Futurelearning

The widening challenge of the state care abuse inquiry

Changes to the state care abuse inquiry's size and complexity offer a new set of problems, writes the University of Auckland's Dr Stephen Winter 

The long wait is over. The Royal Commission into abuse and neglect in out-of-home care now has a full complement of commissioners, a budget and its final terms of reference. Recent commentators have focused on the fact that religious care arrangements are now included. However, there are a range of other changes, all of which increase the Commission’s size and complexity.

The inclusion of faith-based care is a significant change. However, equally important is the inclusion of all state and private schools, early childhood centres and police custody. To give a sense of what this means, there are around 2530 schools, 5585 early childhood centres and 330 police stations in New Zealand. Including these facilities will dramatically increase the Commission’s scope, and that is to say nothing of people in care in hospitals, prisons, health camps and so on.

In essence, the expanded remit of the Royal Commission potentially includes any situation in which the state had responsibility for a young or vulnerable person.

The new terms of reference also increase the Commission’s scope by clearly mandating investigations into the experience of ‘vulnerable adults’. The draft terms referred to children and young people, whereas now, anyone who is in care for reasons relating to disability is included.

Another change to the scope of the Commission is the time period. Originally, the focus was 1950-1999. Now, there is specific permission to consider experiences beyond that time period. That extension is prudent. The Commission will need to investigate present-day practice if it is to recommend useful improvements.

These new responsibilities have brought significant increases to the Commission’s projected duration and budget. Originally projected to last three years, it will now run for four. And the projected budget has almost doubled, from $40 million to $78 million, with a specific provision to request new funds in 2020. The four-year remit reflects the experience of similar Commissions overseas, such as the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse (2013-2017). Whether the New Zealand’s $78 million budget is adequate remains to be seen – Australia spent around NZD$500 million.

A powerful role for the Treaty of Waitangi adds to the Commission’s complexity. Māori are significantly over-represented in out-of-home care. The Commission will be required to act in accordance with the principles of the Treaty and work in partnership with Māori. It is interesting to speculate how partnerships will develop. Some iwi and hapū are likely to welcome opportunities to become involved, perhaps taking ownership of certain components of the investigation. Moreover, their involvement is likely to shape any recommendations. No Māori organisation is likely to endorse the status quo; wherein ever-increasing numbers of Māori children are taken out of their families by a largely Pākehā bureaucracy.

Lastly, the new terms of reference specify a two-phase process for the Commission. Firstly, it will investigate and report on the history of state care and make recommendations for improvements in interim reports before the end of 2020. It is likely that these reports will provide a historical overview alongside time-sensitive recommendations, such as provision of personal and family records, trauma-informed practice and monetary redress. Then, after 2020, it will expand its investigation into faith-based care and provide more detailed historical investigations.

With regard to the time-sensitive character of monetary compensation, it is interesting to consider the uncertainty confronting New Zealand’s existing redress program. Well over 1000 people have lodged claims against the state for abuse or neglect and are awaiting compensation. The state’s process for addressing those claims has been subject to significant criticisms. Those presently awaiting settlement will be uncertain what changes, if any, will be recommended and further, if the Government will accept those changes. The ‘due date’ for the interim report is after the next election, making it difficult for the present Government to make ironclad commitments. Therefore, present claimants are in the unenviable position of deciding whether or not to proceed with their claims, or wait in the hope that something better will be forthcoming.

Its ambitious terms of reference will make the Commission’s work larger and more complex: It is charged with investigating large portions of New Zealand society over a long period of time, and with making a range of recommendations in complex and challenging fields. To manage this immense task, the Commission will have to divide its work into manageable components and here, the Australian model of having a series of reports on differing issues is likely to be of interest.

In addition to working efficiently, the Commission will need to reach out to diverse groups, establish its bona fides with Māori and Pacific peoples and those in disabled communities, while at the same time retaining credibility in Wellington and support among taxpayers. It is without doubt an extremely challenging task.

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