Opinion Piece: The Abuse of Children in State-Run Schools
Back in the sixties there was a young Maori boy who lived in a small New Zealand town, the son of a Maori Battalion hero. He was mischievous and one day was caught breaking the window at the library. A week later he remembers “the welfare” came to school. He was playing rugby out on the field with his mates when he was called to the principal’s office. A Pakeha man in a suit told him that he was coming with him because he’d been playing up. They went off in the man’s car and after he’d finished the ice cream the man had bought him the boy asked when he was taking him back home. But the man told him he wasn’t going home. And the boy never saw his home town or his family for another eight years: he was only ten years old. He would spend the next years of his childhood in a series of boys homes including the notorious Epuni Boys Home. While there he aligned with a gang and as a young man he would end up in prison. But he would often say: “Prison is nothing compared to the boys’ home.” When asked why, he’d reply: “Because at least in prison you’re an adult. When you’re a kid they can do anything they want to you. And that’s what they do. Any-bloodything.”
This morning the Human Rights Commission is calling on New Zealanders to join growing calls for a wide ranging inquiry into the abuse of children and adults held in state institutions between the 1950s and the 1990s. We know more than 100,000 vulnerable children and adults were taken from their families and placed in children’s homes and mental health institutions and that many suffered serious sexual, physical and psychological abuse. Their suffering took place in a range of institutions, at locations across New Zealand over a period spanning five decades.
So far more than 1000 people who suffered abuse while in state care have taken part in a process led by the state. The Confidential Listening and Assistance Service heard their stories and recommended an independent inquiry be set up to discover the extent of abuse suffered so that this never happens again. The Government rejected this recommendation. So far complaints have been managed by the state in a process many have found humiliating and drawn out. The Government has not issued a universal apology, instead some claimants received individual letters in which senior government officials “regret” the abuse but reject “legal liability” for it.
We are convinced that the extent of abuse suffered by innocent and vulnerable children and adults will never be known until a comprehensive inquiry into their experiences has been held. Survivors tell us the trauma they endured while in state care has had a devastating impact on them and future generations of their families. The Confidential Listening and Assistance Service acknowledged that more than 40% of prison inmates spent their childhoods in state run homes.
Often children were there for minor transgressions such as wagging school, others found themselves in care after a family tragedy. Maori children were more likely to end up in state homes and institutions than non-Maori children. Survivors and those who visited institutions tell us the overwhelming majority of youngsters in state homes – some as young as 7 - were tamariki Maori. We do not know why Maori children were more likely to be locked away than non-Maori and this is something we need to understand. In 2017, 61% of children in state care are Maori, some the grandchildren of youngsters who were put into institutions more than half a century before.
The pain and the shame of their shattered childhoods are being carried by many New Zealanders and to date there is no mana in the way they have been treated by their own Government. They deserve better and New Zealanders deserve to know what happened to them and to know that our officials will learn from their suffering to ensure it never happens. Never again. E Kore Ano.
A week ago New Zealand marked Waitangi Day and at the Human Rights Commission we encouraged Kiwis to Know Your History – Know Our history: Kimihia O Korero Tuku Iho. The reality is when it comes to knowing our history, those painful chapters are just as important as those we celebrate.
I would like to be able to tell that small boy, that half a century after he was taken away by “the welfare”, we are calling people to account for what happened to him so it can never happen again. But I can’t tell him. He took his life a few years ago, a day or so before his 60th birthday. But what we can do is honour him and all others who have suffered in silence by finally opening up this very dark chapter in the history of our nation, our families and our tamariki.
By Karen Johansen, Indigenous Rights Commissioner