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Tova interviews Tanya Sammons, Tyrone Marks, Aaron Smale

Tova O’Brien: With me now are survivors of abuse in state care. Tanya Sammons, Tyrone Marks who also sits on the commission’s Survivor’s Advisory Group. Kia ora, kōrua. Thank you very much for joining us. Tanya, perhaps we could start with you, and just maybe tell me a bit about the impact that state care had on you and your family.

Tanya Sammons: Pretty much, it was me and my two other sisters were fostered. We were taken away from our family. I’m the middle daughter. I’ve got a younger sister and an older sister. My older sister committed suicide throughout her experiences. She’d left two children behind. We’ve been fighting to try and get justice for her, and for ourselves as well. We need to heal, we need to get all this out on the table.

That is why it was so important that we finally got to this point with the Royal Commission. Tyrone, we did finally get there. The first serious attempt by the state to address the abuse of the past. Tell us about your role and your experience so far with the Commission.

Tyrone Marks: I’ve had— I’ve probably been there on nine different occasions. They’ve asked us for our input, in terms of, ‘How are they going to run this? How do they get to survivors? How do they engage?’ And so I’ve been there, as I’ve said, a number of times. I’ve been in a support role. I’ve been also in counselling with other survivors. And I’ve advised them, as well as others, on a number of occasions about what to do and what not to do. In terms of what’s happening at the moment, I think that advice has fallen on deaf ears.

Yes. So you think they’ve dropped the ball. How so?

Marks: I think that they’ve dropped the ball in not listening, not taking the advice. You’ve got to remember that state abuse, state survivors —there’s trauma we’re talking about. There’s re-traumatising, and there’s lots of safety issues that— they’ve just gone about this and around it in a different way altogether. We feel that if it continues this way that this whole thing’s going to fall.

Yeah, which would be the worst-case scenario for everyone. Our third guest, journalist Aaron Smale, has joined us. Aaron, thank you very much for being here. We started off talking a bit about Oranga Tamariki being under immense scrutiny this week over the removal of new-borns from their mothers. Is this a new problem?

Smale: The short answer is no. I mean, Tyrone went through the welfare homes. He started back in the 60s. I was adopted in the 70s. This is a decades-old issue. I couldn’t watch that video. I knew it would actually set me off. It would be too distressing because the state has been doing this for a very, very long time. Just picking up on what Tyrone said, the state just does not listen, and that has been something that is a theme that has come through consistently in everything that I’ve covered. There’s this denial — deny, deny, deny the whole time. The allegations that have come out over the years, there’s been this flat-out stonewalling denial. It’s kind of annoying to me that Oranga Tamariki and the Royal Commission, when the finger’s been pointed at them this week they basically go to that default position of denial. They won’t listen. They won’t take on-board the criticism that’s been directed at them, and I don’t know how they’re going to fix anything unless they actually front-up to the mistakes that they’re making. Those mistakes are significant, they’re on-going and they’re entrenched, actually. And I’m — like Tyrone —concerned. I want this Royal Commission to work, like a lot of people. I did not put that story out there lightly. I did not take a cheap shot, because I want it to work. But when all of these things are starting to surface, these problems, I can’t just sit on the side-lines and stay quiet about it.

You’ve had one private session now, haven’t you, Tanya? What was that experience like for you?

Sammons: Because it was at a motel room, I had the choice of where I wanted to have my interview. I pretty much just wanted to get on with it. I didn’t really have a problem where it was. But then I went into a motel, and I sat in the waiting room for quite some time before I got called in. I talked to the reception person at the motel, they just told me, ‘Take a seat. I would be called in in a moment.’ But he was unaware whether they were even ready and prepared. So he went off and did his job, came back to the room, and said, ‘Oh, you’re still here.’ He went off and notified them that I was actually sitting outside waiting for them. I had two ladies come out and introduce themselves, took me into the conference room, and I pretty much got told at that time, introduced to my well-being person. To me, I would have expected my well-being person to come out and greet me. That’s one thing I was a little bit concerned about. I was sitting in a room by myself with no support.

And those things are really important, aren’t they? Because you’re opening up in a way that is incredibly difficult for people. It needs to be treated with the due care and respect.

Sammons: Definitely. I didn’t go into too much of the detail because of how I felt. I, sort of, just went through my background, where I came from, a bit about certain things that happening, but I didn’t go into full detail because I didn’t feel that comfortable at that time.

Can you go into any of that detail now?

Sammons: Because I didn’t explain a lot of things to them. I was taken at the age of two, oh, sorry— age of three. My younger sister was two, and my older sister was four years old. There’s a year in between us. Me and my younger sister, sort of, started all this going, after my older sister passed away. She committed suicide. So that was, you know, it’s a pretty raw thing for us. They are responsible for it.

For Alva’s death?

Sammons: Yeah. So I started telling a bit about my story. I, sort of, didn’t feel comfortable explaining a lot. There was sexual abuse. For me, it was three of the boys that were in the home. My younger sister can only recall one of them. She knows there was another one, but she can’t identify which one. So I just explained that side of things – what age I was when I went into the foster care, what age I left and got the opportunity to meet my birth mother at the same time. So that was an experience on its own. I also explained to them what I– They started asking me questions on how to run it, sort of thing. So I thought, am I here to do your job and teach you or are you just asking me general questions?

So I answered some of the questions that they asked. Do I want to see the person who did this to me be prosecuted? Yes, definitely. Do I want to see rehabilitation? How do I feel about that? Reimbursements. I also got asked if it went to a public hearing, did I want to attend it? If I wanted to give evidence. So that’s the part, I was a little bit wary of when this mock thing came out.

This is where there’s a bit of confusion, isn’t there?

Sammons: Yeah.

Are the private sessions actual sessions? Is your evidence being taken or are they indeed just these mock sessions.

Sammons: Yeah.

Is this the feedback you're hearing as well?

Smale: The consent form that I saw, it said quite clearly that this is not evidence. You're not giving evidence. It won’t be taken as evidence.

Only at that subsequent hearing?

Smale: Yes. And if you want to give evidence, you have to front up again. Now, that to me is like, why would you be putting people through that process twice? I asked them – and I never got and answer – I said, ‘Have you put this process through any kind of ethical scrutiny? Some kind of independent scrutiny?’ Never got an answer.

What about these people who have been through these sessions and have spoken about Sir Anand Satyanand falling asleep?

Smale: One of them was a guy, Milton, who I spoke to, and he was adamant he saw Sir Anand falling asleep twice. I spoke to another survivor, Paora, who hadn’t been in these pilot meetings, but she had seen the same thing in the meetings that she’d been in. Witnessed it.

What effect does that have on survivors who are trying to tell their story if someone’s nodding off in the room?

Sammons: Disrespectful. Totally. People are there explaining their situation and what they’ve gone through – such a traumatic situation – and you've got somebody who’s running the whole team falling asleep on you.

What would you do, Tyrone, if someone fell asleep in one of these sessions with you?

Marks: I’d probably get up and walk out because if I prepare myself to tell my story – and goodness me, it’s quite a big one, my story and quite a few others, thousands of others. I don’t want someone falling on sleep on me. If you fall asleep or you nod off or whatever you call it and I’m starting to get traumatised by re–living and re–telling my story again, what’s the point? Who’s going to notice? So, are you really serious about what you're doing or what you're getting paid for? We can’t have this. This is just not on.

Get all those things right at the very least. Stay awake.

Smale: And the other thing was they denied it when I put that to them.

Marks: Yep.

Smale: That was the straight out reaction. ‘We don’t have that in the minutes.’

Yeah. So, what impact does that have on survivors if they’re then told by the Royal Commission, basically, that they’re lying and that the Royal Commission’s account of what happened in those sessions is the accurate one?

Smale: They’ve been told they’re liars all their life. This is it. From childhood, they’ve been told, ‘No, this didn’t happen to you.’ And then for the Royal Commission that’s supposed to be investigating this to then turn around and say, ‘No, we don’t believe you.’ I’m sorry. You're behaving like the state. You're supposed to be investigating the state.

Aaron, does what we’re hearing from Tanya and Tyrone have echoes of what’s happening now with Oranga Tamariki? Are we creating the next stolen generation?

Smale: I don’t think we’ve stopped. There’s this cut–off point of 1999. I can’t quite work out why that’s there. There’s a Crown lawyer that was actually put in charge of setting this up, so take that as you will. But, yeah, absolutely. We’ve got now third, fourth generation of this where the state has intervened in people’s lives, botched it completely, traumatised people and then we’re now getting on. They’ve had kids.

The numbers for me– If you look at the ball park figure of over 100,000, roughly 70 percent of those were Maori. Now, you put them through that trauma – the kind of trauma individuals like this have been through. They have kids. They have grandkids. You add that up, that is a number bigger than any iwi in this country.

Just finally, do we need a state apology now? Would that go some way to rebuilding trust?

Sammons: For me, personally, no, because they need to know what they’re actually apologising for. It’s just like when you go through the legal system to get paid out or to do your evidence side. They apologise to you for what– They’re not even opening your file up.

So, they’ve changed the whole MSD [process]. Me and my sister were involved in trying to help restructure it. To me, the MSD leaflet that we received of the overhaul side of things is still the same. That hasn’t really changed the process side. They’re trying to get people to go directly to MSD instead of going through legal, which we’ve got Sonia Cooper. So, I don’t think that has changed, and I don’t think the apology…

Don’t apologise unless you know what you're apologising for. We have to leave it there. Thank you all so much for joining us. Thank you.

Marks: Okay.

And remember, you can free call or text the Mental Health Foundation Helpline any time on 1737.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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