New Zealand’s state abuse inquiry: The call to social work

By Jane T

On February 13th 2017 an open letter led by the Human Rights Commission, addressed to the Prime Minister of New Zealand, called for an independent inquiry into the abuse of children and adults held in state institutions between the 1950’s and 1990’s. This open letter, which is part of the Never Again campaign, followed the government’s ambivalence towards a public inquiry and the ruling out of a public apology for abuse in state care. Members of the public are invited to add their signature to the open letter online, demanding an independent inquiry into the abuse suffered by those in state care. To date, only 10,851 signatures have been added. This is disturbing considering that more than 100,000 children and adults were placed into state institutions between 1950-1992 and many suffered serious sexual, physical and psychological abuse (Stanley, 2015). One of the organisations endorsing the open letter, Care Leavers Australasia Network (CLAN), claims that ignoring the issue will only continue the harm.

Although political support is building for a full inquiry – Labour, The Maori Party, The Green Party and Act are calling for an independent inquiry, the Prime Minister Bill English remains insistent that the National government is taking the best approach (Patterson, 2017). While the government does offer individual apologies to claimants, these are very private and biased towards those confident enough to get a lawyer, or who have a sense of their right to a hearing. Legal suits are not an appropriate means of redress as statutory time limitations are a barrier to older cases and the psychological and financial difficulties of fighting a lengthy legal battle against the crown is both intimidating and often ineffective (Stanley, 2015). A formal apology is considered by many to be an essential part of helping the victims find some sense of closure and to ensure that children in state care are protected from future abuse.

While many organisations and public figures have been vocal in advocating for an independent inquiry, it is disappointing to see how little the social work profession has contributed to this dialogue. Clearly, the abuse suffered in state care and the denial of responsibility is an issue of social justice and human rights. As a profession aligned with social justice and human rights, social work should be taking a lead role in advocating the campaign for a public inquiry and appropriate redress. New Zealand social work researchers should be utilising their unique position of being able to collaborate with those who have suffered state abuse to engage in joint action and political advocacy. Knowledge, gained in conversation with survivors of state abuse needs to be obtained and brought into the public and political sphere by social work researchers. By giving voice to the survivors of state abuse, the social work discipline may encourage greater community participation in this important campaign, aimed to bring justice to those who have been abused.


Care Leavers Australasia Network New Zealand (2017, 16 February). Those who refuse to look at the past are doomed to repeat it. Community.Scoop. Retrieved from

Human Rights Commission (2017). Demand justice for the survivors of abuse in state care. Retrieved April, 28, 2017 from

International Federation of Social Workers (2016). Global definition of social work. Retrieved April, 28, 2017, from

Patterson, J. (2017, 03 March). Abuse-Fri-Wrt. Retrieved April, 28, 2017, from

Radio New Zealand (2016, 30 November). Tolley rules out apology for child abuse in state care. Retrieved from

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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