Responding to the needs of state care abuse survivors

By Fiona Tyler

Between the 1950s and the 1980s, 100,000 children were put into state care where we now know physical, sexual and psychological abuse  was prevalent. These children were subject to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment which is a clear violation of human rights. Since social work is driven by a responsibility and strong commitment to working against oppression and human suffering and towards social justice, human rights, and human dignity, it is incredibly difficult to hear that the government responded with a resounding ‘no’ when asked for a public inquiry.

Saying no to an inquiry goes against what social work stands for, avoids addressing systemic racism , and continues to hurt this community of abuse survivors. Declining the request for an inquiry causes more damage, not only by minimizing the impact of the abuse, but dismissing it completely. In doing so, the government is validating the message these people have internalized since they went into state care; feelings of being “not good enough”, “not worthy” and “failed by the system, again” (Four former wards, 2017).

The government’s response also disregards the effect the abuse has had on the individual, their whanau, how it shaped their experience in the world. Their response can result in the survivors feeling vulnerable instead of safe and choice-less and powerless instead of empowered. Trust between the individual and ‘the system’ is still broken, and the option for dialogue or collaboration is not available. This goes against the goals of trauma informed social work as safety, choice, empowerment, trust, collaboration and the person-in-environment perspective are at the core of providing such care (Levenson, 2017).

One appropriate way for the government to respond that does integrate the principles of trauma informed care is through Truth and Reconciliation Commissions  (Androff, 2010). The values of TRCs align with that of social work, as TRCs, too, give voice to oppressed, marginalized populations and are agents of justice and social change. TRCs contribute to communities recovering from abuse and violations of human rights. They respond to the survivors needs by recording their truths and creating a narrative of their experiences. They promote dialogue between the divided communities and seek justice and accountability. TRC’s also aim to prevent the same violation of human rights from happening again (Androff, 2010).

Until the government can publicly acknowledge the harm that took place and respond to the needs of the survivors, the healing cannot begin. An inquiry would give the government the opportunity to gain back the trust that was lost when the abuse first took place and right previous wrongs. They owe this not only to the survivors, but also to our tamariki, to ensure that the same abuse and violation of human rights is not happening, and will not happen, in care again. It is my hope that this government will finally take responsibility for the past because regardless of how many times the name of the Ministry changes, the history stays the same.

Further Reading & Action

E Kore Ano, Never Again:

Stanley, E. (2016). The road to hell : State violence against children in postwar new zealand Auckland : Auckland University Press. 2016. Stanley, E. (2016). The road to hell : State violence against children in postwar New Zealand Auckland, NZ : Auckland University Press.


Androff, D. K. (2010). Truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs): An international human rights intervention and its connection to social work. British Journal of Social Work, 40(6), 1960-1977. doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcp139

Four former wards of the state share their horrific stories of abuse (2017, April 9). Newshub. Retrieved from

Levenson, J. (2017). Trauma- informed social work practice. Social Work, 62(2), 105-113. doi:10.1093/sw/swx001


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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