The Quarter MillionSeptember 6, 2022

The quarter million

It’s believed as many as a quarter of a million children and young people were abused and neglected by state and faith-based institutions between 1950 and 1999. Why, asks Reweti Kohere, did we wait until now to find out what happened?

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.

This is the first instalment in a series on the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care.

It was just shy of four o’clock in the afternoon on Tuesday, November 5, 2019. For nearly two hours, survivor Dallas Pickering had been giving evidence in a public hearing about her time as a state ward. Put up for adoption by her 16-year-old mother, hardly anyone knew the Pākehā-looking girl with blonde hair even existed when she was born – including her father, whom she later discovered was Māori. Matched up with, in the state’s eyes, the perfect middle-class Pākehā family, Pickering was neglected, ill-treated, malnourished and abused. She later suffered physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect in other family homes that social workers placed her in. At 16, the state ceased being her parent. 

“The past doesn’t go away,” she told the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care, detailing how she had to make changes in her life, “otherwise my children would end up in the same system that I did”. One of those changes was becoming a social worker, a field in which she’s been supporting families for the last 20 years. Pickering had come to speak to the commission “to help other children not to have a childhood like mine”. Children can be taken out of traumatic situations, she said, but it takes generations to heal their trauma.

Before her, five strangers sat side by side along a table lined with white cloth and dotted with name placards and tissue boxes. One by one, they addressed her. “Thank you for your great testimony,” said Paul Gibson, one of the commissioners. His colleague, Ali’imuamua Sandra Alofivae, expressed her “deepest gratitude” for Pickering’s courage. District Court judge Coral Shaw congratulated her on “making a real life out of a very unreal life. I think it’s something that we all admire very deeply”. Dr Andrew Erueti greeted Pickering in Māori: “Tēnā koe, e te whaea. Ka nui te mihi ki a koe.” The commissioner thanked her for her compelling evidence. “I hope we can do it justice,” Erueti said. “Kia ora.”

Chair Sir Anand Satyanand brought the public hearing to an end. “Ms Pickering, there is an old saying, sometimes ‘less is more’,” the former governor general said. Pickering smiled. “I adopt that and echo what’s been said by my colleagues. Thank you for your valuable evidence.”

Pickering’s public hearing is a snippet of how the commission is going about its work investigating what happened, for nearly 50 years, to a quarter of a million children and young people while in the care of the state and faith-based institutions. Gratitude, respect and empathy mark the commission’s interactions – the real risk of survivors reliving trauma is accepted, their courage to speak out is recognised and counselling and other forms of wellbeing support are offered. Hearings are but a sliver of the commission’s work, but it’s the most public-facing part of the process. Unlike in a TV legal drama, none of the survivors is here to prove their case. Their experiences are accepted as the truth from the outset. What is being questioned by the commission is how and why child abuse persisted as a stain on Aotearoa New Zealand for so long. 

Yes, the cut-and-thrust of adversarial advocacy ensures the commission’s fact-finding mission is rigorous. But, over the past four years, as questions have been asked of those now accountable for the misdeeds of their predecessors, insights are equally sought from those who’ve advocated for survivors, treated them psychologically and studied the systems that upheld abuse and let it fester. All the while, victims and survivors are being heard – and believed. That hasn’t always been the case.

A tool for digging

Where important and difficult public issues need investigating, royal commissions are the most serious tool available to the government. Think of the terrorist attack on Christchurch mosques in 2019, the Canterbury earthquakes of 2011 and the Pike River coal mine tragedy of 2010 – these are recent examples of devastating events that ultimately have required commissions of inquiry.

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. A detailed account of an event can help the country heal and move on.

The government of the day sets the boundaries of the investigation, and the Department of Internal Affairs offers administrative assistance. Critically though, the commission is independent of the government. How it is conducted is decided by a chairperson and commissioners, who can summons witnesses and compel them to disclose documents they may hold. Having been appointed by the governor general, the inquiry offers them its final report. Findings of fact and recommendations are not binding, so the government legally doesn’t have to accept them. Nor does the royal commission determine legal rights and liabilities. But it would politically hurt a government if it were to dismiss the commission’s work, and survivors would once again be let down.

The Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care is investigating why people were taken into care between 1950 and 1999, what abuse they suffered and endured and why, and what the effects of the abuse were. Judge Shaw, assisted by four commissioners, a lawyer and an executive director, chairs the commission. At present, it is investigating nine areas of concern, including the experiences of Māori, Pasifika and people living with disabilities, because of the disproportionate amount of New Zealanders in those communities who were, and still are, in care. At least 815 state-run family homes and residences, and more than 800 faith-based institutions, fall within the inquiry’s scope. The commissioners want to ensure the outcome of their inquiry, and the process they have taken to engage victims and survivors, will transform how the state provides care to the most vulnerable people in Aotearoa.

As of August 2022, nearly 2,200 people had shared their experiences with the commission through private sessions, written accounts and witness statements. So far, the commissioners have held 120 days of public hearings and analysed over 1 million documents. By June 2023, the commission should have tabled its final report.

What is the system?

No one would question that tamariki and rangatahi deserve to grow up with loving parents who provide a safe, stable and nurturing home. But it’s a fact now as it was decades ago that some grow up witnessing their parents assault each other or abuse drugs and alcohol, or both. Some parents can’t look after their children properly because they live with depression or other mental health conditions. These homes endanger our most vulnerable, and nowadays the state is legally required to keep children and young people safe while supporting whānau to look after them.

Usually, Oranga Tamariki, the ministry for children, will look to the children’s wider whānau to provide a temporary home while issues get resolved with immediate family. In the case of tamariki Māori, that could also mean members of their hāpu or iwi are asked to meet their needs while keeping them connected to their whakapapa. But if all options have been exhausted, the state will seek to persuade a family court judge that it’s in the children’s best interests they are taken into care. If the court agrees, the state may place a kid with an approved, trained caregiver or in a residence with other kids.

How did we get here?

Today’s care and protection system is the latest iteration of a system shaped by twin goals – protecting neglected or abused children and disciplining, restraining and punishing children perceived as unruly and challenging. Professor Elizabeth Stanley, a criminologist at Victoria University of Wellington, describes these two forces as “contradictory anxieties” in her book, The Road to Hell: State Violence against Children in Postwar New Zealand, which details the stories of 105 New Zealanders who experienced strife, neglect, poverty or family violence and were placed by the government in residential facilities.

For most of the 20th century, the child welfare branch of the education department was responsible for orphaned, destitute, neglected or “out of control” children, aided by a protectionist children’s court anxious about juvenile delinquency. Post-second world war, the state enhanced its surveillance and disciplinary measures, bolstered by a society worried about a decline in family values, unwed and irresponsible working mothers, the influence of popular culture, and the urbanisation of Māori. There was also a rise of right-wing political philosophies of individual responsibility. 

The influence of religious and community groups, which dominated child care in the 1900s, started to wane after the second world war. In their place emerged a network of foster and family homes. It seemed to be assumed by most New Zealanders that foster care or adoption by a two-parent family with a stable income was superior to being raised in a single-parent family, regardless of the foster family being unrelated or of a different culture. It wasn’t until 1969, when parliament passed the Status of Children Act, that all children, regardless of their parents’ marital status, were deemed equal in the eyes of the law. In addition to foster and family homes, state-run institutions were tried again in the late 1950s, having earlier fallen into disrepute because of their damaging practices. Intended for children who wouldn’t respond to community-based care, in reality, the child welfare branch took children with all kinds of histories and grouped them together in places such as Kingslea, Kohitere, Lookout Point and Stanmore Road. 

In 1972, Child Welfare’s responsibility was passed to the newly formed children and young persons’ service, in the Department of Social Welfare (DSW). The following decades were marked by a greater focus on at-risk children and an overhaul of the state’s paternalistic model of child care. New laws were created and state agencies set up to protect them. Attention was paid to keeping children with their families – a principle that was incorporated into the Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act 1989. The statute introduced family group conferences (FGCs), one of the main ways children were taken into care without resorting to the courts. Hailed as an innovation, as FGCs were inspired by how Māori had traditionally resolved disputes collectively; the practice fully involved children’s whānau, hapū, iwi and family groups in decisions about their welfare or alleged criminal offending. The act also made the best interests of the child the paramount consideration that the system would take into account. 

The overhaul eventually resulted in DSW doing away with institutions – a fiscally prudent move in the neo-liberal 1980s where state social expenditure was slashed. Stanley notes that 2,000 children were in state institutions in 1988; by 1996, that number was less than 100. 

The ‘good parent’ masquerade

It’s expected children and young persons are looked after and supported when they are living away from their homes under the state’s care. Caregivers or residence staff are required to do their best in caring for them. As with any system, however, there are those within it who abuse their power, responsibility and privilege.

Whether physically, sexually, emotionally or through neglect, perpetrators can jeopardise tamariki and rangatahi over and above what led them into state care in the first place. 

The commission’s estimates paint a picture with broad brush strokes – the 17% to 40% figure is based largely on international studies, which are heavily weighted toward some types of abuse more than others (and mostly exclude neglect). As a result, a picture specific to Aotearoa is scarce or missing. Nonetheless, what we know is bleak – even with the poor data available, it’s clear that more people passed through the various care settings in the second half of last century than ever had before. And, even with the most conservative of estimates, more abuse occurred in care than was first thought.

In a brief of evidence submitted to the commission, Cooper Legal, a litigation firm specialising in historical abuse, says the most common complaints it has received from the 1,250 or so clients it represents are:

  • Severe physical assaults by staff and other patients;
  • sexual violation and abuse from staff;
  • administration as punishment of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), a brief electrical stimulation of the brain (patients are supposed to be anaesthetised and given a muscle relaxant before the treatment is administered. Many, if not most, state wards were conscious and not given muscle relaxants);
  • being placed in the ECT room to frighten them into submission;
  • administration of paraldehyde injections, typically used to treat convulsions, seizures and fits, as punishment; placement in seclusion and psychiatric criminal wards as punishment or to induce compliance in “misbehaving” patients.

Stanley, the professor, writes that when children reached state-run care institutions, authorities saw few of them as being truly in need; rather, they were troublesome, immoral, anti-authoritarian and deviant. “The state took over as parent. But the state failed”, she writes. “In short, the state masqueraded as good parents, but its violence and negligence made things far worse for children in its care.”

The essential role of racism

Much in the way New Zealand’s prison population is over-represented by tangata whenua, Māori made up the majority of children taken into care. Available data suggests over half of all children in the care of the DSW (the Ministry of Social Development’s predecessor) in the 70s and 80s were Māori. And the share of tamariki Māori and rangatahi in such institutions peaked in that same period, reaching up to 80% in some institutions. Child, Youth and Family (CYF), Oranga Tamariki’s predecessor, was 2.5 times more likely to assess tamariki Māori as abused or neglected than non-Māori children. Moreover, tamariki Māori, by the age of 18, were 3.5 times more likely to have experienced out-of-home placements than Pākehā children.

Research commissioned by the Crown explains the over-representation of Māori is the direct result of enduring structural and systemic racism across multiple settings. “The undermining and undoing of whānau, hapū and iwi structures was not merely a result of colonisation but an essential part of the process,” the report states. Racism fuelled increased scrutiny and surveillance of whānau, establishing an origin point for the over-representation of tangata whenua within state care institutions.

The loss of whenua and urbanisation, for instance, was central to the state’s project of assimilating and integrating Māori into New Zealand society. Māori whānau moved to towns and cities where Pākehā had defined urban living as “individualistic and unfamiliar”, and tikanga Māori was “disparaged and maligned”, the report notes. Urban migration signified a “critical detachment” of whānau and hapū ties and support networks, which had ensured the wellbeing of Māori children. Without the supportive factors of tribal, communal life, “the conditions were set” for various social ills – increased economic disadvantage, social dislocation, cultural disconnection, discrimination, loss of opportunity, poor housing, unemployment, low educational attainment, poverty, and drug and alcohol use, which gave rise to further social problems, including domestic violence. 

Stanley, the criminologist, writes that one critical aspect of the state’s power is that not all children were treated alike. Tamariki Māori were frequently regarded as neglected because of their family’s perceived cultural deficits, and police officers scrutinised their activities and disproportionately funnelled them into the courts for minor misdemeanours. Magistrates continued the structural, discriminatory bias by ordering them as better off in institutions than with their own whānau. “The contemporary mass incarceration of Māori people was born in these practices,” she says.

Kath Coster, an advocate for survivors, says her Māori identity was taken away from her after she was made a state ward in October 1974, aged 10. “I was ashamed of being dark, I was ashamed of who I was. I wasn’t allowed to speak the language because we were renowned for being naughty children.” She experienced cultural dislocation as a result. “I lied until I was in my 30s about being Māori. I said I was Greek. I just wouldn’t acknowledge that I was Māori,” she says in her witness statement. “I didn’t fit into the dark side because I was white. I was called a ‘plastic Māori’. I just didn’t fit the traits.”

I was ashamed of being dark. I was ashamed of who I was. I wasn't allowed to speak the language because we were renowned for being naughty children.Kath Coster

Survivor advocate Eugene Ryder, a trained social worker and Black Power member, was made a state ward at 12 before “graduating” into the prison system at 16. But even in his childhood, institutionalised racism was a normal part of his life. “We thought that this is what it means to be Māori,” he says, “that we’re always last in line at the food line, we’re always the ones who will get punished first, we’re the ones that will get dragged out of the classrooms, we’re the ones that will get the wrong end of the stick, from my own experience.”

The high price of pain

The system of state abuse has been a costly affair. Of the estimated quarter-million survivors, about 6,500 are known to have filed abuse claims against the state. Between June 2007 and June 2019, the Ministry of Social Development spent nearly $77 million resolving them, although only about 39% of that money went to claimants. The remainder was spent on operational costs and external legal fees, including paying Crown Law Office, the government’s lawyers.

For survivors, the average lifetime cost of their abuse is about $857,000 per individual. Most of that cost (78%) is non-financial – a reflection of their pain and suffering. The remainder, just over a fifth, relates to healthcare, education and justice costs, the loss of productivity and “deadweight” losses. Overall, taxpayers have stumped up between $96b and $217b between 1950 and 2019.

In the 25 years he’s been helping male sexual abuse victims and survivors, advocate Ken Clearwater says he has never had a person say they’re motivated by money. “Do they deserve money? Yes, they deserve money – their lives have been totally destroyed,” he says. “But how do you put a price on somebody’s life?” Even if a price is ascertained, often arbitrarily, survivors often lack the financial skills to ensure the compensation isn’t frittered or spent on existing addictions. Clearwater says many victim-survivors remain in the state’s care, just in different guises – as beneficiaries, mental health wards or prisoners. “They’ve been in the care of the state since the day they were put in care.” 

A breakdown of Cooper Legal’s clients supports Clearwater’s experience: many are beneficiaries or low-wage earners, 40% are incarcerated, a disproportionate amount are Māori, and almost all experience ongoing mental distress due to their childhood abuse. The law firm estimates it has settled some 1,100 claims against state and church-based defendants, and clients have received settlements totalling almost $23m. However, Cooper Legal believes no survivor has received enough compensation for the harm done to them.

The process of making a claim also 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,” says Clearwater, a survivor of sexual abuse from the age of 12. “You hear the old story: ‘Well it happened 40 years ago, get over it’. There’s no getting over it because it’s part of who you are. Your life, from the moment these things happen, is one of survival… It’s an everyday, lifelong event.” 

It’s taken survivor advocate Toni Jarvis 40 years to get to a place of healing; 40 years too for Coster, whose Māori identity was stolen from her. Netta Christian, another survivor, says she and her brother were taken from their parents and lost their connection to their family. “We didn’t know where we came from, we lost our identity.” Growing up, she couldn’t understand why her foster mother hit her all the time, why she was different from other children and what she had done wrong. Now, she’s sharing her experience with the commission for herself and others. “I’m doing this for my brother, for my special needs birth mother, my darling grandma and my absent father – the family we were taken from,” she says. “I get quite upset when I talk about this but I’m doing it for them and I hope they’re proud of me.”

A state of denial

In their failure to protect them from abuse, state and church organisations let down those in their care on multiple levels: their charges frequently left state care with minimal education; few, if any, qualifications and life skills; warped ideas on relationships and parenthood; substance abuse and addictions; and criminal records. They have been let down again by the state’s failure to hold abusers to account and yet again when the state pursued legal tactics that delayed and hindered any possibility of resolution.

“Denial saturates this book,” Stanley writes in The Road to Hell. One of the reasons denial works so well is because words inadequately convey the damage that violence metes out. Children are not well placed to describe their harm, and adults are reticent to hear their accounts, she says. In fact, “literal denial” was employed by New Zealand authorities at the time the abuse was taking place, and later. Institutional workers “studiously” ignored children’s complaints; child welfare officers could avoid the public’s scrutiny because of how isolated the institutions were, and the media did little to question the government’s official lines. “The passage of time makes literal denial easier. Authorities can assign a problem to history”, Stanley writes. “And the victims are still not heard. After all, undeserving children become undeserving adults.” The state responded, she writes, by treating them as “vengeful, self-serving, criminal and unreliable” victims.

The case of Lake Alice

In the mid-70s, the Auckland committee on racism and discrimination (better known as Acord) made public the story of 14-year-old Hake Halo and his experiences in the child and adolescent unit at Lake Alice psychiatric hospital. Since then, the hospital has become one of the focal points for the abuse that children suffered and the lack of accountability that eventuated. Several claims arose in the 1990s, including a class action lawsuit, and by 2001, the government settled the complaints of 97 former patients, paying out $6.5m. The then prime minister, Helen Clark, issued an apology: “Whatever the legal rights and wrongs of the matter, and whatever the state of medical practice at the time, our government considers that what occurred to these young people was unacceptable by any standard, in particular the inappropriate use of electric shocks and injections.”

Dr Selwyn Leeks was the lead psychiatrist at Lake Alice. For 50 years he avoided facing justice or action from a professional body over allegations he punished patients with electric shocks and paralysing drugs. The police twice investigated the claims and failed to lay charges. A third investigation late in 2021 yielded some resolution – the police had enough evidence to charge Leeks and another, unnamed staff member. However, they were ruled medically unfit to stand trial. Leeks, aged 92, died in January 2022. A third person, 89-year-old former nurse John Corkran, has pleaded not guilty to a charge of ill-treating children and faces trial in the Whanganui District Court.

Sorry, not sorry

Abuse claims were rare back in March 1995, when lawyer Sonja Cooper founded Cooper Legal, mainly because lawyers thought that “insurmountable” legal barriers existed for complaints to stick. The law firm’s brief of evidence states the Crown was unwilling to engage with claims through the latter half of the 1990s. For that reason much of the litigation wasn’t even about survivors’ actual cases, it was about whether or not the court could even hear them. Take complaints about psychiatric care. Cooper Legal’s brief of evidence states that in 2004 some 200 individual accounts of abuse existed. The Crown tried to have them struck out, or dismissed, “unswervingly and unapologetically” because they were too old or the allegations (bar “major” sexual assault) were considered proper medical treatments back when survivors were children. But, as the discussion about potential legal remedies for these harms became more widely known, the number of claims about abuse in social welfare started growing. Then the courts found for the first time the state was on the hook for harm caused by people in its employment. 

Following these findings of “vicarious liability”, the social welfare claimant pool exploded. But in spite of positive findings of abuse, the few cases that managed to get to trial often failed because they hadn’t been filed in time. The Limitation Act, which requires people to file claims within a certain period of time, and prevents situations where people have claims against them held over their heads indefinitely, became the Crown’s “primary weapon” against civil abuse claims. Other legal barriers included the loss of legal aid (government funding of legal services for people who can’t afford a lawyer), and the Crown’s “defend at all costs” litigation strategy, as Cooper Legal described it. 

The Crown is supposed to act as a “model litigant” in court cases, dealing with claims promptly, efficiently and without causing unnecessary delays or expense to plaintiffs. That was the case before 2012, says Cooper Legal. But that changed when the obligation was removed from Crown Law’s directives, replaced with an obligation to act in a manner that “satisfies the Crown’s objectives”. That often meant the state “vigorously” sought court hearings knowing that no funding was available to claimants to participate.

‘Some things can’t be defended’

Crown Law is more contrite this decade. During the commission’s public hearing into Lake Alice in June 2021, solicitor general Una Jagose, who heads the department, acknowledged the courage and persistence survivors had shown in their “long fight” against “the behemoth” that is the state and its bureaucracy. Having heard their pain, and their “very strong belief” that what happened to them was wrong and that the public must acknowledge that, Jagose said survivors also deserve public accountability by the state, “for the decisions taken and the impact that that has had on you. I want to especially acknowledge that you’ve had a long fight with the state for what you knew was right.”

It wasn’t Jagose’s first appearance before the commission – in November 2020, she gave evidence in its state redress hearing. Newsroom reported the solicitor general hit all the right notes in acknowledging survivors’ bravery and pain, and saying Crown Law accepted it made mistakes and was better now. But Lake Alice survivor Leoni McInroe was unimpressed with Jagose’s testimony. Seven months later, the solicitor general’s second appearance was “markedly different”, Newsroom wrote. “She seemed better briefed, more attentive to detail, and less deflective. Her apology was fulsome, particularly to McInroe.”

As solicitor general, Jagose is the junior of the two law officers of New Zealand (the other being the attorney general, the minister responsible for Crown Law). Both are charged with advising the Crown legally and representing its interests in the courts. The commission heard Jagose would try her best to contextualise the law office’s perspective on past events. But, just as she said in November 2020, “I will not defend everything that has happened – some things can’t be defended, and they will be acknowledged and apologised for.”

Call it what it is

Stanley writes that literal denial is hard to maintain when victims and survivors come forward. So the state pivots to other strategies, such as describing the abuse in euphemisms. When filtered through the guise of “professional legitimacy”, the use of dehumanising secure cells can be seen as time-out rooms to treat and discipline children. The state can attribute blame to individuals rather than itself by focusing on isolated, one-off incidents involving specific staff members or other children. And the state can keep believing it acted out of necessity in protecting society from children that were “defects, delinquents and dangerous offenders with no hope of reformation”; that these victims got what they deserved.

Clearwater, the male survivor advocate, says New Zealanders are quick to condemn similar systems of abuse overseas, “but we never look at what actually went on here… It’s a piece of history that people don’t understand.” Children were literally tortured, he says – put in isolation, beaten up, raped and sexually violated by their supposed caregivers. His choice of language is deliberate, to avoid “sanitising” the violence “so that it doesn’t look as though we’re bad as a country.”

External pressure

Other countries are grappling with their histories of child abuse. The independent inquiry into child sexual abuse in the UK wrapped up public hearings into 15 investigations in late 2020, five years after it was established in the wake of the Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal and claims of abuse by other prominent media and political figures. Framed as the most ambitious public inquiry ever established in England and Wales, the inquiry heard evidence from 725 witnesses in person, including 94 victims and survivors, and received nearly 200,000 documents. 

New Zealand High Court judge, Dame Lowell Goddard, resigned as chair of the UK inquiry in August 2016, having faced criticism for struggling to get to grips with the job. The inquiry is expected to publish its final report later this year, although an interim report released in 2018 set out some emerging themes, including that children and adult victims and survivors will be better protected and supported if society is prepared to talk about child abuse openly and frankly.

Australia’s royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse tabled its final report in December 2017 after nearly five years of investigating how schools, churches, sports clubs and government organisations had responded to allegations and instances of child sexual abuse. Supplemented by 17 volumes of recommendations, and based on 8,000 private sessions with survivors, the final report stated many of Australia’s institutions had failed children across many decades and that the country’s child protection and justice systems had in turn let them down. “Although the primary responsibility for the sexual abuse of a child lies with the abuser and the institution of which they were part, we cannot avoid the conclusion that the problems faced by many people who have been abused are the responsibility of our entire society,” the commission said.

Survivor advocates in Aotearoa have relied on other channels to bring attention to their cause. In February 2017, the Human Rights Commission called on the then National-led government to establish an independent commission of inquiry. “Our message is simple: we must never let this abuse happen again,” said Gibson, then disability rights commissioner. “We need to start by hearing the stories of those people whose childhoods and lives were forever scarred by their own government.” By June, a petition that garnered more than 16,000 signatures was delivered to parliament, backed by over 100 former wards of the state who gathered on the forecourt cradling childhood photos in their arms. Then prime minister Bill English said his government was open to discussions on what survivors and advocates wanted – a subtle shift from National’s previously long-held stance that an inquiry and public apology would do little to help survivors.

By August, after it was “alarmed” by reports of alleged child abuse in foster care and state-run institutions, the UN committee on the elimination of racial discrimination made a recommendation similar to the Human Rights Commission’s. The UN committee noted that while the government was intending to compensate survivors, it was concerned compensation would fail to “expose the systemic problems that may have existed”. 

Beyond heartbreak 

The push for an inquiry strengthened during the 2017 election campaign; the Labour Party promised it would set one up in its first 100 days of office. By February 2018, the Labour-led government made good on its promise. “Any abuse of children is a tragedy, and for those most vulnerable children in state care, it is unconscionable,” said prime minister Jacinda Ardern, in announcing the royal commission. “Today we are sending the strongest possible signal about how seriously we see this issue by setting up a royal commission of inquiry. This is a chance to confront our history and make sure we don’t make the same mistakes again.”

So far, the government has committed to implementing a survivor-focused redress system, known as puretumu torowhānui, which centres Māori, Pasifika, people living with disabilities and other key communities. Puretumu torowhānui is one of the key recommendations made by the commission in an interim report released late last year, which looked at survivors’ experiences seeking justice over the decades. The report called for urgent action to restore the mana of survivors, many of whom for decades were not believed or had their experiences downplayed or dismissed, and were rejected and dismissed by the Crown. 

Shaw, the commission chair, said she and her colleagues were indebted to the hundreds of survivors whose bravery had “given us the tools to create this report and therefore begin the healing process. The experiences we have heard have been heart-breaking and beyond belief.” Based on the report, it’s clear the commission isn’t cowering from its task or mincing its words. “Our report details the horrific abuse survivors suffered in state and faith-based care. Much of the abuse in care was criminal. Some of it was torture,” Shaw said. “Historically, state and faith organisations were not willing to accept the widespread abuse that could have easily been uncovered. The scale of abuse was too horrific. The costs too high. They convinced themselves there wasn’t a systemic, widespread problem.”

Has society changed?

More broadly, over the past several years, people around the world are reexamining social norms. The Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements continue to dismantle misogyny and patriarchy, white supremacy and racism. Activists are calling out and proposing solutions to the myriad ways those social ills keep scarring people of colour and indigenous people, women, gender non-conforming, trans and queer people, and people living with disabilities. Progress is slow, though. Social attitudes don’t change overnight and the past has left us with a complicated legacy. Research suggests females tend to be sexually abused as children more than males, yet men take longer to disclose such abuse. Clearwater, who used to lead the Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse Trust in Christchurch, puts it starkly: society is “so sick” that the sexual trauma of girls and women is more accepted; boys and men aren’t supposed to be sexual victims. “It doesn’t fit our patriarchal system… That’s an issue a lot of the guys have to work through first and foremost, that ‘you were a victim of a crime’.”

‘A golden opportunity’

Allison Pascoe is finally free to speak out about being “hidden away” in psychiatric hospitals for decades, having been wrongly placed there with a physical rather than psychiatric illness at the age of five. In a video made by the commission of inquiry, Pascoe said she was “knocked out with drugs for punishment, put in a straitjacket, kicked around in the room, broken bones, my head cut open, my pet birds threatened to be murdered by the ward sister.” She says the beautiful gardens of the psychiatric hospital she was housed in merely disguised the abuse that was happening to her and many others behind closed doors. ​​Treating people badly is circular. “It doesn’t help anybody because abuse breeds abuse, violence breeds violence.” Pascoe urges others to let go of their fear, to ensure “these institutions” are never reborn. “The truth shall always prevail, no matter what. You can never hide away from the truth or justice.”

Justice is one of the many things victims and survivors want from sharing their stories with the commission, at times publicly. But above all else, they just want people to know what happened to them – and to be believed, says Clearwater. By June 2023, the royal commission should have submitted to the governor general its final report, although how the government responds remains to be seen. Also on its plate are reforms to the child care and protection system, including legislative plans to replace the children’s commissioner, the country’s most vocal and publicly known advocate for children and the watchdog of Oranga Tamariki, with a board made up of six people. The current commissioner, Judge Frances Eivers, told a select committee in June its failure to wait for the royal commission’s final report before passing that bill would make a “mockery” of survivors who shared their stories of abuse. 

The truth shall always prevail, no matter what. You can never hide away from the truth or justice.Allison Pascoe

Critics of the proposal also fear the Oranga Tamariki reforms could lead to increased child abuse. But despite opposition from an overwhelming majority of submitters, and all parties but Labour on the bill’s third reading, parliament passed the reforms. So how can it confidently know the changes are in the best interests of children and young people, when the true horrors of New Zealand’s child care and protection system aren’t yet made public? “Imagine having the gall to continue with these reforms while the royal commission remains ongoing. The government can no longer claim these are honest mistakes,” wrote law lecturer Luke Fitzmaurice. “They know what they’re doing and they are committed to doubling down, despite overwhelming public opposition.”

Clearwater isn’t too worried about the commission’s remaining year; it’s on the right track, he feels. What happens after June 2023 does worry him though, especially if the government doesn’t proceed with any of the commission’s final recommendations. “How do you think that’s gonna make all those men and woman [feel], who have come forward, given their heart and soul to the royal commission and may not get listened to?” he asks. “You can never replace the years of trauma that they’ve suffered but you need to have a look at what you can do now…

“This is a golden opportunity.”


February - Government announces the royal commission of inquiry into historical abuse in state care.


January - Commissioners are appointed, including District Court judge Coral Shaw.
May - A “survivor advisory group” is appointed.
October - A memorandum of understanding is signed with the Police, ensuring incidents of abuse are referred on for investigation.


August - Commission launches eight investigations into abuse and neglect in state and faith-based care settings.
September - The commission reaches 500 private sessions.


May - Survivors give evidence in the commission's public hearing into abuse in state-run children's homes.
June - Public hearing held into Lake Alice child and adolescent unit, one of two institutional case studies.


February - Public hearing held into abuse at Marylands School, the second of its institutional case studies and part of its broader investigation of abuse in the Catholic Church.
March - Public hearing held for whānau Māori who were abused.
April - Faith-based investigation extended to cover Methodist, Presbyterian and Salvation Army faiths.
June - Public hearing held for foster care survivors.
July - Public hearing held for the disabled and deaf communities and former psychiatric and psychopaedic patients.
August - Commission holds 14th public hearing where state agencies are questioned on their responses to abuse in care.