20 Oct 2020

More than half of abuse in care settlement money spent on process

7:03 pm on 20 October 2020

The Ministry of Social Development (MSD) has revealed than more than 60 percent of the money it has spent on settling historic abuse claims has gone on operational costs, legal aid and external legal fees.

Royal Commission Abuse in Care inquiry.

The Ministry of Social Development has resolved just under half of the claims it has received so far. Photo: RNZ / Patrice Allen

It has cost the ministry just under $77m.

The ministry has told the Royal Commission into Abuse in Care, which is sitting in Auckland, that it had received 4177 claims and resolved just under half of them, paying out about $23m to 1948 claimants so far.

The claims cover people who were abused in state care, including foster families and residential homes overseen by what was then the Social Welfare Department and Child, Youth and Family and now the responsibility of MSD.

More than 2229 claims remain unresolved and about 40 new ones are coming in each month.

The Royal Commission is holding a hearing for the Crown's response to the question of redress for those who were abused in state care.

This follows on from a hearing in September where abuse survivors spoke about how they navigated redress from state agencies.

MSD deputy chief executive for policy Simon MacPherson was asked by Counsel assisting the commission if it was acceptable that 54 percent of claims were still outstanding.

"No, it's frustrating obviously. The new process introduced in 2018 is actually intended to expedite dealing with claims and resolving more of them. It hasn't yet delivered on that result but I think we are confident that it will do."

MacPherson said money budgeted for the claims process had gone up and more could be expected.

''But it reflects a significant commitment I think from the government to actually attempt to resolve claims and resolve more of them, so it's not a reduction in the budget. It's for a three-year period, and it is quite possible to see that increased at the end of that period, or if we make good progress.''

There was about $105m set aside for historic claims over the next three years, he said.

Figures up until 31 October 2019 show 54 percent of claimants are Māori, 71 percent men and 28 percent women.

MacPherson said there was a common theme among the claimants.

''Many claimants have low income, health or mental health difficulties. Difficulties finding or retaining work. Transient and some have been in prison at some point since leaving state care. Many claimants attribute the difficulties they have faced to the experiences as a child in state care.''

The claims process, managed by MSD, was robust and did not favour the ministry, he said.

''The job of social workers in the claims team is to help resolve claims, not in a sense to try and cover things up or to defend the department or its predecessors. Social workers also have professional obligations themselves as to how they act," he said.

''I don't think some dumb loyalty to the organisation would be some overriding driver here. The organisation has not set the historic claims team up simply to protect the department."

The Ministry of Health was responsible at the time for children who were patients at the Lake Alice Psychiatric Hospital in the 1970s.

While it is known at least 200 were physically and sexually abused, the ministry's chief legal adviser, Philip Knipe has admitted they still do not have an accurate figure of the number who passed through the adolescent unit.

''The Crown's view is that a lot has been undertaken to enable people to come forward and we continue to deal with new claims as they come in.''

Knipe agreed with counsel assisting the commission that while the Ministry of Health has a settlement process, accessing information on it was difficult, including no reference to it on the the ministry's website.

''Material has been drafted, agree it hasn't been posted, but there are lots of other avenues by which [it] is brought to individuals' attention, so it is something we can improve, but I disagree with your statement that it is a gaping hole in the process.''

Knipe said the Crown's strategy was to settle claims where there was a good evidential basis to do so, claims would not be settled simply because it was more economic to do so, and claims that could not be settled would be defended in court.

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