A chance to right historic wrongs

Eliot Pryor
Feb 1, 2018 · 5 min read

The Royal Commission of Inquiry announced today is an important step in the acknowledgement of what happened to the children in state care system for decades. It’s also a window into our whole society and how New Zealand society has been affected by these events.

Survivor Eugene Ryder speaking at the delivery of the Open Letter and petition on Parliament steps

*This article discusses child abuse

For Tyrone Marks at age 6, a trip with a social worker to supposedly buy new clothes “was the beginning of a journey through a number of state welfare institutions over eight years. It’s an experience that over 100,000 other children went through from the 1940s through to the late 1980s. Most of the children were Māori.” [Our stolen generation: a slow genocide]

Over decades these children were given the worst start possible in life and suffered terribly. Many were physically, sexually and emotionally abused, and to this day there has never been real recognition of the scale of the problem, or an official apology from the state.

The Royal Commission of Inquiry announced today is an important step in the acknowledgement of what happened to the children in state care system for decades.

Headed by former Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand it will now begin consultation on the draft terms of reference for the Royal Commission. The ‘state care’ definition covers circumstances where the state directly ran institutions such as child welfare institutions, borstals or psychiatric hospitals, and where the government contracted services out to other institutions.

“Any abuse of children is a tragedy, and for those most vulnerable children in state care, it is unconscionable. Today we are sending the strongest possible signal about how seriously we see this issue by setting up a Royal Commission of Inquiry.” PM Jacinda Ardern [ref]

I had never heard of this issue until reading a news story a year ago quoting Judge Henwood, who chaired the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service panel that heard more than 1100 cases of people abused in state care. She was angry the panel’s recommendations had been ignored. The stories had been told in trust but there was no action taken.

The inquiry announced today is vindication for those people who have told their stories, the survivors, or Ngā Mōrehu.

It’s vindication for the work of the panel in 2015 which recommended this inquiry, and for the risk Judge Henwood took in criticising the Minister of the time publicly for the government’s inaction.

The inquiry to be announced today is more than just an examination of what happened to individuals in state care. It could lead to an acknowledgement of the harm caused to families through generations.

The state intervened in the lives of individuals and families and did great harm. We can’t change that but we can ensure it never happens again. This is our chance to recognise that and make amends.

Epuni Boy’s Home. Photo: David Cohen

It’s hard for us to see the link between what happens in one generation and how that affects the next. I take for granted the advantages I have because my own grandparents on both sides had settled lives, without the state intervening, without physical violence visited on them.

As journalist Aaron Smales has shown so well in his articles on these past events [see the three part series Our stolen generation: a slow genocide], there are deep connections between the urban drift of Māori in the 1950s, Pākehā systems of control, the violence of the state care system, the growth of gangs, and the present high rate of imprisonment. Together they have resulted in New Zealand’s shame, our ‘stolen generation’.

“By the 1970s upwards of 80% of the children in state welfare institutions were Māori. The details of what those children endured during this period of institutionalisation has gradually seeped out over the years.”[Our stolen generation: a slow genocide]

The Hui in April featured the personal stories of four men who spoke about the horrific treatment they suffered when young and the effect on them. Their stories and the courage they had to share them have helped lead to the Inquiry. I recommend watching Ngā Mōrehu to understand the impact these historic wrongs had on real people.


Over the past year thousands in the ActionStation community have rallied around campaigner Anneleise Hall to support her call for an inquiry into the historic abuse of people in state care. The inquiry announced today is a victory for our ActionStation community in standing up for justice.

The petition ran alongside the Human Rights Commission campaign ‘E Kore Anō: Never Again’ and in July, the survivors themselves delivered the petition to Parliament. That day meant so much for so many people who had been treated so horrendously for much of their lives.

The inquiry can’t change what has already happened, but it can acknowledge what happened, ensure it never happens again, and lead to some kind of resolution for the survivors.

It could be New Zealand’s own truth and reconciliation process.


Read more about the background to these events:

Boys were taught violence and led to gangs by their experience in state care: “Mr Epere said politicians were always criticising gang members but would not accept any responsibility for the suffering that happened in places like Kohitere Boys Home and Epuni Boys Home. “I’d like to ask politicians to take responsibility. We’re a by-product of their system,” he said.” Gangs a product of state care system, Feb 2017

National in Government was the only political party to ignore the need for an inquiry, Feb 2017

Petition delivery, 6 July 2017

“We need an inquiry for the sake of the historical record, but also for the future. And for the 5000 kids who remain in some sort of state-sponsored care today. Not to mention the former wards who still make up a good portion of the country’s prison muster.” Why we need an inquiry, July 2017

UN recommends inquiry, Aug 2017

We need an inquiry for the same reason that the governments of Australia, Britain, Canada, Ireland and the United States have all gone down a similar route. Time to talk compensation, Jan 2018

In New Zealand, the now-defunct Confidential Listing and Assistance Service (CLAS), which heard evidence from more than 1100 people between 2008 and 2011, identified “an alarming amount of abuse and neglect, with extreme levels of violence” in past abuse. It said the ongoing costs to society, both personal and in financial terms, were “huge”.” Stuff, Jan 2018

State abuse survivor’s story sparks emotional response from The AM Show host, 1 Feb 2018

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