noted that approach, “saw us hold bespoke hui and wānanga for communities including a hui with gang whānau and an online and kanohi ki te kanohi wānanga for the Takatāpui, Rainbow and MVPFAFF+ community.” As the March 2024 report release date nears, the commission continues to work alongside their advisory groups, like Te Taumata and Survivor Advisory Group of Experts, to support survivors. 

Pickering knows from her experience as a social worker that what happened to her as a child still happens to today’s tamariki. Therefore, she said, “things need to change”. Clearwater hoped the commission’s final report will inspire the necessary changes to keep our most precious taonga, our children, safe. Over the phone, he asked himself if the commission process had been perfect. No, he said, “but I’m not sure if there’s any other way it could have been done. I think they did the best they possibly could.” 

For survivors seeking support from the commission, their website has some handy information available.

Keep going!