6 Sep 2018

State abuse inquiry: 'They've lost hope because it's taken so long'

1:56 pm on 6 September 2018

Survivors of abuse in state care are worried about how long it's taking to get a Royal Commission of Inquiry underway.

A young boy sits in the corner with his head in his hands (file photo)

Photo: 123RF

The inquiry into historical child abuse in state care was announced in February, and after consultation, a report written by the commission's chair Sir Anand Satyanand was given to Internal Affairs Minister Tracey Martin at the end of May.

Three months later, people like lawyer Sonja Cooper, who represents many who were abused in state care across the country, were wondering when the inquiry would get underway.

She had expected the inquiry's terms of reference would be finalised by now.

"The business of the Royal Commission is supposed to be completed within a parliamentary term. We're now in September, coming to the last third of the year, and the terms of reference aren't finalised and the Royal Commission is not yet really up and running.

"So it is a real concern as to what this Royal Commission can achieve, unless it gets moving very soon."

There had been no word on what the scope of the inquiry would be, or who was going to help Sir Anand hear the stories of survivors.

It was an anxious wait for people who still did not know if the inquiry would be widened to include them, Ms Cooper said.

"Those clients for example who were in church care or who are not sure yet whether they're going to fall in the definition of state care, there is some anxiety for them about whether the Royal Commission's going to cover them."

There had been several calls for churches to be included in the inquiry.

The inquiry would investigate state abuse between 1950 and 1999. Ms Cooper was worried about her clients who suffered abuse in state care after 1999, but might not be covered.

For survivors themselves the wait was taking its toll.

Survivor Paora Crawford Moyle has been a social worker for 27 years. She had been talking to people who were already losing confidence in the process, after hoping it would help children in state care now.

"They're all saying the same thing: that it's taking a really long time and their hopes are being dashed. What they thought would be life-changing or system-changing for tamariki going through the system now, they've lost hope because it's taken so long."

Some people would still tell their stories, to try and create change.

Ms Crawford Moyle said given the over-representation of Māori in state care, the Treaty of Waitangi needed to be central to the process.

She had made calls for a separate inquiry for Māori, and wanted the inquiry to include survivors such as herself, who had frontline and advocacy experience.

Another survivor, Eugene Ryder, echoed those calls.

"The hope is that they draw on the expertise that exists in some of the people that have been abused in care. Some of those people have gone on to lead lives of standing up for the rights of those who aren't in a position to stand up for their own rights. [They would] be able to contribute I suppose to a better outcome for the inquiry if we had a role to play within that, albeit an advisory role.

"But the hope is that the inquiry won't move too far from the voice of the people."

Anne Helm went through Lake Alice, a psychiatric hospital in - Manawatū where children were given electric shock therapy.

She had already heard the stories of many abused in state care, as a panel member of the Confidential Forum for Former Inpatients of Psychiatric Hospitals between 2005 and 2007.

She acknowledged setting up the inquiry was no easy feat.

"We have had no reporting back in this interim period as to what's going on, and I'm part of a survivors group. There's just been this cone of endless silence."

The chair of the inquiry, Sir Anand Satyanand, was also concerned about how long it was taking for things to begin.

He said he agreed with survivors, but that there was a lot of work to be done to get the inquiry underway.

"To be honest, I share that concern, but on the other hand, to be fair to the minister and her colleagues, it's a big task.

"It's New Zealand's biggest Royal Commission and they need to be certain of their grounds when they make their decision."

In the meantime staff in his office were working hard behind the scenes doing historical and legal research.

Sir Anand was worried the inquiry would take longer than a parliamentary term, but said survivors needed to have their stories told well.

In a statement Minister for Internal Affairs Tracey Martin said people should not be worried about the inquiry being delayed.

It was still on track to begin in late 2018.

There was a lot of work to be done in establishing a Royal Commission, from considering scope, to budget, membership, and operational set up, she said.

It was not unusual for there to be less communication while the matter was under active consideration, as the team was focused on getting the commission established.

The other members of the Royal Commission would be announced with the terms of reference, after cabinet had made its decisions, Ms Martin said.

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