The Open Letter to Prime Minister Bill English, calling for an independent inquiry to deal with abuse of children under state care, has been steadfastly downplayed by the government. ‘E Kore Ano, Never Again!’ is the rallying call from the Human Rights Commission and its supporters. ‘Nah’ came the reply. Elizabeth Stanley tackles the government’s reasons for refusal.
We’ve dealt with claims
The Ministry of Social Development (MSD) has provided compensation and individual apologies, and the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service (CLAS) has heard victims. Our media have told several stories about sexual assaults, brutalities, the use of electro-shock.
But hundreds of victims remain unheard. It could be thousands. We still don’t know.
CLAS had limited reach and operated out of public view. Many victims do not trust the MSD (the institution accountable for their victimisation) with their traumatic stories. In previous years, the Ministry operated with a culture of disbelief. And, the situation isn’t helped by having the ‘offender’ as the adjudicator of victim compensation.
We have no sense of the generational nature and impact of abusive state care. We have little idea of how whole groups of children—including Māori and those with disabilities—became targets for removals.
We don’t really understand how our institutional structures, policies and practices ensured that abuse was hidden away yet undertaken in such plain sight. And we have not yet grasped the impact that this has all had on New Zealand life, over generations. We have dealt with it, but in ways that have often silenced victims and deepened their victimisation.
It will cost
There will be a short-term financial cost to an Inquiry. However, potential benefits are immense. Respectful public inquiries can have monumental impacts on victims, their families and communities.
We often take the view that these inquiries provide ‘closure’. However, they also allow new openings. For victims, giving testimonies can be a transformative process.
Victims report feeling less angry with the world. Tensions, built over decades, begin to dissipate. Mental health difficulties ease. Covering over pain with substance abuse doesn’t seem as necessary. In understanding their own victimisation, offenders profess to being more open to change. Victims consider trusting state institutions, to help them rather than hurt them. And, with new knowledge, state institutions are in a better position to assist.
There are major personal, societal and financial benefits that outweigh any short-term costs. Even changing the world of one offender, whose imprisonment trajectory would cost us $100,000 year, might save us $2m plus over a lifetime.
It will take too long
There have been some recent inquiries that have been overly complex, legalistic and grindingly slow. We can learn from them. And, incorporate tips from successful others, including the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry in Northern Ireland.
We do not need to start from scratch. While keeping the opportunity for victims to give new or renewed testimony, we might also—with consent—use past contributions to the MSD or CLAS, or other agencies. We have research from academics and policy-makers to draw from. We can be strategic in taking testimonies from those who work, or have worked, in our welfare, health, education and justice sectors.
And, besides, the other option is to just make victims wait even longer. They are not going away.
Victims don’t need a public apology
Victims continually argue otherwise. They think that individual apologies ensure that the government never really engages in ‘moral repair’ for offences—there is no public accountability, only a sense of impunity.
We often expect offenders to demonstrate public remorse and shame. We want them to admit guilt, and we punish more harshly when they don’t. Why should it be any different when the state is the ‘offender’?
Victims cannot understand why an apology is so difficult. Are they so devalued that an apology doesn’t matter? And what of all those who have died, or cannot make claims, on account of their state treatment – are they not worthy?
We are focused on preventing future abuse
No child should ever go through what these victims went through.
Yet, in just looking forward, we repeat mistakes. The use of secure cupboards for autistic young children in schools. The Oranga Tamariki Bill that removes the state obligation to place removed Māori children within their whānau, hapu or iwi.
These things would not occur if we really understood past abuse in state care. We would, instead, know that such treatments cause long-term depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, socio-cultural isolation and self-hate. We would also know more about how we might structure our institutions and policies to find different solutions to difficult education, health, welfare or justice situations.
At this point, it is a moral and fiscal failure to avoid action. You can sign the open letter here: E Kore Ano, Never Again
Elizabeth Stanley is a Reader in Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington, the author of ‘The Road to Hell‘ and a signatory to the HRC’s Open Letter. This piece was first published in The Dominion Post, 22 February 2017.Share This: