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The lost boys of Epuni Boys' Home

A former ward of Epuni Boys' Home has written the story of a place that became emblematic of state-run residential institutions that were "more of a social burden than anything they were ever intended to fix" and are now mired in abuse allegations.

It started so promisingly. The inaugural entry in the logbook of Lower Hutt's Epuni Boys' Home at the end of its first day, on Thursday, January 29, 1959, noted: "Boys excited but settled reasonably well. Supper and lights out at 9.30pm." Elsewhere in the home's records, boys were referred to by their first names and there was talk of movie outings and trips to the local baths and softball games. "My kids would be well dressed. My kids would be well looked after," principal Maurice Howe said later of his management style.

Problems of note were few and far between in those early years, according to journalist David Cohen in his new book about Epuni, Little Criminals: The Story of a New Zealand Boys' Home.

But three decades on, in February 1990, Epuni ceased operation as a boys' home, by now emblematic of a discredited system of state-run residential institutions - at their height over 20 of them - that were "more of a social burden than anything they were ever intended to fix", writes Cohen.

The notion that such a home could be a haven for troubled children had become obsolete, with the 1989 Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act advocating a "maximum possible use of placement within family groups" or else "community-based placements".

During the 1980s, the number of children and young people appearing before the courts had fallen by as much as 40% and the number of children becoming state wards by at least half. Among those who did come under the guardianship of the state, fewer and fewer were being placed in institutions.

But during the 1970s, a home like Epuni was "a holding pen for an overloaded youth justice system", according to Cohen - with eight out of 10 boys remand cases from the children's courts.

Housing boys aged between eight and 17, it had become a place with a violent internal culture that meant "you tended to come out a little tougher than when you went in".

Somebody "with a relatively stable disposition, including those sent down by the courts for fairly light offending", or who required temporary shelter because they had a violent mother would "find himself in the daily company of others with serious criminal records", writes Cohen. These included the 14-year-old who in 1977 abducted and murdered six-year-old Lynley Stewart.

In 1995, an Environment Court judge would question whether Epuni could have even been called a "home", given the "custodial detention" of children that took place within it. The institution was "well past being accommodated by the expression" and even from its inception the expression "did not accurately describe" its activities or purpose.

But this was as nothing compared with the notoriety that awaited Epuni and other homes around the country as allegations of physical and sexual abuse escalated, with Wellington lawyer Sonja Cooper in recent years representing more than 500 former state wards seeking millions of dollars in compensation and a formal inquiry.

In 2009, Cooper told the NZ Press Association it was the biggest case of child abuse in New Zealand's history and "our country's greatest shame".

She calculated she was acting for only 1% of potential victims and suspected there could be 50,000 abuse cases, given the number of people who had been through the homes.

The Ministry of Social Development, however, disputes the extent of the abuse and the need for court involvement, with an internal unit of its own investigating complaints and making what it considers as appropriate reparations.

Cohen, 48, is himself one of the more than 100,000 children who went through the residential care system and one of at least 8000 boys he estimates were in Epuni.

He spent three months in Epuni, sent there in the autumn of 1975, just shy of his 13th birthday. Most of the boys stayed only three or so months, as it was essentially a processing centre, assessing wards and then sending them on.

"A few stayed longer, not many," says Cohen. "There was a guy called Sam when I was there. He had been there two years. He just sort of never got checked out. It was like the Hotel California."

Like all new arrivals, Cohen was first put into a cell for three days as part of an "induction programme" that provided an "individual-orientated" environment (throughout Little Criminals, he is very good at fingering the weasel words of bureaucracy and therapy-speak).

The cell was "a little concrete cube, maybe three or four metres across with a high ceiling, its only light coming from a solitary bulb hoisted high or else through the barred window," he writes. "There's no furniture in the room, just a mattress on a wooden frame and a low-slung metal toilet. There are no books. No ­f---ing stories."

Books and stories - Cohen's hunger for which reflected the precocious young mind that would help him break free from the cycle of which Epuni was so often a part.

"I hadn't seen my father since I was four. I was in a single-parent house for a number of years and that didn't work out. I was in trouble with the cops, trouble with the school, running with the wrong crowd, doing the wrong things, being stupid, doing hurtful things. The normal narrative. Up in front of the courts, having an assigned social worker, then into institutional care. All the usual flags."

The final straw that got him sent to Epuni was an ill-starred plan to raid the rector's office at his school with some friends. Previous stints of institutional care had included a health camp and an orphanage. Later on came foster homes. "I did the rounds. I quit school when I was 15. I had been through eight colleges and high schools by that point. Your options become a little limited."

So what was it that stopped him going down the path of so many other former Epuni boys into deeply damaged and frequently criminal lives?

"It's tremendously hard to know. By great good fortune, I got into journalism. Probably that was a really big help."

In an article about Epuni that Cohen wrote for the Listener in 1988, he recalled a conversation with a house master: "With what I recognised as undertones of faint ridicule, he enquired as to what I planned to do with my life. I said I wanted to write. Even so, he continued, what did I really plan on doing? I repeated the answer, adding that all I really needed was to be left alone to pursue my career. His closing remark was that if a ward wanted to live in the real world, he had to give up pipe-dreaming and live like the others."

"I was really into that old-fashioned English thing of memorising big passages," Cohen says now. "I remember I used to memorise whole Malcolm Muggeridge chapters."

Malcolm Muggeridge. There wouldn't have been much of him on the bookshelves at Epuni; there wasn't much of anyone. "I can't remember seeing a f---ing book there," says Cohen.

His reading habit was fed while playing truant from school. "I can ­remember reading George Orwell. I would read books - steal them or take them out from libraries. I have still got some stolen books. I can show you them, if you like. I didn't steal Orwell, I did steal Richmal Crompton, half the William series."

Cohen disappears into another room, coming back with a battered-looking hardback.

"We find here this book was stolen from Fergusson Intermediate: 'D Cohen, 11/6/73', taken out and never returned. William's Television Show."

As well as his initial three days in the Epuni cells, Cohen was sent back for a second spell after he absconded from the home.

He can't remember why he absconded, but it doesn't come as a surprise to hear one of our more free-thinking, not to say contrarian, journalists say: "I think it was definitely in my nature to go the other way. I hope it was."

Cohen doesn't regard himself as a victim of abuse - at least not with a capital "a" - and did not witness any while at Epuni.

"The whole use of holding cells there certainly is a form of abuse. And the UN would say that. If you put children in prison cells, that's seen as an abusive thing. And there's no doubt that was part of the system there for decades ... just completely barbaric."

Barbaric, but abuse with a small "a" compared with the capital "A" Abuse by a paedophile teacher such as Vincent Calcinai and the ECT treatment some boys went on to receive at psychiatric institutions ("literally getting their brains zapped out").

There was a "reasonable acknowledgement" among Epuni employees Cohen spoke to that there had been abuse.

"The argument is, was there a culture of endemic abuse or were these isolated incidents perpetrated by just a few people? And that is the legal question. Former employees I spoke with overwhelmingly came down on the side that these were just bad apples. Sonja Cooper and most of the claimants her firm represents would argue not - this was so comprehensive over such a long period of time that this was far more. And I have to say I don't know. I emerged none the wiser."

As to Cooper's figure of 50,000 potential complainants - "50,000 victims of severe prolonged abuse? I would be exceedingly sceptical."

Cohen keeps himself largely out of Little Criminals, although obviously his experience contributes to his recreation of life at the home.

One of the book's main themes is in the title, which comes from Epuni old boy Arthur Taylor, interviewed in Paremoremo maximum security prison in Auckland: "I'm not saying [Epuni] was some kind of evil enterprise set up to destroy young lives, but that's effectively what happened because, really, they didn't know what they were doing in running these places for what they thought of as little criminals. The little criminals who became the big criminals."

Big criminals such as Taylor. "He without pity traces his life's sojourn back to Epuni Boys' Home, and I believe him," says Cohen. "Many of the country's worst killers - Rufus Marsh, Paul Dally, various people whose names can't be used - were all Epuni fellows. One of the motivating reasons for doing this book is I feel it answers a rather old dinner party question in this country: why do we have the developed world's second-highest incarceration rate? We are well above everywhere else except the United States. One possible answer, one probable answer, is that for a generation we groomed in excess of 100,000 kids, mostly Maori boys, in these institutions. And that might possibly have something to do with the reason that so many of those guys are in jail. Causality, I don't know; correlation, certainly."

Maori, by one estimate, constituted 98% of boys in Epuni by the 1970s. "I'm no left-winger," says Cohen, "but clearly the record shows that [in the 19th century] the white man came into a land he had no linguistic, existential, cultural or geographic connection with, beat up the natives, forced them into particular corners of the country and then, as the years went on, having the impudence to claim maladjustment on the part of the natives, proceeded to throw the better part of a generation of them inside these holding institutions ... I'm not quite sure what the definition of chutzpah is, but this is getting pretty close to it. Any reasonable person has to be indignant about this."

It wasn't to incite indignation that Cohen wrote Little Criminals, however - or to put pressure on the Government to stop holding out (as successive governments have before it) on following the lead of other countries such as the UK, Canada and Australia in issuing a formal apology or acknowledgement for similar matters, "official recognition that we recognise this impoverished our society and in particular its native inhabitants".

"Do I have an activist agenda? No, I wrote the book I wanted to read; there was no reason for writing it other than that."

Cohen says of the former staff and officials he met or writes about in Little Criminals, there was only one - Vincent Calcinai - he didn't come to like on some level, and in the book acknowledges the residential home experiment "was a genuine attempt, in however misguided and haphazard a form, to create some kind of calmer universe for children and young people who lacked adequate care and protection in their home setting".

The biggest failing of Epuni and the other homes, he writes, is that they "reflected a lack of imagination for all concerned, and imagination is the one thing that a kid most needs to make some sort of reasonable transition to a functional adulthood, and it's what societies need to function best. This was the real problem, that lack of imagination. This was the real bruise. This was the real theft. This was the thing that took something away from many of the boys that they never quite got back."