Christine Ammunson with then Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy presenting a petition at Parliament on July 6, 2017. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

These brave survivors are the New Zealanders of the Year a million times over

From meeting other former foster kids I know that I was one of the lucky ones. Today we have to put survivors front and centre of the inquiry into abuse in state care, writes Christine L Ammunson 

I suspect that only people who have been in state care or foster care know what it’s like talking about it in public. It’s not something that is a typical morning tea kōrero with your workmates.  It’s awkward. A few years ago at a work meeting when my colleagues began discussing the plight of adults who’d been in state care as children I took a deep breath. I knew exactly how those people felt because I was one of them. Living in foster care until I was five, I didn’t really talk about that time of my life until I was an adult and I still don’t. My foster family were and are wonderful people, loving and kind. From meeting other former foster kids I know I was one of the lucky ones. I went back to live with my mum when she married. The reason I was in foster care? Because when unmarried women gave birth to children in the 60s, keeping them was not an option. The state has a lot to answer for.

So there I was in a bland meeting room on The Terrace, with part of my own childhood on the agenda. I quietly told my colleagues that they needed to know I’d been in care before just so that was out in the open. I was angry at myself because as much as I tried to remain professional, I couldn’t stop my voice from trembling or tears welling up in my eyes.

Over the next couple of years I met a lot of other people who like me had been in care. But unlike me they did not have wonderful people looking after them. They had monsters. I sat at pubs, cafes, libraries and on park benches listening and chatting with men and women who will be forever scarred by the state. When children are raped, molested and beaten by the adults who are paid to protect them: it is no wonder those children grow into adults who do not trust authority or the government. And yet these survivors all had one thing in common, and it was never money: they wanted to make sure what happened to them could never happen to other kids.

So we worked on a campaign calling for an independent inquiry into the abuse of children and vulnerable adults held in state care. A huge cast of people – survivors, activists, journalists, lawyers, academics, Human Rights Commissioners – banded together to pressure the then National government. We failed in that they never once acquiesced or weakened in their refusal to entertain any kind of inquiry. But then the government changed and, just like that, Jacinda Ardern and Tracey Martin were announcing the highest kind of inquiry possible: A Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historic State Abuse that would be chaired by former Governor General Anand Satyanand. To say that survivors had a wee party that night is a bit of an understatement. But the truth is that the journey towards truth, reconciliation and justice has just begun.

As we wait for the inquiry to begin, my biggest hope is that survivors are front and centre in everything. They are human rights champions and survivors of the kind of inhumane abuse that no one ever thought could happen in New Zealand. They are also the “experts” that need to be the touchstone and the heart of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into their abuse. And as for New Zealander of the Year: These people deserve that title a million times over. Let’s nominate them next year.

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