Hollywood scandals, #MeToo and abuse in New Zealand state care

by Graham Adams / 19 December, 2017

In July a petition calling for an  Commission of Inquiry into the abuse of children in state care was delivered to Parliament. Photo / Getty Images

How Harvey Weinstein’s assaults throw light on the experience of vulnerable children.

In early November, the Minister for Children, Tracey Martin, confirmed that the basis for an independent inquiry into abuse of children in state care before 1992 would be in place within the new government’s first 100 days — that is, before February 4.

It was a promise Jacinda Ardern had made after the previous National-led government repeatedly thumbed its nose at the possibility — despite the UN calling for an inquiry and a petition with 15,000 signatures being presented at Parliament.

Prominent New Zealanders calling for an inquiry included Judge Carolyn Henwood, who chaired the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service between 2008 and 2015. The panel listened to the stories of 1100 survivors of state care and heard harrowing testimony about sexual abuse, incarceration, beatings and neglect.

In a sense, the timing for an independent inquiry to follow up Judge Henwood’s sterling work could not be better. The recent avalanche of stories sparked by Hollywood actors recounting stories of sexual assault, rape, bullying and intimidation — together with the viral campaign #MeToo — has exposed just how damaging such abuse can be.

The Hollywood storm started in October with allegations in The New York Times and The New Yorker against producer Harvey Weinstein, and exposed his decades-long rampage of destruction against young actresses. A slew of show-business stars, politicians and high-ranking officials have since been added to the list of alleged offenders and, over the past few months, we have been presented nearly every day with evidence from actors and others who were humiliated and terrified by their tormentors. Many have told of being seriously damaged for years by the brief encounters — becoming suicidal, or developing eating disorders, or being psychologically scarred and self-destructive.

Notable among the personal accounts is that of screenwriter and actress Sophie Dix, who recounted how Weinstein tried to take her clothes off and masturbated in front of her before she fled from his hotel room, and that she took to her bed for six months to cope with the emotional and psychological fallout. 

Dix, who was 22 at the time of the assault, told the Guardian in October: What I’m interested in talking about is the aftermath of a trauma like that. I’ve had friends call this week after the New York Times pieces came out, some who are now really famous, who knew about it at the time, and they say: ‘This was the moment it changed for you.’

It was massively damaging. It’s the single most damaging thing that’s happened in my life.”

Harvey Weinstein. Photo / Getty Images

So if a single encounter with a man like Weinstein — presumably over less than half an hour — can traumatise a young woman (who describes herself as a “big, strong girl”) and can rate as the single most damaging thing in her life, imagine how severe the effects of assault, punishment, rape and solitary confinement are on young, much more vulnerable children in state care who had nowhere to run and no one — friends or family — to turn to for help?

The actors who have come forward were young adults — not children — at the time of their encounters with Weinstein or other similarly aggressive, bullying men. Given the highly competitive nature of their profession, all the actors must have had many of the qualities that psychologists say help guard against developing personality disorders from this kind of trauma. “Protective factors” include intelligence, good looks, natural confidence, and supportive friends and family.

Most of the children in New Zealand’s state care would have lacked many of the protective factors that the adult actors enjoyed, including, most obviously, family support.

Many Hollywood victims cited the fact that Weinstein was a big, intimidating man who physically overpowered them. To a child, of course, any adult in charge of them is a Weinstein in their physical ability to dominate them. And, unlike Weinstein’s accusers, they can’t get away. And instead of their ordeal being over in a short time, children in state care were often at the mercy of their abusive “carers” for months and years.

#MeToo rally drew dozens of protesters to the Trump International Hotel at Columbus Circle last week, despite cold and snow. Photo / Getty Images

With the gruelling tales from victims of Weinstein and other predators in mind, it’s instructive to read the CLAS’s report or Judge Henwood’s summary written for Unicef New Zealand about the 1100 survivors the panel heard. 

“For the last seven years I have heard reported accounts of children suffering sexual abuse, punchings, kickings, and beatings with jug cords. I heard from children who were locked up in solitary confinement, unable to learn at school because they were so worried about what would happen to them when they got home.

“More than half of the people we spoke with said they were sexually abused. A number of girls had to accept that sex with the foster father was part of the deal, otherwise they’d be moved on.

“A stable home was extraordinarily difficult if, as in one case, you'd been to 40 different homes, and 14 different schools.

“Serious physical abuse was said to be regularly dished out by foster caregivers, extended families, social workers, and staff of both genders.”

However, while most people have a lot of sympathy for children who have been abused — just as we rightly do for the young actors — most of that sympathy disappears when these children grow into damaged teenagers and adults.

This seems especially to be the case when children survive abuse and become abusers themselves, or end up in prison. (Henwood noted that it is estimated 40 per cent of prisoners grew up in state care.) The dialogue swiftly changes then from sympathy to condemnation.

An independent inquiry will likely achieve many useful things, not least providing a vehicle for victims to express their bewilderment, anger and hurt. But one of its greatest benefits could be to persuade New Zealanders who have never experienced such abuse that some of our most intractable social problems — high rates of violence and imprisonment among them — can be traced back to childhood trauma, often at the hands of the state.

As the CLAS report says: “Many participants moved from Social Welfare care to borstal to prison. For instance, Boys’ Homes set up young people to align with a gang, for friendship and protection. These gang allegiances then continued into adulthood, and kept the individual in a criminal lifestyle…. It was often reported to us by prisoners that they saw crime as retaliation for the way they had been treated in care. The heartless way they had been treated had turned them into perpetrators of violence themselves. This legacy remains to this day, filling New Zealand prisons.

Stating this link between childhood abuse and crime is not novel but it has become commonplace to shrug it off on the grounds that some survivors live normal lives (at least outwardly), which critics take to mean that everyone has a choice in how they will respond in later life. The clear message is that they should just get over it and pull themselves together and live law-abiding, stable lives.

And it’s true that some people are emotionally and temperamentally built in such a way that they can cope with all the ills and injuries life has to offer, even horrific ones.

But when a woman as talented, confident and successful as Meryl Streep admits that her experience of two acts of violence as an adult affected her for years — including, she said, at a “cellular level” — we have to conclude that those who suffered horrific and sustained abuse in state care without being irrevocably damaged are undoubtedly the exception rather than the rule.

New Zealand-born model and actress Zoe Brock has said that in speaking out about being “Weinsteined” she hoped to give voice to the voiceless.

"I am not going to let bullies hurt people. I can't. There are so many women who are shy, timid or ashamed or scared who don't have a voice, and men too… so many survivors of abuse who don't have a voice.”

An inquiry into abuse in New Zealand will give many people who are not glamorous or influential —some of whom have been damaged much more profoundly than an encounter with the likes of Harvey Weinstein could ever match — their own voice.

As Judge Henwood remarked: “If you are seven years old and being sexually abused, it's not easy to speak out.”


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