NEW ZEALAND: 'Never again' - the public investigation into historical abuse in state care


For the last twenty years care leavers, Maori and disability groups in New Zealand have been calling for an independent investigation into the root causes of systemic failings in the country’s care system. Notoriously unwilling to conduct a public inquiry into abuse in children’s institutions, New Zealand’s government finally conceded in February 2018, announcing the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in State Care.


More than 100,000 children in New Zealand were removed from their families and placed into state care between 1950 and 1992. This included foster homes, orphanages, psychiatric hospitals, health camps, child welfare homes and special education homes. Some children were placed in these institutions for offences as minor as stealing a pencil or skipping school. Others ended up in homes after experiencing family problems.

Nearly half of children in state homes in the 1970s were of Maori background and in some institutions they made up 80 percent of the residents. Institutionalisation was, in part, a response to the high number of indigenous people moving to cities after the World War II in search of better opportunities. While parents were working long hours to make ends meet, children were often left alone. Children with learning difficulties were also forcibly removed from their families in an effort to make society conform to the perceived ideal of white, European, non-disabled citizens. 

Many were taken away from loving homes and placed in overcrowded institutions where they suffered sexual, physical and psychological abuse and neglect over many years. The legacy of intense trauma related to institutional child abuse often led to physical and mental health problems in adulthood.

Data shows that more than 40 percent of prison inmates in New Zealand spent their childhoods in state-run institutions such as children’s homes, with some boys’ homes seeing 80 percent of children end up in prison as adults.

Netta Christian’s story

Netta Christian, a widowed grandmother from Hamilton, New Zealand, spent almost 20 years in foster care. In 2002, she started seeking compensation for physical, psychological and sexual abuse she experienced while in care, but was outraged when she had to pay her compensation of NZ$10,000 to cover the legal fees. It has since become her life ambition to change the system for the better. In 2011, Christian, aged 73, placed a public notice in the New Zealand Herald newspaper highlighting the harms she had suffered as a child. However, the newspaper became interested in her story and published a front-page article, leading many people to contact her for advice and support.

As a result, Christian approached Care Leavers Australia Network (CLAN), and worked with them to found the organisation’s New Zealand branch, which she runs with Pat McNair, the wife of a care leaver and CLAN's New Zealand (CLAN NZ) representative. Their aim is to achieve justice and redress for all New Zealanders who grew up in orphanages, institutions, children’s homes or in foster care. CLAN NZ is a group of five activists working on a voluntary basis, and since the beginning of 2012 the organisation has offered support to its members including in applying for records and lodging legal claims. In the near future they plan to scale up their advocacy efforts to achieve acknowledgement, redress and support services for all care leavers in the country.

Flawed ‘redress’

Around twenty years before CLAN NZ was founded, care leavers had started to publicly raise the issue of abuse in institutions. In 2001 the government issued an apology and compensation to a group of former patients from the Lake Alice psychiatric hospital, after a report by a retired judge who had interviewed them found their claims of abuse and neglect credible. The news spread to other former patients of psychiatric institutions in the country and the government set up a confidential listening service for them to speak up about the abuse they had suffered.

Inspired by these processes, activist care leavers brought more claims about abuse in state care. In response, the government came up with a universal settlement scheme, available to anyone who experienced harm in care, subject to their claims being validated. As well as financial compensation, the applicants could receive an individual apology and access to limited counselling support. The government has paid out NZ$17 million, apologised to over 1,000 victims and introduced a fast-track settlement process. Any care leaver could also contact  the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service (CLAS) to tell their story, access personal information and learn about available redress options. From 2008 to 2015, CLAS heard from 1,100 survivors who were abused in state care between the 1950s and the 1980s.

In 2016 CLAS published a report called “Some Memories Never Fade”, which revealed sexual, physical and psychological abuse that children suffered in care institutions and foster homes over many years. Following the findings, the head of CLAS, Judge Carolyn Henwood, called for the creation of an independent body to resolve historic and current complaints, to discover the extent of abuse suffered, and to prevent violations from happening in the future.

The government, however, rejected CLAS’s final recommendation, saying that the Ministry of Social Development’s Historic Claims team was achieving its aim. According to the government, the “Ministry of Social Development [had] found no evidence of systemic failure, and the majority of children in [state] care did not suffer abuse”.1

Those who refuse to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it

In November 2016, Grant West, a care leaver from the notorious Epuni boys home received an apology from the Ministry of Social Development and a compensation payment of NZ$40,000. Speaking about his childhood, he said: “They put us into a basketball team but it wasn't a basketball team - it was for us kids to be taken out and prostituted to men on the outside. I went on to be abused in a foster home, and by a leader of the Salvation Army - all people [who] were supposed to be helping me”. West said he told police and social workers of the abuse numerous times, but nothing was ever done. West also feels the personal apology meant nothing, because the government was not learning from its mistakes. He filed a petition to New Zealand’s Parliament calling for an independent inquiry into all facilities which cared for children.

At first glance, it looked like CLAS and the Ministry of Social Development’s fast-track compensation system functioned quite well. New Zealand’s government essentially introduced a redress scheme for survivors, many people were heard, and considerable sums of money were paid out as a result. So why did more calls for a public inquiry emerge?

In reality, the scope and mandate of the government’s redress processes were limited. CLAS was essentially a closed-door inquiry where information was hidden from public view. According to CLAN NZ’s Pat McNair: “Many care leavers were unable to take part because the service was prematurely shut down, and they heard about it far too late. Most people who actually found out about it, did this just by accident. It certainly wasn’t in all the papers, TV or media.”

As a result, CLAS had limited reach. Only one percent of more than 100,000 care leavers took part in a redress process led by the Ministry of Social Development. The true extent of abuse children suffered is still unknown. CLAN NZ’s Netta Christian suspects there could be as many as 50,000 abuse cases in New Zealand, given the number of children who were in care, and the culture of abuse and secrecy in the institutions involved.

Wellington lawyer Sonja Cooper was one of the leading figures regularly calling for an independent inquiry into historical abuse in state care for almost 20 years. Cooper has more than 800 clients alleging mistreatment in the State’s care, and she also represented Netta Christian, winning her an out of court settlement from the Ministry of Social Development. Cooper said: “One of the reasons the ministry introduced an internal fast-track settlement process was to try and quell any calls for an independent process to resolve these claims."

"It suits them to have this coercive process run by the government department itself where it’s either ‘take it or bye’. You take a pretty damaged and vulnerable group of clients, you don’t accept that the most serious abuse that they allege happened to them because there is nothing in the records. That’s pretty cost-effective, isn’t it?” - says Cooper.

Care leavers argued that officials from the government department that enabled their abuse should not be deciding whether their complaints had merit, or how much compensation survivors should receive. McNair recalled: “It was seen by everybody as the government yet again investigating itself [...] From a human rights perspective, we feel CLAS violated the rights of those abused in state, church or charity care, through denying them an independent and impartial investigation”.

While redress processes introduced by the government have provided resolution for some individuals, they did not address the underlying problems and did not help ensure that similar events would not happen again. In 2015, New Zealand’s Children’s Commissioner Russell Wills released his ‘State of Care’ report, revealing that children removed from their families were being sexually and physically abused in foster homes and that there was no evidence they were any safer in state care today.

Most care leaver activists in New Zealand have been lobbying for a Royal Commission, a public inquiry of the highest level which has already happened in Australia.

"A Royal Commission would get answers to all the questions — why did it happen, why was it not stopped and why was it allowed to go for too long — and would put new protections in place so it doesn't happen again," concluded Grant West.

People vs Government

For a number of years increased media focus on institutional abuse, cover-ups by police, government departments, churches and charities led to a sense of heightened public awareness and concern. At least five different petitions were submitted to government or Parliament by care leaver activists gathering thousands of signatures. Many other individuals and organisations called for a public inquiry, including survivors of clerical abuse, representatives of the Catholic church, Maori groups, disability organisations, and penal reform organisations.

Despite the pressure, New Zealand’s government was reluctant to support a Royal Commission. Unlike Australia, where many institutions were run by churches or charities, most of the institutional child abuse that occurred in New Zealand happened in state-run homes. As such, by taking on a major investigation, government potentially risked ruining its reputation, including for implementing flawed redress processes for survivors. In fact, CLAS findings about levels of abuse and neglect in state care were made publicly available only after Grant Mahy, a care leaver, submitted an open letter with 326 signatures to the government requesting access.

Even more shockingly, a leaked cabinet paper discussed how the government expected the number of claims to reduce as victims “die out”.

Some activists, including Mahy and Cooper, have submitted reports to the United Nations body that monitors States’ compliance with international anti-torture legislation, the Committee Against Torture (CAT), which in its recommendations to New Zealand in 2015 urged the government to provide adequate redress to people who were historically abused as children while in state-run institutions. However, New Zealand’s government reiterated that: “As the claims [of historic abuse] generally do not involve claims of broad or institutional failure but are predominantly concerned with particular incidents and experiences of individuals, such an approach is not feasible here. The Government has also determined that, for the same reasons, the public inquiry is not an appropriate mechanism.”2

Finally, a pivotal point was reached in November 2016, when New Zealand’s Human Rights Commission sent then Prime Minister Bill English an open letter and a petition titled “Never Again” calling for an apology and a comprehensive, independent and public inquiry into historical abuse in state care. Twenty-nine prominent New Zealanders signed the petition, including the Chief Human Rights Commissioner, Disability Rights Commissioner, Indigenous Rights Commissioner, the Iwi Leaders’ Forum, the Maori Women's Welfare League, and four political parties — Labour, Maori, New Zealand First and the Green Party. More than 10,000 people had signed the open letter.

On 6 July 2017, hundreds of survivors' handwritten letters and photographs of themselves as children, were presented to MPs on the steps of Parliament, along with the open letter and petition. 

CLAN NZ's Pat McNair explained: “That really received broad media coverage and a lot of people did hear about it. I believe it needed a body like the Human Rights Commission, with the funding and staff and expertise they have [...] to really push this issue.”

Still, the government did not listen. Representatives of National, the ruling party, did not come to Parliament to receive the petition, and even though the party’s position weakened somewhat later, it still maintained that New Zealand did not need an inquiry. Then, in September 2017, parliamentary elections saw the Labour party forming a coalition government, leaving the National party out of power. McNair noted: “All politicians were lobbied for a long time. I think it’s very hard for any politician to turn a blind eye on such an issue, so I’m not surprised to see that all of those political parties could see that the Royal Commission was needed”. Speaking about the National party, McNair said: “They thought they would get away by saying ‘no’ forever.”

Announcement of the Royal Commission

During their electoral campaign the Labour party said that New Zealand still needed a ‘‘national conversation’’ about historic abuse in state care and that the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service "didn’t finish the job" as many victims were yet to share their stories. Finally, on 1 February 2018, the establishment of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in State Care was officially announced.

Speaking about the Royal Commission’s announcement, McNair said: “We were shocked, surprised and elated. We had always believed that it would eventually happen but we had grave doubts that it would be in our lifetimes.”

Both Pat and Netta say that the general public remains “blissfully unaware” of the extent of systemic abuse that has occurred since the 1950s, and believe everyone will be “terribly surprised” once the Royal Commission’s findings are covered in the media.

The inquiry covers orphanages, children’s homes, youth detention centres, psychiatric hospitals, and any state care services contracted to private institutions. It is likely to be the largest Royal Commission ever held in New Zealand, expected to cost NZ$12 million a year.

Many survivors claimed that complaints processes handled by the Ministry of Social Development were “humiliating and drawn-out”, so it is expected that the Royal Commission will set up a free mental health support system, where care leavers will receive consultations with counsellors and psychologists of their choice before, during and after the hearings. The Royal Commission will also have an advisory panel of survivors.

Unlike in Australia, New Zealand’s Royal Commission will examine all forms of child abuse — including physical and emotional abuse, and neglect — not just sexual abuse.

“Sexual abuse is always highlighted as the ‘worst abuse’, however a great deal of the damage done is a product of the very culture of out-of-home care”, commented Pat McNair. 

Also unlike Australia, where aboriginal people had their own separate investigation (in the form of the “Stolen Generations” Inquiry), New Zealand has never even admitted the effects of colonisation on Maori people. It is expected that the Royal Commission will give particular consideration to Maori children, who make up 61 percent of children in care.

There is, however, some criticism. Care leavers are concerned that the investigation has been rushed from the very beginning, and two or three years of operation is simply not enough for victims to come forward. Survivors are also critical of the proposed time frame, the years of 1950 - 1999, which will exclude some older and younger care leavers. They say that the point is that every care leaver who is still alive should be allowed to take part.

What the future holds

CLAN NZ is currently the only independent support and advocacy group in New Zealand working for justice and redress for care leavers, and they are planning to scale up their operations now that the Royal Commission is under way.

Netta Christian is determined: "I don't think it's right for heinous crimes to be committed against innocent children and for no one to be held accountable. This is my life's work till I die."

Both Netta Christian and Pat McNair hope that the Royal Commission will lead to a national apology and establishment of a universal redress scheme, like in Australia. According to them, it is important that this apology offers public acknowledgement of large-scale injustices, accepts the State’s responsibility and serves as a promise that similar violations will not recur. CLAN NZ maintains that the redress scheme should include fair compensation for care leavers to cover a variety of services. These range from medical treatment and counselling, to housing and education, as well as funding for commemorations and memorials.

Redress scheme is necessary because many care leavers are simply not able to go to court to seek compensation. Judge Carolyn Henwood, former head of CLAS, said: “Some of the people that I’ve seen have been in the mental health system or those who have been abused or neglected just couldn’t handle a court case. How would you do it? You need to understand that some of the cases we saw were very, very serious. You could meet a person who could not take their overcoat off because of their childhood. Or they couldn’t leave the house having been raped so many times as a child.”

The Royal Commission should also push for other gaps to be sealed for the benefit of care leavers. For example, an exhaustive list of former children’s homes needs to be compiled. Then, access to childhood records must be reviewed — the records are not acknowledged as being the property of the care leaver and the processes for accessing them are often confusing. What’s more, statutes of limitations for survivors of childhood abuse need to be abolished — currently most claimants are only able to bring legal actions six years after a crime occurred. All these processes have already happened or are currently happening in Australia.

To this end, CLAN NZ has issued press releases, written submissions, sent letters to editors, connected with other care leaver activists, contacted MPs, met with representatives from churches and organisations, made contact with researchers and lawyers. They have also attended protests, been interviewed by journalists and authors, and networked with a large and diverse group of people who have spent time in care as a child.

However, to scale up their advocacy the organisation needs funding. Being a branch of an Australian group, CLAN NZ is not eligible to apply for any funding in New Zealand, and cannot use Australian funding either. As a solution, Pat and Netta set up the NZ Care Leavers Trust, which is eligible for grant applications made in New Zealand.

Nevertheless, not many donors consider funding this type of organisation. Pat McNair said: “Just because the Royal Commission is paid by the government they classify our advocacy work as being political. I don’t see it as being political at all.” She hopes that the government will allocate some money to groups like theirs once the Royal Commission gets going, as it happened in Australia.

Meanwhile, CLAN’s team in Australia continues to provide invaluable advice and support to care leavers in New Zealand. McNair said: “It is good to have a mentor. We have monthly Skype meetings and exchange emails. They have already gone through all these processes with a few slight differences, and were able to advise us on all sorts of things”.

What advice would CLAN NZ give to care leavers abroad who want to start advocacy but do not know where to begin?

McNair suggested: “Just start small as a support group at first. Don’t try to grow too fast too soon. Network as much as possible. Use social media, as it is free. Submit interesting, newsworthy items to newspapers and television which is also free. If possible, find a mentor and slowly learn the ropes. But most importantly, never give up!”


1 -  Murray S., Supporting Adult Care-Leavers: International Good Practice, Bristol Policy Press, 2015, 53.
2 - Murray, 54.
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