Abuse in State Care – Revelations demand an Inquiry

by Vicky Michaels

Like many New Zealanders earlier this month, on the 9th of April 2017 I watched the The Hui, the TV3 current affairs programme that revealed to the wider public for the first time, atrocities that had occurred in New Zealand to four former wards of the state – the survivors (ngā mōrehu, as they call themselves).  As children, they endured psychological, physical and sexual abuse within the walls of state institutions to which they had been dispatched.

During the period between the 1950s and 1980s more than 100,000 children were removed from their homes and sent to residential facilities, where care and support should have been received, instead time after time many of these children were abused and broken – forced to suffer horrific, inhumane treatment.  In Elizabeth Stanley’s recent book “The Road to Hell: State Violence against Children in Post-war New Zealand ” extensive detail of 105 such cases of individuals has been divulged.

As an aspiring social worker, I am shocked and appalled by the abhorrent content disclosed by these courageous men, along with the experiences shared in the pages of Stanley’s book.  I am left wondering however, what action the Government proposes to take to acknowledge and assist those who experienced such abuse; and even more importantly, what procedures are being implemented to ensure this historic abuse never happens again?  Surely future action must include learning from the past, to prevent the same mistakes from happening again.  As Stanley (2015)  states, a more ‘responsive response’ is required, which includes recognition, reparation and prevention.

Over recent years a great number of accusations of systemic, institutional abuse toward children have emerged, and continue to unfold.  These are not limited to New Zealand, having also been reported in Australia, Northern Ireland, Canada and the UK, to name a few more well-known inquiries.  Deb Stanfield provides an extensive outline of numerous incidents previously highlighted in the media in “The politics of saying sorry: Making good on intentions.”

An abundance of support exists (as shown by signatories to the open letter  to the NZ Prime Minister) calling for a public apology, an independent inquiry, and redress relating to the historical abuse of individuals in state care.  However, the Government continues to insist an independent inquiry and public apology are not necessary, and would not achieve anything.  Some credit must be given to the Government for commissioning the Confidential Listening and Assistance Services  (CLAS) (between 2008 and June 2015 – providing a platform for victims’ stories to be heard).   Individual apologies have been given to victims as requested plus some compensation granted, however many feel this is not enough.  Many victims have not come forward, those who have feel the treatment received has “created further injustice” (Stanley, 2015, p 1153).

Another considerable matter of contention, which appears to be the ‘elephant in the room’, is the question of institutional racism.  Dame Susan Devoy (Race Relations Commissioner) strongly suspects “institutional racism or systemic discrimination” was a strong influence in the history of abuse in state care.  However she believes unless an inquiry is held the true extent of this will never be known.

Finally, as Stanley (2016) stated “In silencing the past, socio-cultural and institutional tolerance of damaging practices remains in place.”  Let’s not tolerate this barbaric behaviour in the future.  An independent inquiry is absolutely necessary – New Zealander’s need to know the truth; and the Government needs to learn from past mistakes and plan for a safe and nurturing environment for all children now and in the future.


Devoy, S. (2017, 2 March). Aotearoa’s lost generation – Maori children in state care. Scoop.Retrieved from http://scoop.co.nz/

Stanfield, D. (2017) .  The politics of saying sorry: Making good on intentions. http://www.reimaginingsocialwork.nz/2017/03/the-politics-of-saying-sorry-making-good-on-intentions/%5D

Stanley, E. (2016, 5 December). Decades of brutality in our name, and Key and Tolley cover their ears – nothing to see here. The Spinoff. Retrieved from http://thespinoff.co.nz/

Stanley, E. (2015). Responding to state institutional violence. British Journal of Criminology, 5(6), 1149-1167. doi:10.1093/bjc/azv034 Abstract here


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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