Robert’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.

Prominent New Zealander Robert Martin, a Human Rights Activist, has spoken about his abusive experiences in institutions and foster care in a wide range of forums. His story has also been documented elsewhere, including in his biography “Becoming a person” (McRae, 2014) and the book “The lost years” (Hunt, 2000). These books document his admission and readmissions to Kimberley from the age of 18 months through to 15 years, various foster placements throughout his childhood, going home to his parents for short periods, and admissions to Lake Alice and Campbell Park School. From this perspective Robert’s experience demonstrates the widespread acceptance of abuse of young people in State care at the time. In a 2014 Attitude Television documentary (Robert Martin: The People’s Advocate, 2014) Robert described his own experiences as well as those of the countless other disabled people he had spoken with: “institutions are places of abuse”.

Importantly, Robert also reminded us about the distress caused by an absence of memories when he commented in the documentary and his biography in relation to his time at Kimberley: “But I don’t remember being touched and cuddled like other kids are. I was never loved as a child. Me and all those other kids… Even today I find it hard to show affection to other people. I don’t trust easily.” (Robert Martin: The People’s Advocate, “I didn’t experience what other kids did. I didn’t play sport at school or at the weekend. I didn’t go to birthday parties, visit the zoo, feed the ducks at the park or go to the football with Dad. I didn’t go to family gatherings such as birthdays or weddings. I didn’t visit my relatives. I didn’t know who my relations were.” (McRae, 2014, p.16)

“Me and my friends were denied our basic human rights such as freedom, opportunities to learn and to have ordinary experiences. The only way to express ourselves was by behaving in a way the staff called ‘challenging’. For some of us this meant engaging in self-injurious activities — biting arms and hands, banging heads.”

Furthermore, as Robert recounted in his biography (McRae, 2014, p.32–33), it seemed that staff might: “… have got a kick out of seeing people lose control. I remember just before they flipped out, some of those people shouting, ‘I’ll get high. I’ll get high!’ which was a warning that they were losing control. All of us who lived in the institutions remember the screams of people who had got high and had to be restrained. Then there were some people who screamed or shouted for no reason. It was just a way of making it through the day.”

Foster care, however, provided little respite from institutional abuse for Robert as he also experienced severe punishment in these settings. For example, attempts to stop his bedwetting and the consequences for other perceived misdemeanours were met by him being whipped with a jug cord. However, Robert also remembered witnessing his foster mother also being hit in the same manner by her husband, suggesting that he was placed by the State into a site of family violence.

Robert went on to explain how his foster parents responded to his bedwetting when the jug cord failed to make an impression: “I was made to kneel on the wood pile, for two hours or more. It hurt so much. I knew I had to get away from that place, so one night I took off. I ran and then when I thought I was safe walked … about five miles.” (p.28).

Police found him asleep under sacking on another farm, and he was returned to the abusive situation from which he had tried to escape:

“The welfare came … they took me back to my foster parents. I didn’t tell welfare what was going on. Back then I didn’t know how to talk to people. I was too scared. The man had told me that if I said what was happening to me, I’d be in worse trouble. So, I just stayed quiet and waited and then when I got the chance ran away again. And again, until after a while the welfare got sick of coming up from Whanganui and they took me away from that place.” (p.29)

Robert’s life of moving in and out of institutions possibly played a part in his recognition that much of what happened in State care was not how life was outside the institution. For example, at Kimberley toilets adjoined day rooms, meaning that people would sit to defecate in full view of others passing by. In his biography, he remembers being embarrassed about this and uncomfortable with sharing dormitories and underclothing with many others. It was at Kimberley that he was first sexually abused:

“… I was caught stealing apples. The nurse took me to the office and while I stood there in fear, he took my file off the shelf and started reading out to me all the bad things I’d done. He lectured me about all the trouble I had caused in my life and then he put his hands done my pants and touched me. I didn’t know what was happening. All I knew was that I was bad and the man touching me was there to take care of me and must be allowed to do what he was doing.” (p.34)

Sexual abuse was also a feature of his life at Campbell Park. The first time he was placed there Robert reported that he had liked the school. However, when he returned, he was placed in a different cottage, with older boys, and this was where he experienced further abuse. “I didn’t understand. I didn’t know anything about sex and so I didn’t know what was happening to me. I couldn’t understand how people could be so cruel and take advantage of someone who didn’t know what was going on.”

A brief time at home with his parents and a six month stay at Lake Alice separated his two periods at Campbell Park. Robert recalled his tenure at Lake Alice as “… the worst time of my life.” Initially he had freedom to move around the grounds and, in this way entertained himself in an environment where he otherwise felt like “… a fish out of water”. However, that freedom was quickly curtailed after he was caught shoplifting from the local store. He was then moved to a lock-up ward for about three months before being sent back to Campbell Park where, as detailed above, he was sexually abused again. This time the abuse was perpetrated by older peers rather than by staff. Robert remained at Campbell Park until he was 15 years of age.

No longer a State ward, Robert returned to his family’s home town, and started a life beyond State care and institutions. Although he wanted to continue his education, he was denied that opportunity on the basis of his learning difficulties and instead began a relationship with community-based disability support service IHC.

Years of institutions had seen Robert grow up without knowledge of the outside world. As he noted:

“I had spent my life locked away from the world and I knew nothing. I had grown up in New Zealand but had never heard of the All Blacks or Hillary, never known about the Olympics or the Vietnam war, the death of John Kennedy or Martin Luther King or the jailing of Nelson Mandela. I knew nothing of the British pop revolution. These were the things that had shaped my generation but I had to learn them backwards.”

As he did learn, he reflected:

“I knew that things were not right in my own life. At 15, I’d been freed from institutional life, but in many ways, I was no freer than I had been in Kimberley or Campbell Park. Even within IHC, people treated us with disdain. They treated us as though we were imbeciles, as though we didn’t have any value in society. That we were nothing people and they walked all over us. I remember lying in my bed one night and thinking about why people like me were treated the way we were. And I can remember thinking it was them and us, and that I had no power because they had taken it. I started to believe that it was the people who claimed they cared about me the most who took my power.” (p.56).

Despite his traumatic early life Robert Martin (MNZM) has lived a remarkable adult life. Robert was the first person with a learning disability to speak at the United Nations, and more recently made history again in 2016 as the first person with a learning disability to be elected to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.