Silencing the past deepens the cycle of abuse

by Meralda Grey

The New Zealand government has been faced with calls to instigate an independent inquiry into abuse suffered by thousands of children in the state care system. An apology and possible redress for harms suffered is important and part of the process of achieving closure for victims. An independent inquiry offers the potential to prevent future abuse by shedding light on a shameful legacy of violence, harms and pain. A legacy that plays out in victims adult lives in the form of mental ill health, substance use, domestic violence and prison sentences. I suggest that learning from rather than denial of the past is a positive way forward for victims and society.

Initiating an inquiry is vital if we are to understand and analyse how our state run structures, our policies and practices allowed such horrendous abuse to happen seemingly under our noses. It is important that we reuse the past, past mistakes and wrongs, so that we can ensure that the future is a site of change. Elizabeth Stanley (2017) suggests that understanding the past is vital and points to recent instances showing we haven’t learnt from appalling abuse in state care. Using secure cupboards for punishing autistic children in schools is one such recent example. Successful and positive inquiries are possible. Other countries have done so. For more detail on other countries successes (see Deb Stanfield, The Politics of Saying Sorry: Making Good on Intentions . I think that by investigating the harms children suffered in state care and the consequences in future lives, we can begin to develop values of care and justice that may undermine a culture obsessed with managing risk in our institutions. Stanley (2013) illustrates this risk orientation and the possible negative consequences of it. He identified that child protection social workers focused on the management of risks that were under investigation. They objectified risk to deal with uncertainty and to feel that they were child focused. However, the paid little attention to other risks such as placing a child in care outside of whanau.

The cycle of abuse is a well known phenonomen. The WHO has made the link between childhood maltreatment and the risk of later becoming a victim or abuser. In the horrific abuse cases of James Whakaruru and baby Moko, intervention would have needed to happen well before their birth as the men involved came from the same family and one of them had spent time in state care. Given the appallingly traumatic experiences children in state care have spoken about, it is possible to understand (not easy but possible) how these men became abusers as adults.

The Final Rebstock report uses data to justify an approach that suggests placing children in care at the earliest opportunity rather than intervening in the cause of concerns. However, it does acknowledge that children are further maltreated in state care by experiencing stress and anxiety and by experiencing some form of maltreatment. The report also makes the connection between abuse in childhood to future custodial sentences in adulthood. Children who had care and protection contact had a 9 times increased likelihood of receiving a custodial sentence by the time they were 21.

Given the wealth of information available on the connection between child abuse breeding future abusers and the governments own rhetoric, it is shameful that a response to an inquiry has been dismissed. An inquiry is an opportunity to identify how and why abuse occurs in state care and to provide the sector with possible recommendations for future prevention and practice.


MSD (Ministry of Social Development). (2016). Investing in our Children’s future. Wellington, NZ: Author. Retrieved from

Stanfield, D. (2017, March 9). The Politics of Saying Sorry: Making Good on Intentions Blog post. Retrieved from

Stanley, E. (2017, April 9). Supporting an inquiry into Abuse in State Care Blog post.  Rtrieved from

Stanley, T. (2013). ‘Our tariff will rise’: Risk, probabilities and child protection, Health, Risk & Society, 15:1, 67-83.


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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