Royal Commission as State Protection?

The Royal Commission into Historical Abuse was fully launched this week. With skilled Commissioners at the helm, there is much to like about this new body.

The headline news was that the Commission would expose the abuse in faith-based institutions alongside that in state care placements. The Bishops came out to demonstrate their support. Let us all hope that they will still be ‘standing up to be counted’ when the concerns of apologies, compensation and institutional changes are recommended over the next few years.

The Commission now has an extensive remit, and rightly so. The experiences of those abused in foster care, adoption placements, children’s homes, state residences, borstals, psychiatric hospitals, disability facilities, health camps, early childhood facilities, state schools, special residential schools, teen parent units, police cells, court cells and even places of transport between care settings will all be examined.

Alongside children and young people, ‘vulnerable adults’ (such as those who have mental health problems or disabilities) will have their abuse recognised.

The Commission will also be able to uncover the structural, systemic and practical factors that contributed to abuse, and tell us about the impacts on victims but also their families, whānau, hapū, iwi and communities, including how the trauma of abuse crosses over generations.

So much of this is commendable. It has the potential to change the way we think about many social problems – crime, mental health, family breakdowns, state interventions.

Yet, amid the fanfare, there is a creeping feeling of state self-protection. A few months ago, I had a conversation with a senior government worker on the draft Terms for this Commission. He happily remarked ‘We missed a bullet there!’  And, today, I am sure that many senior civil servants and politicians are feeling quietly comfortable at the confirmation that the Commission will not have any great impact on them or their institutional operations.

Part of the problem is the timeframe, from 1950-1999. Half a century seems fairly expansive. And, the Commission will have the discretion to hear ‘issues and experiences’ before 1950, and after 1999 to ‘inform its recommendations for the future’. But, a systemic examination of contemporary care practices is out of the question. As the title goes, this is about ‘Historic Abuse’.

Implicit in this is the idea that we do things differently now. We will somehow have to ignore how ever-increasing numbers of Māori children are being funnelled into state care. We will have to overlook our need to fully understand why so many youthful care-leavers continue to recount experiences of abuse, neglect or daily feelings of fear, isolation, stigma and disadvantage in care, or how they still quickly rotate into our prisons.

Another state-protective swerve appears in the Commission’s remit to apportion responsibility.

At the moment, most responsibility is placed on particular institutions or care settings in the last century. For example, in a bid to uncover the factors that caused or contributed to abuse, the Commission is able to examine how complaints were handled when children were in care.

Beyond this, the Commission can also scrutinise the more recent historic claims and compensation processes, as well as the rehabilitation and counselling processes for those who have claimed abuse.

Again, this appears inclusive. Yet, it directs the Commission to explore important, but limited, sections of official and community action. Here, the body will pay little attention to how state agencies or politicians have more recently revictimized survivors – such as by apportioning millions of tax payer dollars to fighting claims in the courts, or telling victims that there is no case to answer, or allowing their case files to be shredded.

At the heart of care-leavers’ victimisation and re-victimisation over the last two decades are the governments of Helen Clark and John Key (as well as their most powerful civil servants). These officials remain prominent in our society, and they are strangely absent from consideration.

A final state-protective measure could lie in the inclusion of Faith-Based Institutions. The Commission has only been afforded an extra year to cover these complicated religious organisations, meaning that any attention on ‘state’ care will inevitably be minimised. Further, there is a risk – as we’ve seen in Australia – that the media and public attention downplays state abuse as a result. The fascination with individual paedophile vicars, the denials of the Vatican or the tensions between prolific abuse and religious morality can take over. The much more extensive state abuse that we’ve seen in New Zealand, that primarily affected Māori, could well be covered-over if we’re not careful.

In short, this Royal Commission represents a momentous event in NZ history, and could be life changing for those who are included. But, over the next four years, we must always be mindful that it will provide a tightly politically managed form of acknowledgement.

Elizabeth Stanley is a Reader in Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington. She is the author of ‘The Road to Hell: State Violence against Children in Post-war New Zealand’, a book that helped propel the Royal Commission into existence. This piece was first published on the NZ Herald, 15 November 2018.

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