29 Jul 2021

"All my life has been swept under the carpet" - survivor

2:33 pm on 29 July 2021

A man who suffered abuse while in care says he wants transformative change in the state care system in New Zealand.

The Abuse in Care Royal Commission is holding its Pacific inquiry at the Fale o Samoa in Māngere, Auckland.

Royal Commission into Abuse in Care sitting at Fale o Samoa in Māngere.

Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

Billy Puka Tanu, 50, is a Tokelauan/Māori from Wellington who was motivated to share his story so that the abuse he endured does not happen to anyone else.

In Tanu's written statement he said that his "earliest childhood memory was looking up at his dad and seeing him beat up his mum. I must have being five or six years old."

What Tanu did not know at that time was his mother was bipolar and had schizophrenia.

"When she got sick, she would take her clothes off and walk around naked outside.

"She was so unwell that she didn't realise what she was doing. I saw a lot of that," he said.

"Mum would be worse when she had a lack of sleep. She often didn't get enough sleep because she worked night shift."

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Photo: Screenshot

Tanu believes that his father had no idea his mother had mental illnesses or knew what it was. He said his dad did not know how to cope with her behaviour, and so he used to bash her a lot.

"I think that's the only way he knew how to deal with it. I saw my dad giving my mum hidings on a weekly basis. I think he hoped he could snap her out of it.

"Sometimes he had to physically restrain her from running around outside naked, or from harming herself, him or other people," he explained.

Tanu shared that while his mum was in and out of hospital, his dad could not cope with looking after seven children. He said he began to play up, missing school and ran away from home - this led to him being taken away to Epuni Boys' Home in Lower Hutt, north of Wellington.

"Scragg line"

Tanu recalls being nine years of age when the "people in nice clothes and little white cars" took him away to the home, as he described in his statement.

Billy Puka Tanu's statement about when he first arrived to Epuni Boys' Home.

Billy Puka Tanu's statement about when he first arrived to Epuni Boys' Home. Photo: Screenshot

"I was so young and all I remember was crying and my parents crying," he said.

Tanu said when he first walked into the rooms after being admitted to Epuni, the boys residing there were all waiting at their doors with a chair.

He said he had to run through the corridor and get the bash from each boy as he passed them.

"They called it the 'Scragg line'.

"After a couple of minutes of running it straight, I got as far as two or three doors down before I was smashed to the ground and beaten.

"Staff were having a cup of tea and they didn't care."

The beatings set the tone for Tanu's experience in Epuni. He was beaten up during his sleep, he had his food taken away, he experienced physical training punishment and if he told the staff what was going on, his complaints would fall on deaf ears.

Children violence. boy, lad with her hand extended signaling to stop Children violence. boy, lad with her hand extended signaling to Stop, call for help, struggle, terrified, violence

Photo: 123rf

Tanu also experienced sexual abuse from residents and staff. He remembers the younger boys at the home were forced to perform a sex act on the older boys.

"The boys would say things like, 'if you don't do what I say or if you say something to anyone, you're dead'." They threatened Tanu saying they would stab him with a fork from the kitchen if he narked.

There was a secure unit where boys went when they played up. Tanu said he was put in the unit at least once.

"I remember it being really dark in there. The door had a little window and that was the only light in the room. There was a light, but they never turned it on.

"There was a mattress on the floor, and you weren't allowed out, you were in there for 24 hours a day. They would bring you your meal to eat in there.

"There was nothing to do in there except sleep. It was boring, but it was safer than being out with the other boys," he said.

Arbor House

Tanu was transferred to Arbor House around the age of 12. He said it was different to Epuni. "It wasn't like a boys' home. It wasn't full of young thugs and gangsters. It didn't have a secure unit.

"There was bullying by other boys, but not much physical violence.

"It was more laid back. It was like a big family home with rooms. It was quite nice and welcoming," he said.

When Tanu first got there, there were only boys. However, later on, there were some girls from surrounding suburbs who were sent to Arbor House.

He said it was at Arbor House that he learnt about sex, and it was not through sex education classes.

"There would be one nightshift staff member, usually an older woman, who was meant to be watching us while we were asleep.

"When the nightshift staff member fell asleep, we would go into the girls' rooms.

"There was a lot of sex between boys and girls. It usually happened in the rooms at night. It happened pretty much every night," he said.

"When you're in the homes, you don't have any morals. You don't care about that stuff. You're not thinking of your family.

"It was normal to go into the showers at 2am and see lots of things happening there."

Hodderville Boys' Home

Tanu moved to Hodderville Boys' Home when he was around 14 years old. This was a boys' home run by the Salvation Army located in rural Waikato, near Tokoroa.

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Photo: RNZ

"It was a bit more laid back than the other homes I'd been in," he said.

"My records say I was here for about one-and-a-half years."

He experienced physical, sexual and substance abuse as well as differential treatment at Hodderville.

"It's my turn to talk"

In 2017, Tanu's friend received a payout from his time at Epuni. He worked through Cooper Legal, so Tanu approached Cooper Legal and made a historic claims' process against the Ministry of Social Development.

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Photo: Screenshot

"It is still ongoing. Cooper Legal told me the process would take a couple of years.

"Money will help, but that won't make it better either.

"I don't need a written apology. An apology can't turn back the clock and make it all better. It's too late for that.

"For me I'd rather get my story out.

"All my life this stuff has been swept under the carpet.

"After all these years, it's my turn to talk. I've waited 30 years for this. I want to tell them face to face what they put me through.

"I want to talk to the heads of the Ministry of Social Development and the Salvation Army.

"I want them to acknowledge what they and their systems put me through, and to change their ways," Tanu said.