State Abuse: It is not too late to say, sorry

By Elaine Aiken

State care ought to provide tender, loving guardianship and, produce thriving well-adjusted children. However, the history of state care in New Zealand has all too often exhibited abuse, violence, placement breakdowns and even tragic fatalities.

It is accepted that to ‘care for’ a child means to protect them and provide for their fundamental needs (Wills, 2015). By this definition, New Zealand has monumentally failed to care for thousands of vulnerable children, in desperate need of safety and security.

Victoria University’s Elisabeth Stanley recently published an exposé  of NZ’s failed care system, titled ‘The Road to Hell’, documenting the monstrosities of child mistreatment that occurred between 1950 and 1980 (Stanley, 2016). She gives the harrowing accounts of abuse suffered by 105 victims, raped, beaten, isolated, electric-shocked and publicly humiliated, whilst in care.Victims were left broken and bitter after their ordeals, one saying:

“…[The system] made [us] bitter and go inwards…you had a lot of hatred in you, a lot of resentment because the system had taken you in and was supposed to look after you…” (Stanley, 2016, p.7)

Prior to Stanley’s exposé, a ‘Confidential Listening and Assistance Service’ was established, to support and listen to victims willing to share their experiences of state abuse.

Through this service, victims explained how they struggled to make sense of their lives after their time in care. They said they wanted better outcomes for today’s children via “systemic change and a public acknowledgement of the wrongs of the past” (Henwood, 2015). So far they have had neither.

For too many years the failings of state care have remained unsolved, and there are still numerous victims of today’s system. The expectation that children will be better off following state intervention is sadly illusory (Wills, 2015).

According to MSD’s Anne Tolley, outcomes for children in state care are dreadful], with 90% on a benefit, 80% without NCEA Level 2, and 20% with a custodial sentence by 21 (Radio New Zealand, 2016).

We have heard the traumatic experiences of survivors of state abuse but are still none the wiser as to how and why they occurred (Manhire & Morris, 2017). Without such information, there is no way to prevent them from happening again; thus the reality of ongoing abuse and poor life outcomes for children in state care today should come as no real surprise.

As long as the state denies past events perpetrated by them and fails to apologise for trauma they caused, they will fail to effectively care for children today.

To restore faith in our institutions an enquiry is needed; to identify the wider systemic issues that allowed the abuse to occur, to highlight the ongoing effects that abuse has on our communities and to make changes so that tomorrow’s children do not suffer the same fate (Human Rights Commission, 2016).

Victims also deserve a genuine, public apology from the state.

The current era of change, marked by CYF’s transformation into ‘Oranga Tamariki: Ministry for Vulnerable Children’, feels like a perfect opportunity to do both. We must honour the courage of those victims who have spoken out, and commit to creating change for the future, by action, even if it is late action.

Because, is not too late to say sorry.


Henwood, C. (2015). Some memories never fade: Final report of the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service 2015. Retrieved from Department of Internal Affairs website:

Human Rights Commission. (2016). Never again: E kore ano: Demand justice for the survivors of abuse in state care. Retrieved April 25, 2017, from

Manhire, T., & Morris, T. (2017, March 9). Toby & Toby launch an inquiry into abuse in state care. Retrieved April 25, 2017, from

Radio New Zealand. (2016, October 19). Age of state care to be raised to 21. Retrieved April 25, 2017, from

Satherley, D., & Lee, A. (2017, March 5). Looking backwards won’t help future state abuse victims – English. Newshub. Retrieved from

Stanley, E. (2016). Road to Hell: State Violence against Children in Postwar New Zealand. Auckland, NZ: Auckland University Press. Retrieved from

Wills, R. (2015). State of care. Retrieved from Office of the Children’s Commissioner website:


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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