11 May 2020

Abuse survivors worried they lack a voice at inquiry

8:18 am on 11 May 2020

The Royal Commission investigating historic abuse in care has quietly suspended meetings of the group of survivors set up to advise it.

Last day of the Royal Commission into Abuse in Care.  Attendees and witnesses tied ribbons at the nearby St Patrick and St Joseph Cathedral.

Attendees and witnesses tied ribbons at St Patrick and St Joseph Cathedral in Auckland when the Royal Commission's hearings wound up for the year in November 2019. Photo: RNZ / Patrice Allen

The inquiry told survivor advisory group members in December that meetings would not be happening for the "foreseeable future".

Instead, the Royal Commission says it's seeking advice from individual members and smaller working groups based on their own experiences.

But abuse survivors say that hasn't happened, and they now fear the inquiry is breaching its own terms of reference.

The Royal Commission's advisory group was set up in the inquiry's early stages to ensure abuse survivors are at the heart of its work. But it's been plagued with problems since.

Last year, it was revealed members of the group had been unknowingly exposed to a child sex offender at meetings.

Members have also criticised the background checks carried out in response.

Now, the inquiry has decided the group won't be meeting for the foreseeable future. Instead, the Royal Commission would seek advice from individual members or smaller working groups.

But Kath Coster, a member of the group, said that hasn't happened.

"Well we've actually had no engagement since last December, or just before December when we met with Coral Shaw [the chairperson of the Royal Commission]. So, I suppose nothing really is happening with the advisory panel," she said.

Group members are meant to be a voice for survivors, but they haven't been given the opportunity to do so, she said.

Coster said she feels like she's let other abuse survivors down.

"You know, they were relying on me as one of the panel members to be able to bring something to the table that was actually going to help put some of these things in their mind at rest, which we've never been able to do ... been given the chance to do," she said.

Other members have told RNZ they feel the group was set up to fail and they've been left in the dark.

The inquiry is required, under its terms of reference, to have a group, or groups of survivors to help it focus on victims and ensure their voices are heard.

Tyrone Marks is a survivor of abuse who went through several state institutions.

Tyrone Marks Photo: Aaron Smale / @ikon_media

Another member, Tyrone Marks, said by suspending the group, the inquiry is breaching those rules.

"We haven't actually been doing what we were put in there to do which is advise, so in terms of that it's a bit of a stalemate."

The Royal Commission's chair Coral Shaw wasn't available for an interview.

A spokesperson for the inquiry said the smaller in-person meetings haven't been able to take place because of Covid-19, but a number of the group's members have been asked to work on specific investigations - which will continue after lockdown.

One member has already worked on engaging with socially isolated families and communities to raise the number of Māori female survivors participating in the inquiry.

Work is under way to identify how more members can be involved in other investigations and survivor advisory group members are regularly contacted by dedicated inquiry staff, the spokesperson said.

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