Inside Epuni: The hard life served to us as state wards

by David Cohen / 06 May, 2018
Epuni Boys’ Home. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Epuni Boys’ Home. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

RelatedArticlesModule - Epuni state care abuse

In the lead-up to the official inquiry into the treatment of children in state care, David Cohen gives a first-hand account of life at Epuni Boys’ Home.

The faded yellow structure looks so uninteresting, so uninviting and so forgotten that for a moment you think you’ve arrived at the wrong place. Turning into the driveway, however, you realise that impression was misleading.

Though the cold, overcast day is only just breaking, this curious little residence already buzzes with activity as dozens of boys rouse themselves under the watch of various supervisors, one of whom carefully unlocks the front door and waves you in with a grunt. Far from being the neglected institution it appeared from the road, the interior of the building resembles nothing so much as a venue busying itself for an important event.

Welcome to 441 Riverside Drive, Lower Hutt, known to a generation of boys and teenagers as Epuni Boys’ Home, a 1.6ha Ministry of Works-designed institution for “short-term training”. The residence is charged with assessing and classifying the estimated 350 children aged between seven and 16 who are pushed through its doors each year. It is not faring terribly well.

The year is 1975, but the ultimate event that these kids will play a part in takes place in New Zealand this year, as the Government convenes what will be the most far-reaching inquiry of this parliamentary term.

A royal commission of inquiry will reconstruct what did and didn’t happen here and in the 25 other similar institutions that were dotted around the country from the 1950s until the late 1980s. It will be chaired by former Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand.

David Cohen. Photo/Charlotte Handy

The system that will be looked at dates back to 1954, when the Government opened its first “family home”, the name of choice for the large residential houses owned, furnished and maintained by the state and run by a couple of foster parents who received a special board rate for the children in care. Things did not go to plan. Soon, the residences were processing thousands of state wards.

“Any abuse of children is a tragedy, and for those most vulnerable children in state care, it is unconscionable,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said when she announced  the inquiry’s establishment. It will be completed within her first parliamentary term.

“This is a chance to confront our history and make sure we don’t make the same mistakes again. It is a significant step towards acknowledging and learning from the experiences of those who have been abused in state care.”

The Satyanand inquiry, which has an initial budget of $12 million, will need to find some way of recreating how life was for the thousands of youngsters who were processed through Epuni and the other homes. One thing it won’t be discovering in a hurry is what these now-defunct places actually looked and felt like.

I know a bit about this because I spent two years researching a book about Epuni. The broad stories of those who worked and lived there were relatively easy to come by – especially in relation to the more lurid episodes of sexual and physical abuse. But the deeper sense of what these places were like becomes increasingly elusive, and harder still to recapture as each year passes and memories fade.

I also know about this because I was one of the kids who lived at Epuni.

Epuni Boys’ Home. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Epuni Boys’ Home. Photo/David Cohen collection

A day in the life

Among the more striking things that a visitor to 441 Riverside Drive would have noticed is the silence of the 40 or so youngsters typically housed here. It’s all the more notable because their oddly monastic morning routine is set against the jaunty sounds of a radio system whose wiring runs throughout the buildings’ three wings and the various passageways.

In deference to the chill, perhaps, or more likely out of security concerns, all the doors and windows will be locked, as the radiator pipes along the main hallways gurgle and the first of the silent human traffic begins to move. A visitor would also notice the warmth, and the odours: the reek of overripe vegetables, salty male adolescence and chemical cleaners.

This morning, the radio system is alive with the harmonies of the all-female singing troupe The Three Degrees, their horny tones no doubt received with some appreciation by the boys, standing in the doorways of their little cubicles clad only in towels and socks, yawning, scratching themselves with tattooed hands and rubbing sleep from their eyes.

Now come the supervisors again, counting heads, checking to see that each bed has been stripped of its linen, favouring each of the boys with a careful stare, followed by a matron to check if any clean bedding is required, especially among the institution’s high number of chronic bed-wetters. Then it’s time to get dressed.

A camp the boys would spend time at. Photo/David Cohen collection

A camp the boys would spend time at. Photo/David Cohen collection

At 7.20am, the boys will silently line up again, this time in the nearby courtyard, for further instructions. There they will stand, either at ease (arms loosely at sides) or to attention (hands behind back, legs slightly apart, chin facing upward), until the supervisor is satisfied the exercise has been correctly completed. Perhaps the housemaster, as these attendants are known, will dismiss the kids quickly; perhaps he’ll shake his head and keep them standing in line until he’s satisfied it’s straight enough. It depends. It can be daunting, this most common of the super-scheduled day’s correctional exercises.

Work duties will then be announced. Mostly these chores, which are rotated on a weekly basis, involve cleaning of one sort or another, which if nothing else gives the institution that omnipresent scent of cleaning solutions. In the wings, a small posse of pint-sized cleaners fan out along the passageways, industrial-sweepers whirring, whisking any dust or dirt in the corridors and cubicles into neat piles while other boys track them with a half-broom, sweeping the trash into a wastepaper basket.

Someone else follows with a dry mop, doing more or less the same thing, and then, finally, a designated duster comes along brandishing a damp cloth, applying his energy to the tops of chests of drawers, mirrors and ledges. The walls and benches will be repeatedly washed with hot soapy water during the day, door mats taken out and shaken over and over, and let’s not forget the concrete path between the main building and the boiler room, which will be hosed down and swept dry. More or less the same drill will be followed by others in the kitchen and dining areas.

At some point while surveying all this, the onlooker from 2018 would be moved to ask, “What on Earth is the educational point of all this? Why are most of these boys not receiving some kind of educational instruction?”

Interior of the Epuni home. Photo/David Cohen collection

Although a small classroom is used to give rudimentary lessons to a sprinkling of the wards, the majority of the kids are designated “home boys”, which means their stint at the residence – usually a few months of “assessment” before they are sent to another similar institution or psychiatric hospital – typically passes in this mindless fashion.

The omission is significant because, for much of their history, these places were not overseen by what was then called the Ministry of Social Welfare, despite it usually being fingered for all abuse claims. Over three decades, these largely education-free residences were run by the Department (now Ministry) of Education.

That agency went about its academic duty with a notably light hand. Successive generations of wards emerged better schooled in juvenile delinquency than reading, writing and arithmetic, in a society where educational achievement remains one of the most significant predictors of future career prospects.

About half of the 350 boys who went through Epuni each year attended class, but only so much should be read into that. The bulk of its pupils were in their early teens, but the classroom was graded as a primary school, which meant that staff and pupils enjoyed no automatic access to college materials. The cash-strapped classroom was therefore something of a book-free zone. Yet it was catering to kids whose literacy level (according to one internal estimate) was anything up to seven years below the national average.

Other school-age kids who remained in the institution for several months, occasionally years, received no formal instruction at all.

Another related issue was “churn”: kids would often be transferred, sometimes quite abruptly, from Epuni to one of the other state-run residences. This frequently had disastrous consequences for the boys’ learning prospects, if indeed they had any further teaching at all.

Wellington Girls’ Home. Photo/David Cohen collection

Wellington Girls’ Home. Photo/David Cohen collection

Containing the runaways

Proceeding along the main passageway of the Epuni residence, turning right into the junior wing, then continuing until the end of the block, the visitor comes to a feature of the institution that will receive much attention in the coming inquiry, but has been largely unremarked on until now. It’s the cell block, or “secure unit”. It takes a minute or two for the right keys to be found to unlock this part of the premises.

The modern use of dedicated cells in juvenile correctional facilities is said to date back to the 1950s, when they were instituted because of the number of children absconding from the homes.

But a closer reading of historical accounts shows the practice began much earlier. At the turn of the 20th century, similar units were known as “detention yards”, open-air cages designed for the containment of what the parliamentary record refers to as “the hardened offenders and defectives of a low type”, and were first put to use by the Education Department in 1903.

These enclosures were designed to supply “a recognition of the absolute necessity for exceptional treatment of a number of boys who might be termed ‘incorrigibles’ … who are at all times and under all conditions are a source of contamination” to other inmates. The pens usually consisted of a piece of ground enclosed by a high fence with an undercover section, presumably for use in wet weather. Here “the delinquents do such work as is possible … and they are subjected to, and thoroughly need, very strict discipline”.

Each yard had a special attendant who would accompany the imprisoned boys out for meals in the shared eating space. The period of confinement would last for anything from a few hours to 17 months. The authorities seemed to have liked it as much as their wards hated it. As they used to say at the 19th-century-era Burnham Industrial School for neglected and delinquent children, “no stronger proof” could be adduced of the success of the treatment than its massive unpopularity among the boys.

The exterior of the Epuni home. Photo/Cohen collection

We didn’t like it at Epuni, either, where even some of the more initially demure inmates were known to slip out of character as soon as the metal doors were shut behind them. Stories abound in the institution’s notebooks of kids freaking out, banging their heads against the wall until they bled, falling on the floor and assuming a fetal position for hours on end, or screaming every time they heard a sudden noise. According to one Government survey, as many as 90% of suicide attempts in all residences occurred in the secure blocks.

The institution once made do with a couple of rooms with thicker panes of glass and a more robust lining. Alas, one of the kids hit on the idea of standing on a tallboy and pushing his head through the ceiling, clambering on to the roof and making off. After one too many such escapes, the department decided something more impressive was required and in 1968 called in the concrete-layers.

The resultant yard, located at the end of the institution’s junior wing, was indeed a proper cell block, complete with reinforced doors, concrete walls and armoured windows in each of the four tiny rooms, two on either side of a small passageway that was always lit, and surrounded on the outside by another security barrier for the unlikely event that somebody managed to break out of a cell.

At the end of the cell block was a larger cell, or activities room, where the boys would be allowed for brief periods of silent exercise. So much silence, so few books. Boys who had been placed in the unit for absconding, in particular, would not be allowed to read anything until their second day, ostensibly because they were said to be in need of sleep, but possibly as a way for them to better meditate on their transgressions.

For the visitor of today, there ought to be much here to meditate on, too. But one additional fact may be the most sobering of all.

The young people you just saw in the hallway pushing dry mops and aimlessly handling industrial cleaning machines, the ones who didn’t make it into a classroom for months or even years, the boys as young as nine years old parked behind cell doors for days at a time eating with plastic spoons and looking out through barred windows. Most of them are Māori.


The 1948 Listener article that provoked impassioned reader letters.

The 1948 Listener article that provoked impassioned reader letters.

Blinded by gleaming floors

The Listener stands out as being critical of care.

Although the news media can lay some claim to having publicised the kind of abuse cases that spurred the impending inquiry into state care, it gave relatively little attention to the subject during the decades in which the main residences operated.

What coverage there was over the years at issue tended to be highly positive. A feature article in the Evening Post, for instance, gushed about Epuni Boys’ Home’s “highly polished corridors that are maintained by the boys”, and a dedicated secure unit used only, according to the reporter, “in cases where boys are sent by the court following serious offences, to be held for further court appearances, or when boys’ behaviour and attitudes deteriorate so badly that that security is needed to protect themselves”.

Among the few dissenting media voices was the Listener, which provoked impassioned correspondence in its pages after running a sharply critical leader in 1948. It was reckoned to be of such consequence that a small book was later published reproducing both the piece (Orphanages Without Orphans) and the letters that followed.

The article’s author, Doris Meares Mirams, wrote that the care of wards overall was open to serious criticism, specifically in regard to whether the government had adequate powers of inspection and, if it had, whether those powers were being put to good use by throwing kids into large “homes”.

Mirams argued for the abolition of big institutions in favour of smaller foster-care arrangements that would see problem children in more natural settings. She called for better staff-training opportunities. For the most part, Mirams argued that these “costly, long out-of-date and in no way satisfactory” establishments shouldn’t exist at all.

This article was first published in the April 21, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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