Musings of a Student Social Worker on the Public Demands for State Responsibility for Institutional Violence

by Atticus Finch

As I watched the recent interview online of four Māori adults who were abused as young children in care homes at Newshub , tears welled up in my eyes. I could only imagine what a lifetime of abuse and violence and years of non-acknowledgement of the effects of such violence and abuse have psychologically and physically damaged such children, and thousands of others with similar fates. Stanley (2016) in her book, The Road to Hell, documents the horrific stories of 105 children who were placed in state care and who suffered unimaginably due to such institutionalisation. She says that children placed in state care came from disadvantaged families where life was messy, uncertain and often risky, then removed and placed in state care where they were routinely abused. Stanley found that not only were children placed in state care subjected to specific acts of physical, mental and sexual violence but they also suffered constant personal disparagement in often inhumane environments  where institutional workers treated children like criminals and blamed them for their circumstances.

One of the responses of the state to claims made by victims of abuse in state care was to set up a Confidential Listening and Support Service (CLAS) where victims were given an opportunity to talk about their abuse and in which assistance was offered (Stanley, 2015). A report submitted to the government with recommendations by CLAs, recommended setting up an inquiry into the abuse. The chairperson of CLAS, Judge Carolyn Henwood, in an interview to Radio New Zealand stated that she could not guarantee that there would be no future abuse of children in state homes unless an independent inquiry was set put to investigate such abuses. This has led to calls from different quarters, including the Human Rights Commission and prominent Kiwis such as Race Relations Commissioner, Dame Susan Devoy, Equal Employment Commissioner and former National MP, Jackie Blue, Otago University Dean of Law, Professor Mark Henaghan. While the government has ruled out the possibility of an inquiry, Labour has now joined in and is demanding for one.

In the midst of all the politics in the media of whether or not an inquiry is to be set up, I am left wondering as to where the voice of social workers are in this burning social issue that if not properly addressed, will leave its negative impact on generations of Kiwis. Except for a blog by Elisabeth Stanley (who incidentally is not a social worker) posted in a Blog site operated by social workers, social academics and researchers, Re-Imagining Social Work in Aotearoa New Zealand.  I could not find much online where social workers have voiced their opinion on the matter and there seems to be an almost uncanny silence. The underpinning principle of social work is social justice and one cannot deny that the issue of abuse of children in state care is one which cries out for social justice. But where do social workers stand on this issue? Is social work, which is supposed to work with  principles of social justice values, reduced to what Lester Salamon (1993, p. 155) as quoted by Baines (2010) calls “the myth of pure virtue” where workplace surveillance and manageralism have turned social work value systems parallel to that of  neoliberal value systems, preoccupied with turning workers into self reliant, utility-maximising individuals who do not require cooperation from  others and have no interest in mobilising society for collective action for social change (Baines, 2010)?


Baines, D. (2010). ‘If we don’t get back to where we were before’: Working in the restructured non-profit social services. British Journal of Social Work, 40(3), 928-945.

Stanley, E. (2016). The Road to Hell, Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press.

Stanley, E. (2015). Responding to state institutional violence. British Journal of Criminology, 55, 1149-1167


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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