Compensation in Aotearoa for historical institutional abuse: We are failing

By Abigail Williams

Children in our society have been physically, emotionally, sexually and neglectfully abused for years, at the hands of their family, but also while in the hands of state care providers and religious groups (Matthews, 2004). This is no new insight or fact. Over the past few decades the history of abuse and neglect has come to light both internationally as well as locally in New Zealand.

There are new news headlines about historical abuse regularly, such as a mass children’s grave being found in Ireland, and marches for answers in Belfast. On top of this there are well documented examples of governmental inquiries over institutional abuse and the subsequent establishment of compensation schemes in New Brunswick, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Ireland, Queensland and so on over the past 50 years (Matthews, 2004). Locally,  we have recently heard the stories of four men, taken into state care, that were subjected to inhumane levels of abuse, as well as the debates around how to proceed with accounts like these. This evidence of abuse in New Zealand alone is damning and shameful, but is made worse with the knowledge that there are at least 1100 more victims, known to the government.

This brings many questions to mind, but the most prominent is:

How do we adequately compensate all those impacted by abuse suffered while in state provided care?

This question has no simple answer, as it is caught in the complexities of political agendas, cultural considerations, public scrutiny and pressure as a result of a risk obsessed society and the promise from the social work profession to do no harm.

It is particularly difficult, as there is a current conflict between the Human Rights Commissioner, Dame Susan Devoy and the Prime Minister, Bill English, over whether to hold an inquiry, and if so, what the first steps of this would look like. English is quoted saying that he believes that we know what happened during the 1970s and 1980s in institutional care in New Zealand, but not the scale of abuse suffered. There are also, no signs of movement from the government to pursue a formal inquiry around the matter. Devoy, however, has argued that we must look at how and why this abuse took place. This call to look back into our history, is one that will help us to build a stronger, safer and more stable environment for tamariki placed into state care.

I believe we need to look to other countries, to find a process that could be adapted to a New Zealand context. The power of a government recognising their mistakes, and shining a light on a negative history, with the promise of doing better, is huge, and I believe, is underestimated by our current government (Matthews, 2004).

We know that abuse has occurred in New Zealand and there is countless research on the life-long impacts of this abuse on individuals. So why are we not taking steps to understand what has happened, with the view of using this data to prevent this happening again? By doing nothing, we are failing.



Mathews, B. (2004). Queensland government actions to compensate survivors of institutional abuse: A critical and comparative evaluation. QUT Law Review4(1), 23-45. doi:10.5204/qutlr.v4i1.172


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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