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An Apology? Surely NZ needs a Royal Commission of Inquiry

An Apology? Surely NZ needs a Royal Commission of Inquiry first!

Labour’s Justice spokesperson, Jacinda Ardern, recently called on the NZ Government to issue an apology for historic abuse in state institutions. Previously Social Development Minister, Anne Tolley had said that she would apologise to any child who was abused in state care.

Ms Ardern spoke last week after the launch of Elizabeth Stanley’s new book “The Road to Hell; State Violence against Children in Post-War New Zealand”. The book is a moving account of the experiences of those placed into state care from the 1950s to the 1980s and the harrowing tales it contains are indeed a persuasive argument for redress and change.
During these years the NZ government removed more than 100,000 children from their families or carers and subjected them to multiple, unsettling transfers. They often came from situations of intense abuse, neglect and poverty and they were placed under state ‘care’ in residential facilities. This included foster homes, orphanages, psychiatric hospitals, health camps, child welfare homes and special education homes. They were often placed with abusive or harmful carers in shabby, overcrowded institutions.

The state may have intended to provide protection and care for these children, but it failed miserably. The truth is that the abuse, violence and neglect that they often experienced while in state ‘care’, was often worse than where they had come from, and only made things worse for the children.

Studies confirm that the harmful legacy of intense trauma related to institutional child abuse often leads to physical and/or mental health problems in adults.

Accordingly countless New Zealander’s lives have been destroyed and ruined by the state's institutional abuse; many of whom suffer long-term issues such as PTSD, imprisonment, alcohol and drug abuse, unemployment, under-employment, welfare dependency, poverty, broken relationships, homelessness, depression, anger, fear of authority and low-self-esteem.

So how can a mere state apology possibly change the day-to-day reality of this kind of nightmare for an adult care-leaver? Let's face it - it can’t. So what do survivors want?

Netta Christian, author, former foster child and spokesperson for the NZ branch of Care Leavers Australasia Network (CLAN NZ) says, “Sorry is just a meaningless word unless it is backed up with actions. So unless New Zealand has a Royal Commission of Inquiry - how will Anne Tolley even know how many she is apologising to and why? Empty rhetoric, otherwise!”

“Many victims feel the state has never fully acknowledged what has happened to them. The present complaint system is unworkable and merely re-victimises the victims. So far the official response has been to hide our testimonies of state violence from the public eye. The New Zealand public needs to hear our stories. Most New Zealanders are completely unaware of the facts and know almost nothing about what was allowed to happen during their lifetimes in our institutions.”

“We need to be respectfully listened to, to get public recognition, to seek prosecutions, to receive compensation, to receive counselling or health services etc – and not just be handed an empty apology. We are not going away until we get a Royal Commission in New Zealand!”

It was last year that Labour first called for a Government apology, after a report from the ‘Confidential Listening and Assistance Service’ (CLAS), which revealed the brutal circumstances that NZ children had been subjected to in foster homes, institutions, asylums, health camps and borstals from the 1940s to 1992. This was essentially a closed-door inquiry where information was hidden from public view. Even the head of CLAS, Judge Carolyn Henwood, is quoted as saying, “One part of there not being an inquiry is that the public don’t know about any of this. Findings are kept under the radar”.

So obviously we must learn from this that, above all, any inquiry would require full transparency and accountability. For New Zealand this would also plainly mean an independent public inquiry, with no cover-ups. Most New Zealanders would be surprised to learn that New Zealand is now the only Commonwealth country to never have held a Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historic Institutional Child Abuse. An obvious question for us to ask is ‘why not’? We believe that the answer to this reveals that there is clearly a lot for New Zealand to hide. Our reasoning is that, unlike countries like Australia, where a large percentage of institutions were run by churches or charities, most of the institutional child abuse that occurred in New Zealand, occurred in state-run institutions. Therefore, calling on the New Zealand Government for a Royal Commission of Inquiry can only be equated to asking the guilty to investigate themselves.

What most adult survivors in New Zealand are currently calling for is a Royal Commission closely based on the Australian model. However, CLAN NZ is calling for all forms of abuse and neglect to be recognised, not just sexual abuse, as in the Australian model. There is more than one way to harm a child and many children suffered cruel and brutal physical, emotional and mental abuse, trauma and neglect while living in state care. We believe that a Royal Commission would need to have full statutory powers to compel witnesses and demand evidence.

“A Royal Commission would create a safe platform for many people to come forward and testify,” said Ms Christian. “With what we are currently seeing in Australia, what we have seen in Ireland and what is about to start in the UK, it would be quite absurd to assume that New Zealand did not have the same problems.”

Grant West, a New Zealand-born care leaver, currently residing in Australia, is now touring New Zealand with a petition to be presented to Parliament mid-September. He was barred from telling his own story of institutional abuse to the Australian Royal Commission (as it all happened in New Zealand), so he is determined that New Zealand will hold its own Royal Commission, to give him and others like him an opportunity to publicly testify.

Wellington lawyer Sonja Cooper has recently renewed calls for a public inquiry.

Ken Clearwater, from Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse, says he's been fighting for an independent inquiry ever since the Boston Globe first uncovered clerical abuse within the Catholic Church.

In November 2012, the President of the NZ Catholic Bishops Conference, John Dew, publicly supported the Australian Royal Commission into Institutionalised Child Abuse and said the NZCBC would support any similar investigation in New Zealand.

Bill Kilgallon, who handles the NZ Catholic Church's sex abuse claims, says they would support and cooperate with an inquiry and feels it should be similar to the one currently being held in Australia.

Garth McVicar, founder of the Sensible Sentencing Trust, considers a NZ inquiry into child sexual abuse is crucial, as the rampant abuse of children in New Zealand mirrors what prompted the UK inquiry.

Author Elizabeth Stanley has also called for a public inquiry in her newly published book. She suggests a ‘tri-partite’ commission, with the three parts covering ‘recognition’, ‘repair’ and ‘prevention’. Stanley considers the commission findings would be a crucial first step in building the necessary state and public knowledge about what a potential apology would actually be for - if an apology is forthcoming at all.


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