David and John’s 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.

David Blackett and John Te Kiri told their stories as part of a narrative-based research project titled Extraordinary Journeys (Spectrum Care Trust Board, 2010), which explored the impact of deinstitutionalisation for people with learning disabilities. Through this process, they shared much about the realities of institutional life.

Best friends, David and John shared similar experiences as two blind men who had both lived in State care institutions for most of their lives. John summed up his experience with the comment: “I’ve lived most of my life in institutions.” (p.97). When asked what the best thing about them he replied: “I [can’t] think of anything.” (p.97).

Both John and David’s early lives included time at Homai College, of which they had few memories, however both progressed through other institutions before settling in the community in a flat supported by non-government disability service Spectrum Trust in 1995. John found himself in Kingseat Hospital when he was about 12 years old. He had no family contact, having been born in the Cook Islands in the early 1950s and brought to New Zealand as a baby for eye surgery. John’s memories of Kingseat were of:

“… a solid metal place where you couldn’t get out. Some locations, you used to get locked up. They [other patients] were so mental, they used to throw things at you and chuck things at you all the time, and sometimes they used to get stroppy and things like that… One of the staff came along and said ‘Hey come on, cut that out! You don’t need to chuck that around, that’s not very nice!’ Then one of the other staff members caught one of them and locked him in his room for about four days …”. (p.91)

For John, the memory is of feeling angry at such times. He explained: “…I was just so frightened, I couldn’t see what was coming to me, you know?” (p.92). In addition, he was also locked up when he was in Unit Five “I used to get locked in a side room, down the bottom. You weren’t allowed to go anywhere … the pictures … couldn’t celebrate … I was locked up the whole time.” (p.92)

John and David also experienced life at Mangere Hospital. In contrast to John, David’s very early years were spent at home with his parents, however from the age of three he started residential schooling first at Sunrise Home, then from eight years of age at Homai College. At around 14 years of age he moved into Mangere Hospital. Like John, David talked about being constantly fearful of being hurt by other residents: “The worst thing for me at Mangere Hospital was that I used to get pushed over by other patients. One of them broke my elbow …” (p.38). Furthermore, he had little independence, and little practical response to his visual impairment: “I use a fold-up cane to help me get around these days, but when I was at Mangere Hospital I didn’t have anything to help me … I had to hold onto someone’s arm to move around. If there was no one to hold onto, I’d have to wait.” (p.38).

Perhaps a coincidence, but a memory that left both men fearful of swimming relates to being thrown in the pool at Mangere. David said: “I was thrown in at the deep end, for no reason, and, while I could paddle, I’ve been scared of the pools ever since then.” (p.38). John’s independent comment suggests that this was not unusual behaviour on the part of staff as he recounts one of his worst memories: “I used to get chucked in swimming pools, and things like that. I couldn’t even swim …”. (p.93).

John lived at Mangere at an earlier, and over a longer period of time than David. His early experience of Mangere was little different to that he had at Kingseat. He remembered being locked up: “the whole time” (p.89); sharing clothes on the basis of “first up, best dressed” (p.94) but, in reality, staff choosing for him from whatever was available. There was no social life: “We never used to go out at night, we used to get locked up in villas … we weren’t allowed out anywhere. I could never, never ever get out of it. It was very hard.” (p.92–3)

The two men first met at St John’s in Papatoetoe, Auckland. From their description, St Johns was a residential home with about 90 people separated into three wings. An internet search identified it as a satellite home for Mangere Hospital which was opened in 1963 in what was once the Papatoetoe Orphan’s Home. David commented:

“When I was over at St John’s I wasn’t able to get up until I was told. That wasn’t good. Staff told us when to get up … We only had a little bit of choice, not much. You weren’t allowed to go into the dining room unless you were told.” (p.35). John further described his experience of the dining room: “It was a big dining room … lots of noise, lots of people. We used to sit down, we had a nurse who used to come around with a spoon behind his back. He was just telling them to be quiet… He’d bang the spoon on the table if someone talked. We had to eat every meal in silence … if anyone talked, they would be put outside and they would miss out on their dinner.” (p.93).

John also talked about the lack of privacy, aside from sharing a room with many others:

“there were 30 odd residents in one bathroom … they would all shower at the same time … There wasn’t much privacy, though there were doors on the showers”. (p.94).

David further illustrated life at St John’s: “I used to stay in the wing all day and the doors used to get locked. I didn’t like that. We were locked in at night, too. … I was happy to leave St John’s.” (p.39).