Proper response needed to abuse in care

Pressure is growing on the government to respond to those who suffered within New Zealand’s systemically abusive care institutions. This pressure includes an open letter that calls upon the government to establish an independent inquiry, to publicly apologise to those affected and to provide prompt and adequate redress.

Each one of these steps is necessary and important, and it is essential each one is conducted appropriately.

Let’s consider first the establishment of an inquiry. Such a body requires the mana, resources and power to engage in a robust assessment of what happened in the past, and the current state of affairs. Such an inquiry will not be the work of a moment. Northern Ireland’s Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry investigated 22 care institutions. It opened in January 2014 and reported in January 2017 – an adequate inquiry in New Zealand is unlikely to be any shorter.

Next, consider the demand for an apology. At present, the government offers individual apologies to particular claimants. This contrasts sharply with the official national apology offered by our Australian counterparts. The Australian example demonstrates how public apologies serve important functions. They become part of the nation’s history and provide standards for future government behaviour.

Official public apologies can be criticised, but they cannot be replaced. They are a public acknowledgement of wrongdoing, a public admission that people were injured and a public acceptance that responsibility lies with the State.

And they must be conveyed, publicly, to all survivors.

In order to do this, the official apology needs to accept responsibility straightforwardly – there is no room for weasel words – and it needs to be delivered in a public forum with appropriate pomp and circumstance. In the best case, it will be delivered by the Prime Minister as the most senior representative of the New Zealand state.

Individual private letters are not a bad response and can be of great value to those people who receive them. But private letters will not replace an official apology, delivered in a public forum, by the Prime Minister.

Finally, let’s address the matter of prompt and adequate redress. Legal suits are not appropriate means of redress for most survivors of care institutions. Statutory time limitations are a barrier to older cases. Further, the psychological and financial difficulties of fighting a protracted legal battle against the Crown, with its almost inexhaustible resources of time and money, makes the adversarial legal approach both intimidating and ineffective for survivors.

A recent report indicates that the government spent more than a $1m defending itself against four survivors of abuse at Whakapakari, a ‘boot camp’ on Great Barrier Island. After 12 years of litigation, the government settled for $369,000 and paid a similar amount in legal aid. The $1.8m in cost to taxpayers to settle four claims is worse than wrong, it is stupid.

Youths taken to a Great Barrier Island boot camp to straighten out were later compensated for abuse they suffered there. Photo: Still from 'Breaking the Barrier' documentary

Overseas, states have provided large scale redress programmes that are faster, cheaper and less difficult for claimants. At present New Zealand offers the low-profile Historic Claims process. However, this is a protracted programme, with an average case taking more than two years to settle. By comparison, most claims in Ireland’s Magdalene programme take only a few months.

In any future redress programme here in New Zealand, we will need to think carefully about what information the programme needs and how it is run, staffed and resourced. It may be better to establish a ‘two track’ programme, as has happened in Queensland and Canada, where applicants can obtain a basic settlement relatively quickly and then, if eligible and if they so choose, pursue a fuller redress of their claims.

The push to have the government address these important questions is ongoing. To echo Rachel Smalley’s observation in another context, it seems odd that New Zealand will have a two month inquiry into why a dog was shot at Auckland Airport, but fail to inquire into the horrific experiences of thousands of abused children.

The recently established website neveragain.co.nz, sponsored by the Human Rights Commission, is a resource to learn more about the issue here in New Zealand. The website contains appalling stories of child abuse: it also offers a platform for concrete and practical action that will bring justice to survivors and provide the means for New Zealand to address the history of abuse in state care. 

Comments

Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: contact@newsroom.co.nz. Thank you.

PARTNERS