State wards: Treated worse than animals

by Catherine Masters / 16 May, 2013
Photo/Getty Images

New Zealand’s legacy of adults traumatised by the abuse they experienced as children in state care is finally being addressed. But are we doing enough? 

A man in his sixties sits in darkness in a small unit in a small town. He has drawn the curtains, bolted the doors and taken the phone off the hook. He’s gone into “lock-down”, the deep depression he sinks into, sometimes for days on end.

As a boy, he was repeatedly raped by the nightwatchman and housemasters in the state-run institutions in which he was placed for playing truant from school in the 1960s.

In another part of the country, a woman in her forties gets up in the morning relieved she doesn’t have to move house again and realises with some amazement that, finally, she feels grounded in her life. From age two, she was moved around foster homes a staggering 36 times. Along the way, she was sexually assaulted and beaten with a belt buckle.

These are former children of the state. They were taken from their families and put into so-called “care”, where they were abused mentally, physically and sexually and neglected emotionally in an era of little accountability and frequent horror.

For potentially thousands of men and women, aged from their forties to their nineties, and referred to as cases of “historic abuse”, the suffering continues.

Some of the stories are so horrendous and the abuse so widespread that it’s almost unbelievable. Ken Clearwater, who runs a support group for male survivors of sexual abuse, likens stories he hears to something out of a Stephen King movie. People roll their eyes in disbelief or put their heads in the sand, he says. The stories are real, though, and he says they need to be known about.

Bobby Newson, a former police officer, is a member of a confidential service set up by the Labour Government in 2008 to hear people’s stories. The service was set up on a truth and reconciliation basis, modelled in part on the hearings of post-apartheid South Africa in the 1990s.

Newson says he sometimes thinks that he, too, will need counselling at the end of it. He says children who went into care were like every other child, but some who came out were incredibly damaged.

“Some of them, I wonder how they survive, and I come to a conclusion no wonder they’re where they’re at at the moment, particularly those we see in prison,” says the Maori cultural adviser.

But now men in Auckland’s Paremoremo Prison and other prisons around the country, murderers and recidivist criminals among them, rise for their day and some, for the first time, may consider rehabilitation.

“Society says lock them up, but society created them,” he says. “The way they were treated was worse than animals.”

Risky adults

The stories are not unique to New Zealand. Our state-care legacy of abuse mirrors similar ones in Australia, England, Ireland and Canada.

Why? Because people can be vicious, says Judge Carolyn Henwood, who chairs the Confidential Listening & Assistance Service.

Society has not come to terms with the degree of sexual abuse out there, of girls and boys, she says, and she is not talking about molestation, but about vaginal and anal rape. It happens across the whole of society and across ethnicities and it happened a lot to those in state care.

“The kind of people that are perpetrators? They can range from foster parents, usually the foster father but not always, through to the foster grandfather, through to staff members of family homes or institutions, through to gardeners, cooks, sports coaches, or if somebody’s living with a nana then there could be extended family, men, who get access.

“Whenever a child is placed in care, there are other adults, risky adults, around them. It’s just everywhere, everywhere. Other children in the family, the children of the caregivers. It’s mostly men, but not always. Women can be very violent.”

Her listening service’s panel doesn’t promise or pretend it can cure, but it offers a step toward healing. It represents the state and the participants finally get to “give it back” to the state. People who haven’t spoken of their abuse for decades are turning up and having their say. The terms of reference forbid Henwood from revealing any stories (the victims we spoke to came via other means), so she talks about what was going on during the era.

Traumatised and confused children were removed from their families, sometimes because of abuse and neglect but often simply because of family break-up, and were routinely put into solitary confinement on admission to institutions to “calm” them. Young girls were routinely subjected to invasive genital examinations, many children endured anal rape and vaginal rape and there was hard-out physical abuse – assaults with jug cords and sticks, punching and kicking.

The service has heard the stories of nearly 800 people – so far. Henwood is gratified that the panel’s term has just been extended to 2015, although she worries what will happen to the likely thousands she thinks may be out there who have been unable or unwilling to come forward by then.

Judge Caroline Henwood: Shaken and shocked by what she hears. Photo/David White.

Psychologically damaged

The judge is an energetic 66-year-old with eyes that brim with concern but can also flash with humour – she’s comedian Dai Henwood’s mum, too.

In a Wellington office not far from the Beehive, she explains that only five years ago the Government had a very big problem. There were about 500 cases in the High Court of people who had been in psychiatric and state care who were attempting to sue the Government but failing because of the Statute of Limitations.

Despite the facts often being proved, the courts still questioned whether being raped numerous times by the cook, for example, damaged the person or if the damage was caused by previous bad treatment by their family. And because alleged events were from long ago, the lack of evidence made it hard for judges to make findings.

But a lot of people don’t want to go through a trial, she says. Cross-examination can be harsh and some who may have become offenders themselves find their own credibility is easily attacked. Others can’t face a trial because they are already psychologically damaged – some are lonely, elderly and in wheelchairs.

In 2005, a confidential forum was set up for former inpatients of psychiatric hospitals to speak about their experiences. It was so successful a whole-of-Government response was decided on because the burgeoning and combative litigation was costing millions.

This listening service was then set up for those who were in state care, but goes further by offering pastoral care and may also refer people to a separate historic claims unit within the Ministry of Social Development that is not constrained by the Statute of Limitations in making settlements and apologies.

There have been 48 referrals of participants to the police.

Of the hundreds of cases the service has heard so far, not one has been “trivial”, says Henwood, who confesses she is shaken and shocked by what she hears.

Abuse occurred in so many ways: a girl put into a mental institution who stayed for a decade and was abused while there, or a young person put into a Social Welfare home and moved again and again and also abused.

The panel travels the country, setting up a table with a white tablecloth and tissues in hotels, motels and prisons. Inmates are treated with the same dignity and respect as everyone else. The judge, who is also on the Parole Board and who has been prominent in youth justice, says hearing these stories has rung alarm bells about the size of the connection between care and crime.

Abused men with a sense of rage and injustice can then offend too, she says. Large numbers of prison inmates and gang members have come from state care.

Behind the drugs, alcohol and violence is often abuse.

They are the crossover children, she says. Put into care for their own protection, they found themselves in situations of abuse, violence and intimidation by staff and other children and had to toughen up to survive. For some, their paths led to crime.

At some institutions, such as the Epuni Boys Home in Lower Hutt in the 1970s, the judge explains, new arrivals would be put into solitary confinement.

Although not legal policy, this practice was the norm, such was “the arrogance of the state”.

“The welfare car came to take you away – maybe your parents had broken up or had abused you – and you were put straight into solitary confinement to ‘settle’ you. Imagine if you were a child and something’s happened at home; your mum’s been taken because she’s had a breakdown, and a car comes to take you and you’re put in a lock-up by yourself as a settling-down period. It was a harsh thing. Why would you do it? I have no understanding of why.”

Running away

Children would run away, then be arrested by the police and end up back in the cells: “This is how they escalate into being a crossover child and an offender, because they start out being in care and they run and run, run and run. Many inmates – hundreds, I’d say – will have been through that process.”

Members of the public who have a lock-’em up mentality don’t understand that a lot of hardened criminals were crossover children, she says.

People who come to the service often have low self-esteem and don’t expect to be believed. A big problem for them is not knowing where they sit in the world, Henwood says.

They have lost their identity – or have a lot of identities. For some, their name has been changed a number of times because different foster families could do this, “so you’re you, and then you get moved and you’re now this person”.

People want explanations, she says: “They want us to explain why their life turned out the way it did.”

The panel tries to get those explanations by obtaining their welfare files. For some, this is a revelation. They thought they were taken into care because they were “bad” because they may have pinched some lollies, but then they find it was because of their family, or because they had been a victim of rape, or multiple rape, and the process had been to lock them up.

When they see it had nothing to do with them, they cry, Henwood says. “Grown men and women sob. They just can’t help it, because of the grieving, because of the injustice of losing their life or their childhood.”

Henwood gets furious at what she says should never have happened. Children were hardly monitored, and when they were, the adults were listened to but the children had no voice.

She says the listening process, from the first phone call to the ongoing pastoral care (which may involve counselling, whakapapa research, aid in the removal of tattoos, or help with housing, education and employment) has been beneficial for people “beyond our wildest dreams”.

But the downside is the process is secret. Learning is needed so it doesn’t keep happening, but the risk is still there – just read your newspaper, she says.

Monitoring is all important and she worries about how effectively children in care are monitored today. She would like all children in state care to have an independent appointee, as well as a social worker, who monitors them. This person would be another pair of eyes on them, someone who isn’t the state and who isn’t the carer.


For Jane (not her real name), who was moved 36 times as a child, the listening process has been empowering. The first step came when she saw a newspaper ad saying “Some memories never fade”. She cut it out and carried it in her handbag for months before finally calling. This was the state, after all, and she had little trust in the state.

Jane told how the merry-go-round of foster homes began when she was nearly two, and she and her brothers were taken from their neglectful parents (her Social Welfare file revealed she was first taken to hospital for malnutrition).

She grew up feeling she didn’t matter. She was just a state ward who learnt she was “second-rate”. She can’t remember any love or affection in any but one of those foster homes. She didn’t have her own toys; her birthday was “just another day”.

When she arrived home from school and found her clothes in rubbish bags in the hallway, she knew she was moving again, but she never knew why. Her file revealed one foster mother became ill, but another time a foster father decided he didn’t want to be one any more.

On top of all the moves, she was also being abused. She says an older brother, who was often with her in foster homes, began molesting her when she was about five, then later began raping her. Before the rape, she told a foster mother, who told him “‘If you do it again, I’ll tie your willy in a knot’, and she told me I had to wear a dressing gown from now on – ‘no more prancing around the house in your nightie’.”

At another home, a foster mother would get into rages and punch and kick her, attacking her with the buckle end of a leather belt and ripping out chunks of her hair. And at yet another home, a foster father would “touch her”.

After she left care, she lurched around in abusive relationships. When Jane eventually rang Henwood’s service, she found the people “wonderful”. She was supported before speaking to the panel and is still being supported.

Appearing before the panel was tough, she said, but although frightening, “it was huge to tell people what they did wrong. It was the very first place that said, ‘Okay, we hear you. We hear you and we believe you and we know that this is what happened to you.’ That was huge.”

She is doing well now, she says, and is married to a good man.

Reliving the trauma

Not everyone does as well as Jane. As the ad says, some memories never fade. The man in the unit went to the service because he wanted his story to help put an end to abuse and to highlight that much more needs to be done for victims, but at 63 he finds he relives his trauma over and over, despite myriad counsellors.

Through ever-present tears, he goes back in time to when he was 10. His mother was unwell and his father, who had come back from World War II a changed man, was an alcoholic.

But this wasn’t what made the boy begin playing truant. At a cemetery where he used to play, the caretaker took him to a toolshed and sexually abused him, and would wait for him outside school, so the boy stopped going to school.

By the time he was picked up for truancy, his mother had died and he was put into his first boys’ home. He told the housemaster about the abuse at the cemetery, but says the housemaster began abusing him, too.

He coped by running away – the jargon is absconding – 29 times in all and was eventually sent to the now-defunct Hokio Beach boys’ home near Levin where other former wards have also claimed they were abused.

There, he says he was sexually abused and raped by a number of adult staff. There were also beatings, threats and intimidation, but he says there was no one to tell and no one ever asked if he was okay.

In his life after care, he continued to run; from jobs and from relationships, never telling what had happened to him. About 15 years ago, when he finally told a girlfriend in an attempt to stop running, he unleashed a genie he wishes he hadn’t. Since then, depression has never been far away. He now lives alone on an invalid’s benefit.

“I live a pretty clean life,” he says, “and all I feel is dirty all the time. I can be down at the supermarket and halfway through shopping I’ll just leave my trolley and walk out and I’ll come home in tears and just lock the door.”

There are many like him, he says.

This man was encouraged to go to the listening service by Clearwater, who has always believed there should be a public inquiry into the abuse and who was at first appalled by the establishment of the listening service, which he saw as a continuing cover-up. But then he met Henwood.

“I found her real, really. I felt she was genuine … Actually, she’s um – can you say this? She’s very motherly. Yeah. You can see when she’s listening to them that she’s actually listening to them.

“Some of the guys have said stuff even I’ve not heard before and they’ve come out and they’ve said, ‘Oh god, I haven’t even told my counsellor that stuff …’”

When a victim appears before the panel, it is the traumatised child who sits there, even if the person is 45 and covered in tattoos, and painful though it is, it is powerful for that child to be heard and not judged.

Clearwater is particularly saddened by the men who end up in prison, the ones the public sees in the court dock displaying no emotion, “dead eyes”.

Ken Clearwatwer who runs a support group for male survivors of sexual abuse. Photo/David White.

Cycle of violence

It’s estimated 20-40% of our more than 8000 prisoners were in state care at some time, and although we don’t have statistics for murderers who may have been state wards, Clearwater points to an ABC investigation in Australia that found more than 35 violent deaths were linked to men who had attended the Tamworth Institution for Boys in New South Wales.

The panel has seen 60 inmates in 15 prisons across New Zealand and 37 more are waiting.

Judge David Carruthers, former head of the Parole Board, believes the service is helping to break the cycle of violence. He says he has met long-term prisoners who weren’t co-operative and would not help themselves, but who changed after appearing before the panel.

“What was really noticeable were some who were suddenly and dramatically prepared to make some changes. This is the most serious end of the scale, so people I was largely seeing were either on life sentences or on very long-term sentences for entrenched recidivist offending.”

Some of these people have been through “very tough times” and in that cyclical way inflicted tough things on others. Breaking that is critical for the country, Carruthers says.

Lawyer Sonja Cooper of Cooper Legal has long specialised in historic abuse cases, taking on much of the litigation that led to the service being set up.

She has mixed feelings. She praises the service for its care and innovation, but questions what will happen to the wealth of stories being collected that cannot be reported even to the Government, although the service is allowed to at least report themes to the Government.

Her firm has 450 former Social Welfare charges on its books and it works closely with the Ministry of Social Development’s historic claims unit. She says the unit does a reasonable job, but there are huge backlogs, with some claims lodged 10 years ago still not resolved. The carefully worded apologies do not always hit the mark and compensation pay-outs have ranged from $1150 to $80,000 – not much for ruined lives, she says.

She thinks we are one of the few Commonwealth countries not to have had a public inquiry, because we like to be perceived as a wonderful, well-functioning society – “I think there’s a bit of worry out there our reputation would be tarnished if there was a public inquiry that looked at our murky past.”

Cooper also has younger clients, from programmes run in the 2000s, who she says suffered “horrendous” abuse, and she expects to keep getting more: “I can’t actually see it ever ending.”

But far fewer children are locked up in institutions these days and caregiver vetting is much tougher.

As of February 2013, 3805 children and young people were in care and protection. Most were placed with family and whanau or in foster care and only 44 were in residential placements.

In the past, social worker visits may have been few and irregular, but now state wards must be visited at least every eight weeks, or more frequently, depending on the support required.

The office of Social Development Minister Paula Bennett points out that in the past 20 years there have been many changes to the way the system operates.
A range of initiatives from the White Paper for Vulnerable Children – such as a planned public awareness campaign to highlight that child abuse will not be tolerated – should help ensure all children are better protected.

“Grown men and women sob. They just can’t help it, because of the grieving, because of the injustice of losing their life or their childhood.”

“It was the very first place that said, ‘Okay, we hear you … and we believe you and we know that this is what happened to you.’”

Tell your story

The Confidential Listening and Assistance Service was set up in 2008 to hear people’s stories of abuse while in state care before 1992. This date was chosen because it was considered to reflect the time by which standards of care were modernised.

A panel headed by Judge Carolyn Henwood travels the country to listen to these stories and also to suggest ways people can get help. The service cannot make apologies or determine liability, but can assist in claims being investigated with the Ministry of Social Development’s historic claims unit.

As of this month, 1232 people had registered and 236 were still waiting to be seen. About 200 could no longer be contacted.
To contact the service, phone 0800 356 567.

Abuse & its aftermath

Some of the abuse and its effects as reported by participants: beatings and thrashings, slaps, punches and kicks, attempted drowning in the bath, punishment and ridicule for bed wetting, [being] locked in cupboards, food deprivation, corporal punishment with weapons, verbal abuse, rape.

Too worried to learn at school, illiteracy, loss of potential, always terrified, extreme loneliness, low self-esteem, suicide attempts, anger, drug and alcohol abuse, criminal offending, prostitution, domestic violence, joining gangs. – from the annual report, 2012, released under the Official Information Act.


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