Abuse in care: Files show government department knew of rape allegations

10:36 am on 16 January 2020

An abuse survivor is asking the Royal Commission of Inquiry to investigate why a government agency failed to protect her when made aware of allegations she was being raped while in care.

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Masterton woman Janet Lowe, 70, told RNZ it was at her second foster home when she was 13 that her male carer repeatedly raped her.

The former community worker met with commissioners in Wellington in April last year, where she handed over a dossier that included her Department of Social Welfare records, spanning nearly a decade, from 1958-1967.

RNZ can reveal these department case files show a child welfare officer was aware of allegations that Lowe's foster carer had been raping her. They also reveal the department knew the foster home posed a high risk of abuse even before Lowe was sent there.

The files were released to Lowe in the early 1990s, nearly a decade after she had first demanded access to them through a lawyer in 1983.

Lowe says, when she read her files, she was shocked to discover her case worker was aware of the abuse and that a department official even blamed her for creating it.

"I was in disbelief to find the state knew I was being abused and did nothing about it, and I want the Royal Commission to look into it," Lowe told RNZ.

Lowe became a resident at the Salvation Army-run Cecilia Whatman Home in Masterton at the age of nine. She was entrusted into care there between 1958 and 1961, after her mother died and her elderly father was no longer able to look after her.

Lowe said she suffered a litany of abuse at the home, involving neglect and beatings. After her father confronted Whatman management about his daughter's complaints, Lowe was moved on to various foster homes under the supervision of the Department of Social Welfare, a period during which she said she suffered sexual abuse and further beatings.

One file note viewed by RNZ shows Lowe's father informed a child welfare officer in September 1962 that his daughter's first foster carer objected to her being sent to her new foster parents - who had expressed a desire to adopt her - because the father of that household was "a sexual pervert".

Lowe's father told the case officer this accusation had since been substantiated, as his daughter had alerted him to her repeated sexual abuse at the hands of the man. Her father was told it was too late to withdraw his consent for the couple to care for his daughter as an interim order of adoption had been made, and only a magistrate could revoke it.

Another file note stated the case worker visited Lowe's father at Kandahar retirement home a month later and advised him not to pursue his daughter's alleged rapist through the courts.

It stated: "Mr Lowe was very upset by the whole situation, especially by Janet's recent revelations. I told him that the worst possible thing would be for court action, since this would involve Janet making a statement and being cross-questioned in court ... and if there were an appeal she would have to repeat her evidence in the Supreme Court.

"I told Mr Lowe ... it would seem in her best interests to move her from Masterton."

Two social workers were sent to speak with the foster carers, who claimed the 13-year-old invited inappropriate sexual attention and was difficult to control.

Another note mentions that Lowe's foster carer confessed to a welfare officer that he'd previously "told a lie" when he denied he bathed Lowe alone, without his wife present.

The foster carers dropped their intention to adopt Lowe and she subsequently spent years moving from one foster home to the next.

Social Welfare 'knew of carer's mental health issues'

When she was referred to a psychologist due to "emotional maladjustment" after turning 14 more details of what the department had known about the dangers posed by her proposed step parents were revealed.

The referral letter by her case worker shows Social Welfare was aware her alleged rapist had a history of serious mental health issues. Even so, her case worker had suggested a year's trial before making adoption permanent.

It stated: "I was not happy about this placement as I knew Mr M****** had had several nervous breakdowns and it was clear that he was inordinately fond of Janet."

The letter also noted that the family had previously come to the attention of Social Welfare, due to a daughter being sent to Dunedin "to have her illegitimate baby there".

The female case worker went on to suggest Lowe was to blame for the abuse. The letter stated: "I have the impression that when Janet first went to the M******'s she was fairly innocent sexually but during this stay with them something awakened in her to this side of life. She had put herself in a false situation and did not know how to get out of it.

"After lengthy discussions with the M******'s I do not think Mr M****** has been other than foolishly demonstrative with her. When she first went there she asked them to treat her as a small child but the situation she herself has created has become a great embarrassment to her."

When a female psychologist saw Lowe, she determined her to be of low intelligence and neurotic, and dismissed her rape allegations.

In her report she stated her opinion that the allegations were "unlikely to be true".

"Janet alleges that he made sexual advances towards her. It seems doubtful that this was the case, but there is no doubt that she has learned to display herself physically and recognises that this brings the attention she is seeking."

Although it was recommended she needed further psychological care, none was subsequently afforded her.

Lowe said, at another foster home, she was routinely beaten severely for not cleaning the house properly by a female carer and made to eat in a separate room from the rest of the family.

"Of the 30 homes I was fostered out to, only five of those did not involve physical abuse."

Hit so hard her hearing was affected

Lowe describes her time at the Salvation Army-run Cecilia Whatman Home in Masterton as a grim, foreboding concrete facility that resembled a prison and, as an nine-year-old, her move there had been deeply traumatising.

She said she suffered a litany of abuse and neglect at the home, involving regular beatings for minor infractions of rules, and deprivations that included lack of adequate clothing, medical care and social stimulus, and no toothbrushes or toys.

She said bath water was shared by up to 25 girls and she was frequently forced to bathe in dirty water and beaten for not leaving the bath fast enough.

The worst beatings, she said, were at the hands of a woman who ran the laundry facility at Whatman, where she had been expected to work aged 10, folding sheets and helping out.

"I was hit on the head so hard I couldn't move my neck and when I couldn't raise my head, she wrenched it up, which caused excruciating pain," she said.

She said the woman was constantly violent, hitting her so hard on another occasion that she partially lost hearing in her left ear.

Her file notes state that the loss of hearing was considered "psychological".

Lowe said being forced to work with the woman and another abusive staff member who worked in the kitchen, caused her to suffer bouts of anxiety and severe dissociation, which made her think she was losing her mind.

"I remember the first time on the swing, that colours and sounds were different as in far away and that I could not feel anything about my body - movements were almost like they happened to someone else. I would have been 10 or 11... It happened at school too, when I knew I had to return to Whatman," she said.

At age 11, she said was made to clean homes for local families each week for five shillings. Lowe said the money went directly to the Salvation Army.

She suspected she was made to work at weekends because her father, being elderly, was legally exempt from having to pay towards her keep at Whatman.

Lowe claimed her letters to her father were either censured or withheld altogether when she complained about her treatment.

Significant mental and emotional problems for years

She said the culmination of her foster care experiences, as well as the punishments and neglect experienced at Whatman, had caused her significant mental and emotional problems through childhood and later in life.

"The department also knew I would be at these foster homes only for a fixed period, before being moved on," she said.

"I wasn't told of this, so that I was always anxious not knowing when I'd be taken out and sent elsewhere to run the gauntlet of lesser or greater degrees of further abuse.

"Each time I was sent away, I internalised a view that I'd done something wrong to warrant being moved, that I was not worthy of love, and that my abuse was because I was a bad person.

"I made bad life choices throughout a lot of my life, I'd no self-love and struggled."

Lowe said her mental wellbeing started to corrode rapidly when her mother died and she was put in Whatman along with her younger brother.

She said the siblings were separated at Whatman, which housed about 70 children, and her brother was eventually adopted out without her knowing, while she remained behind.

She was one of many former Whitman residents who formed a group in 2000 demanding an explanation for their abuse and an apology for suggestions they had made up lies against Salvation Army staff. After mediation, they received an apology of sorts.

"The one you get when you're not really getting one," she said.

"We had to wait some years for it when we were told at mediation it would be with us within a week. I think they did not want anyone going to the media with it."

The Salvation Army operated 15 children's home across the country. These included Hodderville Boys' Home in Putaruru; Bramwell Booth Home in Temuka; Florence Booth Girls' Home in Wellington; The Grange Girls' Home in Auckland and Russell Boys' Home in Russell.

Lowe said she also wanted the Royal Commission to probe the Salvation Army's historic financial records during the periods these homes were operating, as she suspected government funding for Whatman Home wasn't spent on the material needs of children in care. She wanted to know if that money had been prioritised on investments in buildings instead.

"The Salvation Army was paid £3 per child per week by the state in 1960, with up to 70 children at Whatman, so that's £210. In light of the deprivations we experienced, I want to know how this money was spent."

According to the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, taking into account inflation, £210 would amount to $9723 today.

"I had experience of also staying at the Presbyterian orphanage in Havelock North, which received the same amount of funding and it was completely different in terms of catering for children's needs. It was a great place by comparison, with toys, recreational activities, clothes and relative comforts," she said.

Salvation Army promises full cooperation

When approached for a response to Lowe's comments and her request to the royal commission, a Salvation Army spokesperson said in a statement: "The Salvation Army fully supports the work of the Royal Commission and has written to the Commission stating our intention to fully cooperate to ensure a satisfactory outcome is reached for all the survivors of abuse.

"We will respond to any requests for information from the Royal Commission as thoroughly and appropriately as we can.

"Each home was funded through a variety of sources, including government, community organisations such as Rotary, donations and through families of the children. They were certainly not money-making ventures.

"In Jan Lowe's case, we can confirm that the figure of £3 per week was provided for the care of both herself and her brother. This amount included the family benefit her family would have received from the government.

"Each case was different, and children were funded from a variety of sources, depending on their circumstances."

Stephen Crombie, deputy chief executive of People and Capability, Ministry of Social Development, said: "We, along with our partner agencies, will assist the Royal Commission in any way that they require concerning Ms Lowe's case.

"In 2000, Ms Lowe received a settlement and apology from the Child, Youth and Family Services for her experience in care."

The department was not able to immediately confirm how much the Salvation Army received from the state to fund its orphanages.

A spokesperson for the Royal Commission of Inquiry said it couldn't comment on individual cases, but added: "We are investigating abuse that occurred in the care of the Salvation Army and in foster homes. The Royal Commission is investigating what abuse occurred, why it occurred and the impacts of this abuse."

The inquiry's next public hearing is expected to begin in March.

Where to get help:

Sexual Violence

NZ Police

Victim Support 0800 842 846

Rape Crisis 0800 88 33 00

Rape Prevention Education

HELP Call 24/7 (Auckland): 09 623 1700, (Wellington): be 04 801 6655 - 0

Safe to talk: a 24/7 confidential helpline for survivors, support people and those with harmful sexual behaviour

Abuse survivors

For female survivors -

Help Wellington, 048016655

Help, Auckland 09 623 1296.

For urgent help: Safe To Talk 0800044334.

For male survivors -

Road Forward Trust, Wellington, contact Richard 0211181043

Better Blokes Auckland, 099902553

The Canterbury Men's Centre, 03 3776747

The Male Room, Nelson 035480403

Male Survivors, Waikato 07 8584112

Male Survivors, Otago 0211064598

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