Royal Commission into state abuse: Scope of inquiry into gang member remains unclear

11:55 am on 16 July 2019

The Royal Commission of Inquiry into historic state abuse has refused to clarify whether an independent probe into the behaviour of a senior official and gang member will look at the adequacy of its own response to safety concerns raised by female survivors.

12072016 Photo: Rebekah Parsons-King. Harry Tam has worked in for the Government in a number of roles, he's also a member of the Mongrel Mob. His reaction to Judith Collins standing down a Black Power member, Ngapari Nui.

Mongrel Mob member Harry Tam. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Its refusal comes as RNZ confirmed Commission executive director Mervin Singham had told a survivor advocacy group in June that he had not been made formally aware of allegations relating to Mongrel Mob member Harry Tam's behaviour.

However, when contacted by RNZ Mr Singham agreed that a female abuse survivor had approached him over her concerns as far back as March and that he subsequently had three meetings with her, the last taking place on 30 May.

The probe, understood to be led by lawyer Maria Dew QC, was announced last month after abuse survivor advocate Paora Moyle revealed to RNZ that a female state abuse survivor contacted the Commission with safety fears and that other female survivors had expressed concerns because of gang involvement in the process.

Mr Tam's former partner Charlotte Mildon also went to Mr Singham in May, claiming he was using "standover tactics" against her over a separation dispute.

Paora Moyle had told RNZ the inquiry's commissioners had known about the situation for months and had failed to act to provide a safe environment for survivors coming forward.

She strongly criticised commissioners for allowing Mr Tam, employed as the inquiry's head of policy and research, to weigh up applications to the 20-person Survivors Advisory Group, a body that informs and helps direct the Commission's work.

Paora Moyle claimed Mr Tam's role in the appointment process had effectively helped him install a powerbase within the Commission. The commissioners signed off on the appointments.

RNZ asked the Commission whether its independent investigation would be narrow in scope, looking only at specific complaints raised against Harry Tam, determining if these were employment matters, or whether the probe would be broader, looking at whether the Commission had failed to put in place clinically-informed processes and protocols to keep survivors safe, or had otherwise failed to respond appropriately.

Paora Crawford Moyle, a veteran social worker and advocate for people who have been in state care.

Paora Moyle. Photo: RNZ

The Commission declined to respond to questions. In a brief statement, it said the matter was private and that the investigation was ongoing.

Advocates from the Network of Survivors of Abuse in Faith-based Institutions met with Mr Singham on 11 June. During the meeting, Mr Singham told them he had heard "some mischief" about Mr Tam, but that no matters had been raised with him "formally" so he wasn't able to take any action.

However, a female survivor raised concerns about Mr Tam with Mr Singham when they met on 11 April, 7 May and 30 May. He had been contacted by the woman as far back as 29 March.

In a written reply to RNZ, Mr Singham acknowledged that he had met the woman, but said he had not mentioned her allegations to anyone, including advocates who had raised concerns about how Mr Tam was being managed, due to confidentiality.

"At no time have I made any comment about issues raised by [name redacted] to any survivor or group as my meetings with her were confidential at her request..." he said.

"I was pleased she had raised them with Police and encouraged her to continue her engagement with them. The safety and security of survivors who come forward to the Royal Commission is a high priority. I offered her counselling support if she needed it.

"I contacted her and her advocate again on 20 June to obtain her consent to include her in the independent investigation about to get underway.

"The respect we accord to the choices made by survivors is central to our work. This includes respecting their rights to confidentiality or not to proceed with any issue they raise with us."

Clerical abuse survivor Grant West, who now lives in Australia, told RNZ the ongoing situation had the potential to further retraumatise survivors, especially those involved in the Survivors Advisory Group.

Mr Tam, who has a previous conviction for domestic abuse, stepped down as its facilitator last month after media scrutiny.

Mr West stated his opinion that if the Commission had employed an independent facilitator qualified in dealing with traumatised people from the beginning, it could have avoided conflict and controversy.

"Mr Tam was allowed to put a lot of his own people in the advisory group and lead it," he said.

"And you have 20 damaged people in there trying to nut something out. They should never have been put in that situation.

"I think the Commission has been appeasing people and has now lost control because of it."

However, Survivor Advisory Group member Toni Rei said Mr Tam had played a vital role within the Commission and that survivors themselves were educated and qualified enough to bring effective leadership to the inquiry process.

"We aren't a bunch of stressed-out idiots like some people would characterise us. We know our needs better than any psychologist," he said.

"Harry [Tam] is also highly qualified and was our go-to person, acting as a conduit between us and the Commissioners. We trusted him because he wasn't 'state', which we are distrustful of, because it was the state that abused us.

"If we needed anything explained he did so effectively and if we had concerns, we knew these would be passed on to commissioners. I myself asked the commissioners after he was stood down, 'who do we talk to now?' We have no one.

"He also has a history of endeavouring to change gang culture, so his appointment was appropriate."

He said if any gang members were forced out of the Commission process, he would leave too.

It is understood other members of the group had advised commissioners that they would walk away if Mr Tam was not reinstated to his position.

Mr Rei said gang members shouldn't be stigmatised or demonised because of their backgrounds, as the rise of gangs was inextricably linked to systemic failures of state care and post-colonial alienation.

"Gangs are a result of a failed, abusive state care system and gang members have every right to involved in the process. They shouldn't be stigmatised," he said.

Meanwhile, a private security firm hired by the Commission and known to RNZ has recently assessed the safety situation of at least three women who had come forward to the Commission, which included giving advice on personal home security equipment systems.

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