Avis’ story of abuse in state care

This following is an excerpt from the report "Institutions are places of abuse”: The experiences of disabled children and adults in State care, July, 2017.

Avis Hunter documented her 50 years of State care in her book My Life (Hunter, 1997) and later in a chapter contributed to an edited book (Hunter and Mirfin-Veitch, 2005).

Avis’ book, written in her own words, is based on her memories and her social welfare records. From her records, Avis discovered that she was just three months old when she was put into foster care. She lived as part of that foster family until she was four or five years old, in Dunedin where she had been born. At the point that her foster family expressed an interest in adopting her, Avis’ social worker advised them not to proceed with a formal adoption because of her seizures (Hunter & Mirfin-Veitch 2005, p. 85). This single act was the catalyst to half a century in and out of institutions, characterised by frequent moves between foster arrangements. As Avis relates:

“When I was about four or five years old I stopped living with the [foster family]. I was moved to Nelson. I can’t remember the name of the hospital that I lived in …I spent two years living in Nelson and when I was seven years old I was moved once more to Templeton Hospital in Christchurch…. I didn’t like Templeton — I didn’t make any friends there. I hated the staff. They used to tie me to my bed. The other kids were different to me altogether. … I’d run away and cry by myself sometimes. It might have upset people if I’d cried in front of them — they might have hit me. (Hunter, 1997, p.3–4)

After a few years at Templeton, Avis was moved again, this time to Sunnyside Hospital in Christchurch. In her words … The best thing about Sunnyside was that I got to meet Connie. Connie was my friend. She was older than me and looked after me. … I still got scared sometimes.” (Hunter, 1997, p.5)

Institutional life was briefly interrupted by another form of State care: “When I was eleven I shifted to another foster family.” (p.5) The foster mother in this case had been a nurse at Sunnyside. Avis describes her time with the foster mother:

“She left work to have a baby. She already had two other children. They were both younger than me. I didn’t know the children very well. I didn’t know her husband very well either … he wasn’t home very often. I used to do a lot of work when I was at [foster mother’s] place. I did the gardening, filled the coal buckets, picked fruit and fed the animals. I had to sleep in the sun-porch or wash-house every night. I hardly spoke to [foster mother]. I was too scared to break windows at her place. I would go to the toilet in the tub in the wash-house because I was too scared to ask her to let me out. She didn’t always tell me off but she kept me working very hard. [Foster mother] didn’t help me when I had fits, but when I would wake up I would have different clothes on. I spent a lot of time by myself.” (p. 6)

When the foster mother left Christchurch Avis moved back to Sunnyside for a short time before moving to Dunedin and back into another foster family. That foster arrangement was short-lived and she moved for a time to the Elliot Street Receiving Home, which at the time was a Social Welfare home used to assess girls for placement. In Avis’s case, assessment resulted in being admitted to Seacliff Hospital. She describes her time there in the following way:

“At Seacliff, I was locked up a lot of the time. The staff used to give me paraffin to make me go to the toilet. That was really horrible. I used to wet my bed quite a lot. The staff would help me to change. I would get told off for wetting my bed. …I used to play up a lot. I used to break windows and throw things around … other patients would say I didn’t have the nerve … I did these things to show them that I did have the nerve. …The staff used to lock me up. Sometimes they would put me in a straightjacket. The nurses in hospital were often rough with you.” (p.11)

When she was 21, Avis moved to Cherry Farm, noting in her book “Nothing much changed”. She remained scared: “I would often hide under the building until it was dark. When I came out I would be locked up as punishment.” (p.13)

Memories of life in the institutions remained with Avis throughout her life. She recounted experiences of communal showers, being frequently scared, screaming in an attempt to get comfort but instead, her behaviour being interpreted as naughtiness (Hunter & MirfinVeitch, 2005)

While at Cherry Farm Avis became friends with Jack12: “We were girlfriend and boyfriend.” (p. 15). At one stage they ran away together but were found the next day and “Jack was locked up”, while Avis was returned to Cherry Farm. Although she does not comment further in her autobiography, in the chapter that she co-authored with Mirfin-Veitch, she noted that she was, at times, scared of Jack (Hunter & Mirfin-Veitch, 2005). This fear appeared to relate to Avis being coerced into doing “things” (p.90) with Jack.

Avis remained in Cherry Farm until, at the age of 54, she moved into a community-based disability service in 1992 as part of the hospital’s deinstitutionalisation process.

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