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What do survivors want to see from the Abuse in Care inquiry’s final report?

The following is the latest report on New Zealand and the Abuse in Care Inquiry that starts in June:

Throughout the process, survivors have relived their darkest moments. But as they wait for the final report, question marks loom about whether transformative change will result.

This article is part of The Quarter Million, exploring the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in State Care.

“Hell on earth” is how one former pupil described Marylands School. Based in Christchurch and operated by the Catholic order of St John of God Brothers, the school characterised itself as an educational institution for children with learning difficulties. Active for 29 years, from 1955 to 1984, the now crumbling remains of the school buildings shrouds a shockingly dark history, with reports of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse inflicted upon hundreds of children by those meant to care for them. 

Marylands is just one of an almost inconceivable number of instances of institutional abuse waged upon vulnerable children across the country in the second half of the last century – each one a stain on our collective history.

Since 2018, the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care has delved into the reasons young people were placed into care between 1950 and 1999, what abuse they suffered and the lasting effects of that abuse. The scope of the inquiry includes at least 815 state-run family homes and residences, and more than 800 faith-based institutions like Marylands. What the inquiry has uncovered is of a scale many will find hard to comprehend, especially given that this abuse festered for decades across psychiatric hospitals, state and church-run schools, foster homes, orphanages, churches, youth boot camps and beyond – places where young people should have been safe.

It has been estimated that around a quarter of a million New Zealanders were victims of this abuse.

Marylands School was the site of brutal sexual and physical abuse by Catholic brothers. (Photo: V C Browne & Son, Additional design: Archi Banal.)

As of August 2023, nearly 3,000 people had shared their experiences with the commission through private sessions, written accounts and witness statements. These included survivors of abuse, advocates, those who have studied the systems that allowed abuse to happen, former employees of institutions, and those officials now accountable for the wrongdoings of their predecessors. In total, the commission conducted 133 days of public hearings and analysed more than 1 million documents.

The commission planned to deliver its final report by June 2023. However, in April, at the request of commissioners, the high-level inquiry received a nine-month extension for the deadline of its conclusive report, now scheduled to be submitted to the governor general in March 2024. “This timeframe extension reflects the huge amount of evidence received and the need for every voice to be included,” explained Barbara Edmonds, then minister responsible for the inquiry, at the time. However, the delay, which is the second extension in the timeline of the inquiry, has been met with criticism by some survivors, who consider the extended wait just another instance of justice denied.

When it is released, the final report is set to establish the nature and extent of the abuse, its impact on people, improvements made so far, and recommendations for what may still need to be done to prevent similar situations from reoccurring. The question remains as to whether the report will live up to expectations, and importantly, if it will be acted upon by the government. 

Survivors’ visions for the kind of change they want to see is not homogenous, but what unifies them is a collective desire for meaningful, systematic and far-reaching transformation. This shared aspiration is driven by two interconnected objectives: seeking justice for survivors, and ensuring the abuse they suffered is never repeated. And no matter what is in the final report, there are concerns among survivors and their advocates around the extent to which the report will be acted upon to create this kind of change.

More than anything else, survivors want the public to understand what they experienced, said Ken Clearwater, who used to lead the Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse Trust in Christchurch. “That’s first and foremost, that the people of New Zealand will get to see the damage that was done to innocent children who should have been looked after,” he said.

Survivors and their advocates hope that the report acknowledging what happened in the past will lead to recognition of the profound and enduring impacts of systemic failures on survivors. Throughout the inquiry, survivors have recounted the influence of abuse across every aspect of their lives, leaving them with minimal education, barriers to attaining employment, physical health issues, physiological and emotional distress, unhealthy perspectives on relationships and parenthood, cultural disconnect, struggles with substance abuse, addictions, and criminal records – it’s a legacy of harm that now spans generations.

Survivor Scott Carr, who suffered extreme physical and psychological abuse at Whakapakari as a teenager, described himself in a previous Spinoff article as “a man with no dreams”. Now a 40-year-old father and husband, he shared the intergenerational effects the abuse left. “I have never hugged my kids, I’ve never changed any nappies,” Carr recalled. “I don’t have the skills to bring up my teenagers because my teenage life went off the rocks.” 

The Pacific Investigation hearings at the Fale o Sāmoa in Māngere from 19 – 30 July. (Photo: Royal Commission of Inquiry Into Abuse In Care)

“Look at all the things that we struggle with today in this country – health, mental health, prisons, gangs – if you look at our past, it’s easy to see why we’re in this place,” said Clearwater, who has dedicated more than 25 years to working with survivors. Waitangi Tribunal documents estimate that more than 80 per cent of current prisoners and between 80 and 90 percent of members of Black Power and the Mongrel Mob have spent time in state care.

Money alone can’t compensate for the damage done to individuals, to whānau and to society as a whole. Clearwater sees comprehensive redress for survivors and transformative changes to the system as imperative for there to be a chance of healing these enduring wounds. 

As it’s unlikely there will be another inquiry of this kind, Clearwater anticipates that the commission’s final report will be bold and call for transformative change to prevent the same happening again. “There’s got to be a big 360 degree turn within our systems,” Clearwater said, spanning welfare, education, Oranga Tamariki, mental health, and the justice system. “We’ve got to go from what is literally a punishment model to a caring model.” 

Clearwater stressed just how critical it is that survivors and their advocates are resourced and empowered to design what this looks like, too. With 25 years of experience behind him, Clearwater sees a gap in how we look after and provide positive role models to vulnerable men and boys. “In a patriarchal system, there’s no place for male victims,” he said. “Our systems are failing these young fellas at the moment.”

So far, the interim redress report, He Purapura Ora, he Māra Tipu: From Redress to Puretumu Torowhānui, delivered in December 2021, has had the most substantial and wide-ranging recommendations for the Crown. In this report, the commission criticised the current redress system for offering little more than apologies and inadequate financial compensation to survivors. In contrast, the commission highlighted the urgent need for a new independent authority that provides compensation which recognises the harm inflicted upon survivor’s lives and a package of redress which helps them to get their lives back on track. In response, the government committed to establishing a new, independent redress system for survivors of abuse in state and faith-based care. 

Survivor and advocate Steven Goodlass is “deeply concerned” about what will happen following the final report. While Goodlass was initially impressed by the commission’s “broad and far reaching” recommendations, two years later, he is apprehensive about the sluggish progress by the government in developing the independent redress scheme. There are also, he believes, ongoing gaps in changes to accident compensation legislation, to laws relating to civil litigation and accountability by faith-based institutions, which act as barriers to justice and fair compensation for survivors.

He points in particular to the “rapid redress” payment process, which was developed by the government for the elderly and ill who might otherwise not live long enough to benefit from redress. This process, deemed ‘full and final,’ raises concerns for Goodlass, who fears it may limit survivors’ rights for justice in the future. “If you waive your rights to any further recourse or action, it’s basically like saying to that person, ‘just go away’,” he said. Whereas in his estimation, the redress hearings made it “quite clear that the survivors were looking for a package of redress which helped them to get their lives back on track.”

Moving forward, he believes there needs to be an urgent package of redress including financial compensation, and a package of services “across the whole spectrum of wellbeing”, including services like counselling or physical therapy which survivors can make use of for life. 

No matter how bold the final report is, the nature of the inquiry means that their recommendations are not legally binding and the government is not obligated to accept any findings. However, there’s a very real risk that dismissing the commission’s work could have political consequences for the government, and would be a resounding disappointment to survivors who have been repeatedly let down in the past. 

The Presbyterian Berhampore Children’s Home degenerated into a hellhole of emotional, sexual and physical abuse. (Image: Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, photographer S C Smith. Additional design by Tina Tiller)

Given the way this earlier report has been actioned, Goodlass is concerned that, regardless of the recommendations put forth in the final report, the government may look at a raft of courageous recommendations and simply put them in the ‘too hard’ basket. “We’ve had really very little action,” he said. “So I suppose my great concern is that, irrespective of whatever the recommendations are that the commission comes out with, the government is just going to ignore them.”

Clearwater shares these concerns, and the rhetoric from the current government raises alarm bells in terms of willingness to enact transformative changes going forward. “We know that punishment hasn’t worked, but this government is hell-bent on building more prisons, and they’re hell-bent on looking at boot camps to punish these young boys,” he said. “The research and the proof is there on where we’ve gone wrong, but nobody within the political system has the nous, the guts, the intelligence to do anything.”

For those who have participated in the inquiry, the process comes at a significant personal toll. To speak or to write about what happened is, in many cases, yet another traumatic experience, another encounter with heavy, long-term pain. Clearwater, himself a survivor of sexual abuse from the age of 12, has deep concerns about the potential additional harm to survivors if the government fails to meaningfully adopt any of the commission’s final recommendations – both in terms of redress and wide-ranging systemic change.

“It’s never been about the money, it’s always been about how we can stop this happening to other children,” Clearwater said. “If those changes don’t come, you’ve just opened yourself for nothing to happen, and that’s damaging, hugely damaging.”

The fear is that, after sharing their darkest moments in the hope of urgently needed change and justice, the system, which has historically dismissed their claims, will continue to do so, perpetuating a cycle of disbelief, betrayal and potentially more abuse.

The findings so far have been devastating, and for many in this country, will be hard to digest; dispelling the notion that the abuse occurred in some distant, removed past. Instead, and even more hauntingly, it sheds light on a culture of abuse that existed among ordinary New Zealand communities, operating in seemingly ordinary work cultures and overseen by many of the same institutions that exist today.

This presents an opportunity for the crown and faith-based institutions to acknowledge and take responsibility for the decades-long operation of these systems. Whether they will be able to see past their own failings and institute transformative change is another story.

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